He started as a propaganda device during World War II and has been depicted punching Adolf Hitler in his stupid maw on several occasions, but since his creation in 1941, Captain America has become a beacon of nobility, steadfastness, and self-sacrifice in a sea of selfish, damaged, and often petty “heroes.” He, unlike some, represents the true best that the country, and the human race, has to offer and it has nothing to do with what powers he has. As we approach the Fourth of July, America’s birthday, I think it’s important to look at the comic book superhero who best exemplifies what this nation was built on.
To look at Cap, let’s first look at some of his contemporaries, particularly those who have been translated to film recently. Who do we have? Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Thor. Superman and Thor are aliens from other worlds/realms who have amazing powers because of this. Superman was raised in Kansas, sure, but he was “destined” for more. Thor was a very haughty prince who sees the error of his ways and decides to protect the weak Midgardians. Spider-Man was a smart-ass teenager who gets his powers by accident. Only after he basically gets his uncle killed due to inaction does he learn that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Iron Man is a genius, yes, but he’s also a chauvinist, a greedy arms-dealer who got super rich off of weapons. He decides to use his know-how to stop war and terrorism only after his own life is put in jeopardy. And Batman – that guy’s nuts! He’s been fixated on taking back the night from the incorporeal criminal element that killed his parents and has spent years of training and billions on technology to become that which the baddies fear, thus causing the citizens to fear him and the bad guys to get weirder.
All of them have their own personal struggles and are grappling with what it means to be a hero. You know who knew that from the get-go? Steve Rogers, the squirt from Brooklyn who just wanted to lend a hand against the Nazis. He never had any designs on being the best, just on being able to do his part. He had the guts and the nerve that a lot of the bigger and stronger guys didn’t, and it was for this reason that he was chosen to be the test subject to become the first super soldier. All the serum did was to make his exterior match his interior. And when he got super strength, super speed, super height, and super handsomeness, did he become a d-bag? No! He just kept fighting the good fight. His flaws are feeling like he doesn’t belong, like he’s not good enough to lead, that he’s too humble and trusting. It may come across today like pie-in-the-sky naiveté to our hardened, cynical brains, but that’s America, people.
Captain America is a hero and not merely heroic. His concern is standing between innocent people and harm, dispatching a villain only in the pursuit of saving people and not for any other gain. In Whedon’s The Avengers, he’s the one who goes around with the NYPD and helps get people to safety. While Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk break, smash, and blow stuff up, Cap’s the one on the ground making sure there’s no (or few, he’s not perfect) casualties. It’s the thankless role, but he does it and that’s why he’s the leader.
Now, why does he do and feel these things? Is it because he’s from an older, simpler time? Perhaps. World War II was really the last time in American history when we felt justified as a nation of being the peacekeepers and, for lack of a better word, the “cowboys” of the world. There certainly are those who feel we still are today, though much of the moral high ground we claim to have is tarnished by selfishness and pomposity the rest of the world sees us as having. Whether he’s “out of touch” or not, Captain America, thankfully, still represents the ideology upon which this country was founded, of having a better life than your ancestors and living free of tyranny and oppression, regardless of your race or creed, that many have fought and died for. Some people have lost sight of these tenants in favor of fear, exclusion, and personal gain above all. Cap hasn’t. He still operates without bureaucracy or partisanship.
So, on this 237th Independence Day, I for one am happy that comic books still have Steve Rogers and kids (and adults) still have a hero they can all look up to.