Today Steve Rogers is branded as “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” His class and geography marks him as much as his old-fashioned ideals and morals do. He is a man of the people, but a very specific TYPE of people- working class, grounded, everyday people. Steve Rogers has always represented these people. Standing up for the little guy is what Steve Rogers as Captain America does.
When news broke that a thirteen foot bronze statue of Cap would premiere at this year’s Comic-Con and then travel cross-country before coming to rest at its permanent home in Brooklyn some long term fans were confused. The statue and its journey was presented as a celebration of Captain America’s 75th birthday but the Cap from 75 years ago was from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so why was he touring around the wrong borough and finding a permanent home in Brooklyn? The answer is this statue and his final placement celebrate Captain America’s rebirth as Chris Evans from the Marvel Cinematic Universe- a five year old character. So some people are confused.
The statue shows Cap with his shield raised, the base says “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn” then “Hometown Pride” then Est. 1941 and finally “Celebrating 75 Heroic Years” before a row of stars, CAPTAIN AMERICA in large capital letters and a final row of stars. The form of the statue conveys the most important thing about Steve Rogers, that he is the hero of the working class. If you examine the statue in line with other statues of proletarian heroes there are striking similarities, the sheer size of it, looming over the masses. The victory stance showing that Captain America can fight and win against any foe. The star shield raised in both defense and as a symbol of America. Captain America’s right arm is clenched, as though he is poised to draw it back to deliver a mighty punch. His right leg is propped up on a piece of rock or rubble, a common image in proletarian heroes, arguing that heroes rise out of the rubble of conflict and adversity.
Rather than this statue presenting a betrayal of the character and his history, I argue that instead it highlights Cap’s most important role- that of a proletariat hero, a man of the people. Steve Rogers always represented the underdog, the guy who wanted to do right, no matter what it cost him. In the original story and his rebirth in the MCU Rogers represents both a nostalgic view of a working class hero from a time gone by and a model for what we can achieve, that even a low-class, unskilled person with heart and morals can achieve anything. In a world that is more and more filled with things that divide us- racism, misogyny, hatred, and war, when the divides between classes just gets wider and wider it’s encouraging to see a character who’s not an anti-hero, or corrupt, or self-serving but a true role model.
The Great Depression hit many areas hard, and New York City was one of the hardest hit areas. The Lower East Side, long a neighborhood of immigrants and plant laborers, suffered in particular. “By March 1930, there were fifty bread lines on the Lower East Side alone, serving 50,000 meals a day to the hungry.” The residents depended on charity once jobs disappeared and it was the women and children who suffered the most. According to his official Marvel history, Rogers’ alcoholic father dies when he’s young, and his mother dies of pneumonia when he’s in his teens, both conditions that would not have been unusual in the tenements. Yet this is not the Lower East Side today. Today the neighborhood has been gentrified, billion dollar developments, million dollar condos, and trendy restaurants and stores have pushed out the lower income residents and cultural institutions like the Essex Street Market. The Lower East Side no longer represents the background and values that Rogers so clearly represented when he premiered. So here’s where the class coding gets a little tricky. Rogers’ creation is firmly set in the 30s and 40s, he’s a product of the Great Depression and World War II, an icon of an era, clearly defined as a counter to Nazis and Hydra. Yet these days, while Nazis may be a recognizable image to today’s audiences, the Lower East Side codes differently. It’s where trendy, rich, white people have moved for the “flavor,” and “character” after the Upper East Side has become passe.
Brooklyn on the other hand still reads very much as a working class neighborhood. While it too has seen huge strides in gentrification in the last twenty years (my old immigrant neighborhood of Greenpoint is unrecognizable now from my time there in the early aughts), the idea of Brooklyn is still that it is a working class borough, as Queens is (but Peter Parker has that claimed already). Just as Matt Murdoch is defined by Hell’s Kitchen, despite it not really being Hell’s Kitchen anymore, a fact Marvel/Netflix’s Daredevil gestures towards but never really explores, these heroes are defined by both the neighborhoods they claim as molding their character AND the people they protect that inhabit those neighborhoods. So moving Rogers from Manhattan to Brooklyn does not betray his background and moral foundation but rather seeks to shift his history to a place that conveys to newer audience members what is most important about the character- that Steve Rogers is a strong, moral center in a world of madness. That he represents the working class and that he stands up and protects those who cannot protect themselves.
In today’s world, we could use more of that.
If you’re interested in more of this keep an eye out for the edited collection, Working Class Superheroes Marc DiPaolo, editor, forthcoming. The edited collection examines heroes such a Luke Cage, Matt Murdoch, Jessica Jones, Katniss Everdeen, Captain America, and Superman for their relationships to the working class and the intersection with issues of class, gender roles, and history.