Spoiler alert! Captain America is a bad guy. Worse, a supervillain. When I say spoiler alert, I don't mean that I am announcing a plot point about which you didn't already know. I am saying that something has been well and truly spoiled. Marvel has ruined an American icon with their latest move.
From Entertainment Weekly:
Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, out today, ends with the revelation that Steve Rogers is, and has always been, an undercover operative for the nefarious organization Hydra. Writer Nick Spencer and Marvel editor Tom Brevoort spoke with EW about the genesis of this twist, what it means for Sam Wilson, and emphasized that yes, this really is Steve Rogers.
That’s right, the most recognizable superhero in the Marvel Universe is actually a supervillain. Here goes something.
Before you get the wrong idea about me, I'm not a comic book nerd. I don't read comics at all. My vision makes it too frustrating an exercise. I do, however, enjoy a good superhero story. While it is not proper to identify as a fan of any of them, I have always liked Spider-Man and Captain America as depicted in old TV shows and new movies.
I know that the comics often go places that the movies never quite get to. But the comics are canon. In many ways, the comics represent orthodoxy much more than the movies. What Marvel does in the comics is what is true to the series. From this point on, what is true is that Captain America is, and likely has always been a really, really bad guy.
Even our better angels are but fallen angels
I don't want to make this about Captain America. I'm a Star Trek nerd. Imagine if Paramount announced that Spock had really been a Romulan spy all alone. Now, that should get your blood boiling. This is not about the death of any particular hero. It is about the death of all heroes.
There are no superheroes. No one is super. And no one is a hero. There is no such thing as truth, justice, and the American way. America is just as much the bad guy as Nazi Germany. The best of us are easily corrupted. No one person or organization has any greater claim to goodness than anyone else. There is no need putting anyone on a pedestal. They are just as flawed as you are, and as such, are not worth looking up to.
Even if you do find someone who hasn't disappointed you yet, give it time. They will. The fundamental assumption has changed from, people are good, or can be given the right circumstances, to People are bad, or can be under the right circumstances. When we start with the idea that people are bad, only capable of good through some superhuman effort, disappointment is the natural expectation.
The best any of us can do is momentarily rise above our animal urges, only to fall even further than we were. Our better angels are only fallen angels in waiting. There are no superheroes or super humans. There is only one type of human. It is the kind that is no better than the worst of us. And there is no point of even trying to be better than that.
Moral complexity that only comes in shades of grey
We started out with Lone Ranger heroes who had to work through their troubled past to stay focused on always doing the right thing. These heroes had plenty of complexity. But they always wanted to do the right thing. And they didn’t seem to have a hard time figuring out what the right thing was.
At some point, we found our world filled with superheroes. How many heroes did the world really need? In a fit of optimism, coupled with the spirit of cooperation and brotherhood, we formed superhero teams. If one superhero was a force for good, ten of them would be an unstoppable force for greatness.
That period of optimistic naivety is well and truly over. While there have always been undercurrents of clashing personalities within the superhero ranks, there was still a sense that they were all on the same team, with the same goals, and the same moral certainty. Now, it’s Batman vs. Superman, Captain America vs. Ironman. No one is on anyone’s side, not even yours.
We have lost track of who the enemy is because everything and everyone has become so morally complex. Nothing is right or wrong. It is all some indescribable shade of grey. This is not what I signed up for as a kid who loved Spider-Man and Captain America. And maybe that's the problem.
When childhood heroes grow up
The heroes of old were made for children. They offered a reasonably clear path to moral behavior and awareness. The message wasn't as simple as, cheaters never win. Even little kids knew that cheaters won all day long, and twice on Sundays. What our heroes showed us was why it was worth it to do the right thing even while everyone else was doing the wrong thing, or were indifferent.
The people who fell in love with those heroes did not leave them as an unspoiled legacy for their kids. They kept those heroes for themselves, and forced comic book characters to do what they were never meant to do: grow up and reflect emotional complexity and realism.
In that lies the problem. Superman isn't real. He is the personification of truth, justice, and the American way. Today, he is a dark and troubled soul dealing with the vicissitudes of life as best he can. He is no longer the role model for anything. We wanted him to grow up and represent real life. Now, he, and every other hero, is as screwed up as the rest of us.
We have created adult heroes with adult themes and adult psychiatric issues. There are no heroes left for children who need to sort out right from wrong, and have a clear reason to choose what's right, even when it is the tougher path. Messed up adults hijacked the heroes for themselves, and left nothing for their kids.
Conclusion: the hero within
There has been a subtle shift in our imagining of heroes that has had a profound effect on our culture. Superheroes are only as valuable as their superpower. But I contend that the superpower was only ever an interesting plot point that provided background to the canvas. The real power of the protagonist has always been the hero within.
Superman was not good because he could fly. He was good because of his purity of heart. The same goes for every hero worth honoring. There were always villains who could counteract the power. At the end of the day, it was always about the purity of heart that brought out the hero.
My favorite superhero is no longer Spider-Man or Captain America. it's Kickass. Nothing about the two movies that bear the name, including the name, is suitable for kids. And that's too bad. Because as far as I'm concerned, he is the only superhero kids can still look up to.
The protagonist is a normal, human teen with no powers whatsoever. He is not special in any way. He is not super smart. He is scrawny, and not particularly popular or attractive. For his own troubled reasons, he just wants to stand up for the little guy, of which he is one.
He gets beat up a lot, and badly. The only thing he has going for him is persistence and purity of heart. That's it. Not only is that the only thing that makes him a hero, that is the only thing that makes anyone a hero. The custodians of the Marvel and DC universe have forgotten this fact, or have simply outgrown it.
I, for one, defy the relentless cynicism of my generation. There can be heroes. We all have it within us to be a better version of who we already are. At any moment, we can be a little less petty, a little less self-absorbed, a little more caring about the plight of others outside our immediate circle.
We can open our minds, our hearts, and our homes, and be a hero for a day to someone in need. We can change the world for some few people over the course of our lifetimes. We can be that hero, and be inspired by such heroes. Superpowers, not required. Even if Marvel and DC have forgotten about that, we don't have to. Our heroes, the true heroes, can do what they were meant to from the start: They can live forever in our imaginations, making us better people, and in turn, creating a better world.