Warning: some spoilers for major plots of the Captain America comic book series are discussed below, if you’re unfamiliar with the comics.
Some countries, you may have heard, are changing the title of the upcoming Marvel Comics blockbuster, Captain America: The First Avenger. Paramount pictures reportedly gave international distributors of the big summer movie a choice. They had the option to shorten the title of the movie from Captain America: The First Avenger to simply, The First Avenger. The concern was that the name Captain America might negatively impact international box office numbers in some countries, due to anti-Americanism and a general distrust of American foreign policy.
The choice was presented to international distributors because, on the other side of the coin, there may be some potential brand recognition attached to an almost seventy-year-old comic book hero.
Finally, only Russia, the Ukraine and South Korea opted to shorten the movie’s title. Given the true history and nature of the character, however, the name change is really not necessary.
On the surface, the reasons for concern are understandable. Outside comic book fandom and outside of the United States of America, most people assume, when they hear the name Captain America (or even just look at the guy), that he’s an over the top, jingoistic American propaganda superhero. Let’s face it, Cap’s costume is heavily dominated by stars, stripes, red, white, blue and, well, the American flag in general. It’s like Betsy Ross and Edna Mode teamed up to design the outfit.
Like it or not, such an appearance of American uber-patriotism often makes the rest of the world cringe. Cap’s also the kind of character that can have American politicians, eager to prove their patriotism, jumping at the chance for a photo op with the guy (as in the photo below with Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense).
A closer look at Captain America and his history reveals that both reactions are a misjudgement of the character.
An informal survey of media coverage of the upcoming Captain America movie shows that news outlets from CNN to Fox News to the BBC state that the superhero with the star spangled shield was created as a propaganda tool for the US war effort during World War II. That’s a major misconception surrounding the creation of the character.
The first issue of Captain America was published by Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics) in December 1940, a full year before America’s entry into the war. At that time, the American mood towards the war in Europe was predominately isolationist. There were still many Americans that wanted the United States to stay out of what was then seen as a European war, and none of America’s business. To be fair, there were also a number of Americans that wanted America to enter the war in Europe.
In 1940, one of those Americans was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Others in the media spearheaded a subtle push toward involvement in movies, radio, newspapers and, yes, even comics. In the latter case, the push was not always so subtle.
The cover of the first issue of Captain America featured a nice big full colour rendering of the red, white, and blue clad superhero punching Adolf Hitler right in the face. Believe it or not, it was a controversial image back in the day.
For Captain America‘s creators, the legendary Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, both the character and the punch were no accident. Like many Jewish people in America at the time, Kirby and Simon were not at all happy with the news that was coming out of Nazi Germany. The politics behind an American superhero that was ready, willing, and more than able to take on the Nazis was quite intentional.
Simon said in an interview years later that, “The opponents to the war were all quite well organised. We wanted to have our say too.” After its initial publication, the now famous Hitler bashing cover saw threats and hate mail sent Kirby and Simon’s way.
The underlying patriotic wartime themes of Captain America were only embraced by the general public and by official government propaganda much later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and after Germany declared war on the US and after America entered World War II.
Captain America would continue to exist through many different political and social eras. He would also continue to be an American political iconoclast for the rest of his career.
Sales of Captain America comic books trailed off significantly after the end of the war, and the book eventually ceased publication. Twenty years later, the character was revived by another comic book legend, Stan Lee. Lee concocted a story about Cap being frozen in suspended animation since 1945 and revived by the newly formed superhero group, The Avengers, in 1964. Upon entering the modern world, Captain America was most certainly not immune to the social and political issues of the day.
In the February 1970 issue, Cap is seen wandering the street of New York City, contemplating the then current youthful social revolution. Thinks Cap in a classic Marvel comics thought bubble, “And, in a world rife with injustice and endless war, who’s to say the rebels are wrong? But, I’ve never learned to play by today’s new rules! I’ve spent a lifetime defending the flag, and the law! Perhaps I should have battled less, and questioned more!”
