While Mark Millar was experimenting with narrative during his return to the Ultimates, Jason Aaron was exploring the inner-workings of Captain America in his mini-series Ultimate Captain America.Initially, the series travels down familiar territory as the central antagonist is yet another result of the super-soldier serum that transformed Steve Rogers into America’s greatest hero. Fortunately, this series has much more to say than previous narratives that followed this simple plot.
The series begins with Captain America attempting to escape from a prison cell only to be beaten mercilessly. Chained and shackled with a gun pressed against his forehead, it’s clear that Steve Rogers has lost. With no other hope, he begins to pray. The faceless villain mocks our hero and makes a deal with him, saying, “We’ll give your God, let’s say, five minutes. That oughta be plenty of time for him to come down here and rescue your ass, right?”
The opening scene is eerie and puts Captain America in a more vulnerable position than we’ve ever seen him before, but it’s further noteworthy because it is directly inspired from the real life of contract killer Richard Kuklinski (nicknamed “the Iceman”).
Before we are even shown the villain’s face, we know that he can single-handedly take down Captain America and he is based off of one of the most demented killers in history.
The narrative then jumps back to six weeks previous in North Korea where a masked figure is selling a super soldier serum to a group of scientists. A black ops team of British S.A.S. have arrived to capture the rogue super soldier because the development of superhumans is a violation of U.N. restrictions which sort of begs the question – why isn’t the United States bound by these same restrictions? SHIELD deals exclusively in creating super soldiers, but North Korea isn’t allowed to? It’s a fascinating contradiction and one that speaks to real world issues of militarization but Aaron doesn’t meditate on them very long. He is interested in other matters.
Captain America faces off against the masked figure and is beaten mercilessly until it is revealed that the villain is Frank Simpson (also known as “Nuke” in the regular Marvel Universe). In the 60′s, Simpson was created to be the next Captain America but he had gone missing for years and his existence buried. He declares himself to be the Captain America of the 60′s and proclaims that he will show Steve Rogers “what America really stands for.”
Issue 2 delves into the details of Frank Simpson’s origin. The super-solider serum couldn’t be perfected, so they enhanced him with cybernetics and steroids and dumped him in Vietnam. The torturous nature of the experiments combined with the psychological damage from being in Vietnam caused Simpson to snap and join the other side. Instead of sympathizing with Frank Simpson’s plight of being a weaponized human being, Captain America declares him a traitor and can’t understand why anyone would betray his country.
His lack of sympathy is indicative of the complexity that Jason Aaron weaves into the characterization of Captain America. Blindly loyal to his country, Steve Rogers is both America’s greatest asset and also severely dangerous. While he would never betray his people, his loyalty seems to come from brashness rather than logic. In many ways, Ultimate Captain America is very much the stereotypical American – religious, arrogant, brash, xenophobic, and fiercely loyal. Obviously, not all Americans are these things, but often times, the outside perception of the stereotypical American is a combination of these things and Ultimate Captain America is the perfect embodiment of these things.
What is so impressive is that Aaron doesn’t invent any of this characterization for Ultimate Captain America. Rather, he takes all of the previous bits of characterization and synthesizes them into one pure interpretation of the character. He took the religious elements from Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, the patriotism and French jokes from Millar’s run on The Ultimates to create a Captain America that embodies everything that is American.
When searching for Frank Simpson in the jungles of Cambodia, Rogers says, “In my experience, when in doubt . . . don’t be afraid to be obnoxious” and he then proceeds to announce his intentions to a poor village that just so happens to be made up of super soldiers. So, in typical American fashion, Steve Rogers has judged a situation to be nonthreatening due to his limited view of the world, brashly announces his threats without fear of consequence, and this causes him to underestimate the enemy that so easily defeats him. There could be no more perfect metaphor for the flaws in our American identity than this.
After establishing Steve Rogers as the personification of the American idea, issue 3 is the ultimate test of his patriotism. Frank Simpson declares Richard Nixon to be “the most evil man who ever lived” and then proceeds to educate Rogers on the sins of America while putting the hero through various torture methods. At night, Captain America is lulled to sleep by the sounds of screams from Darfur and torture victims from Nicaragua. Through it all, Steve Rogers never breaks. He never cracks. His patriotism runs so deep and his faith so strong, that he will never give up.
Up to this point, one could easily interpret the patriotism of Steve Rogers as foolish and ignorant. Then, as Captain America is chained down in a pig pen, a child from the village approaches him and asks the most important line in the entire book:
While the line “Do you know . . . the one they call . . . the Justin Bieber” could be interpreted as a throwaway line designed for humor, it actually strikes upon something very important – that America, for all of its flaws, is still something of an ideal. Perhaps it is a shallow ideal given that the child is interested in a pop star rather than an important politician, but the idea of success and popularity is still admired even by a super soldier child in a forgotten village in Cambodia.
Then again, the idea that America’s sins can so easily be forgotten under the shining veneer of a pop star (ironically, an American pop star who is actually Canadian), is actually quite horrific. The sins of our past are easily forgotten because a cute teenager with a lesbian haircut became an international music icon is a frightening thought. People can ignore the real world issues around them so long as the entertainment is good enough. From this light, maybe Frank Simpson is actually correct.
At the end of the third issue, we return to the beginning of the first with Simpson standing over Steve Rogers in prayer. Captain America asks God, “I just wanna know that there was a purpose to it. to all of it. I just wanna know” and just as he is about to give up, he sees something and the issue ends.
In the beginning of the fourth issue, we learn that a snake caught Cap’s eye and he uses it to tear out it’s poison and spit it in Frank Simpson’s eyes. What ensues is a knockdown-drag-out fight between the two super soldiers where Captain America explains why he never broke:
“You think I’d never heard of Richard Nixon before? Or every other earthshaking secret you had to tell me? I know all those stories and a hundred more just like them that are even worse. Peace and security don’t come easy, Simpson. And wars are never pretty, no matter the era. But we do what we can. For the greater good. Has Amerian made its share of mistakes? Obviously. You were one of its worst. I think it’s about time we remedied that one.”
It’s a speech that begins so well and ends without really redeeming America. Steve Rogers admits America’s faults without ever really presenting all that his country has done to benefit the world. It’s slightly underwhelming and unfortunate that nothing could be said to redeem our mistakes.
In the end, Captain America lets Frank Simpson live but not before taking his ear and his eye – perhaps symbolic for Steve’s frustration towards having to listen to Simpson’s rantings and a nod towards the verse in Exodus 21:24 of “an eye for an eye . . .”
After Steve Rogers returns home, he is drinking with Hawkeye when he reveals that the snake was a miracle from God when Hawkeye suggests, “Why are you so certain it’s God’s work we’re doing and not, you know . . . the other guy’s?”
This conversation perfectly summarizes the central conflict of the book and falls in perfectly to the overall theme of the Ultimate Universe as established by Mark Millar. The good guys presume to be “good guys” because they are American and on the winning side. This mini-series was a meditation on the idea that maybe our heroes aren’t really heroes at all, but defenders of a status quo that is inherently corrupt and evil.
Unfortunately, these meditations don’t last long (nor could they, really) as the last two pages feature Captain America sitting by Frank Simpson’s bed side to read the Holy Bible to him. While this scene provides great closure to the series, it also suggests that despite the evidence provided to him, Captain America will continue to believe as he does. He will continue to assume that America’s mistakes are justified and that his country is in the right. And while it’s comforting that there is a hero that will never give up and never betray us, it’s unfortunate that no counter evidence is presented and one is left feeling more than a little existentially conflicted by the implications of the series.