Later, Cap bolts out of bed and says of the establishment, “It was the same establishment that gave them a Martin Luther King, a Tolkien, a McLuhan and a couple of brothers named Kennedy! We don’t claim to be perfect, no generation is! All we can do is learn to live with each other, learn to love one another.”
Not exactly gung-ho American conservatism, that.
It was the kind of statement that was a rarity in the 60s. There was little or no defence of the establishment in the anti-establishment era. When there was such a thing, it was usually stuff like ‘Listen to your parents’ and ‘You kids think you have it figured out, huh? Well, you don’t.’ or ‘America: Love it or leave it.’ Issue #122 of Captain America also marks an extremely rare appearance, in any form, of philosopher and scholar, Marshall McLuhan, in Marvel comics.
A little later, in the 70s, the Watergate scandal rocked America. The Marvel Universe, too, had on its own version of the scandal, and Captain America was front and center. The Marvel version ramped up the scandal a tad.
In 1973, a subversive terrorist organization known as the Secret Empire attempted a rather large scale coup d’état against the United States of America. The Secret Empire was stopped, of course, by Captain America. Later, Cap learns that the leader of the Secret Empire was none other than the President of the United States. The US president, at that time, of course, was Richard M. Nixon.
The actions of the Secret Empire and their connections with the Commander-in-Chief were covered up. By comparison to those events, the actual Watergate scandal seems like child’s play. Like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby many years before him, writer Steve Englehart openly admitted the political intentions of the story. It was definitely meant to be an allegory of Watergate.
Captain America, disillusioned by the whole affair, dumps his all American red white and blue costume and takes on the identity of Nomad (the man without a country. Get it?). If the good Captain is an American propaganda tool, then this storyline is one of the weirdest approaches to jingoism ever.
More realistically, Captain America was the political iconoclast he’s always been. Cap ditched the Nomad identity after a few issues, but he made his point.
It was just a little before the time of the Nomad plotline that Cap took on The Falcon, one of the very first African American superheroes in mainstream comics, as a sidekick.
The Bush Era of the early 21st century was another politically contentious time in American history. The Marvel Universe and Captain America, once again, were not immune to the times. It was the age of the War on Terror, post-911 jitters, the Patriot Act and controversial presidency of George W. Bush. It was also the age when Marvel launched their epic Civil War saga.
In events that mirrored the highly controversial Patriotic Act, the U.S. Government passed the Superhuman Registration Act. The Act required that all persons with super powers register with the government as “a human weapon of mass destruction” (the real world political lingo of five years ago is still very familiar). The superhumans were also required to reveal their true identities and submit to government training.
Today, in the era of Tea Party politics, such an act would no doubt be seen as ‘big government trying to run the lives of good decent American superheroes’. But during The War on Terror era things were different. The unofficial motto was, ‘You are either with us or against us.’ Captain America was most decidedly on the ‘against us’ side.
Captain America vehemently opposed the Act and refused to register. He argued that such legislation was an infringement of American civil liberties. Actually, he didn’t just argue. He fought. Hard. And a lot. And against his former friends and allies, like Iron Man. Captain America, the onetime ‘sentinel of liberty’, finally went into hiding as a mall cop.
Finally and begrudgingly, Cap did ‘the right thing’ and surrendered, preferring instead to fight the rest of his political battles in court.
While Cap was being brought into the court house, he was shot by a sniper. Then, Sharon Carter, SHIELD agent and Cap’s former lover, also known as Agent 13, finished the job and killed Captain America. She was, of course, under the influence of the bad guys at the time. Nonetheless, the circumstances are unmistakable. Captain America was killed by a federal agent while defying the actions of his government in a time of war.
The title of the new Captain America movie shouldn’t be changed. Doing so serves only to fortify major mainstream and international misconceptions surrounding the character.
Anyone who automatically rejects Captain America because of his name and appearance should think again. Anyone who automatically embraces Captain America’s name and appearance should also think again.
Read more about Captain America: The First Avenger here.