Commentary: Does Captain America Still Matter?

Apr 4, 2014

With the new Captain America movie opening this weekend, pop culture philosopher Nicolas Michaud stopped by First Coast Connect to talk about whether the Cap is still a relevant hero.

World War II was raging in Europe by the end of 1940, Poland had been carved up, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, and Norway had surrendered to the Nazis, and Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania had all join the Axis.

Though war raged around the world, the American public did not want to get involved. Two comic book creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, believed that the United States would inevitably enter the war, and more importantly, they believed what Hitler was doing was wrong. Partly in response to isolationistic sentiment, Simon and Kirby created “Captain America” whose first issue depicted Captain America giving Adolf a good old American punch in the jaw.

A scene from the cover of Captain America Comics #1, published March 1941, showing Captain America punching Adolf Hitler.
Credit 1941 Marvel Characters, Inc. / Wikimedia Commons

Captain America (“Cap” to his fans) became one of the most popular superheroes of the decade. Captain America, in his American flag themed costume with his faithful sidekick, “Bucky” by his side, wreaked havoc against the Nazis and their allies.

During World War II, Captain America was Timely Comics most popular character. But, then, the war ended. By 1950, Captain America had been discontinued. He had a short lived reemergence in 1953, but without the war, Captain America was just not relevant.

Cap triumphantly returned for good in 1964, just as the United States involvement in the Vietnam War began to escalate. But this time, things were a bit different. The Captain was a WWII relic. He was redesigned in the comic universe as having gone MIA at the end of WWII, frozen in an iceberg for a decade. He returned in the sixties his own patriotism still in full bloom, and part of what made Cap so fascinating, and in some ways so funny, was how very out of place he was.

Captain America, today, remains a relic. This fact is one often capitalized on by cartoons , comics, and movies. They show Cap struggle to find his place in a different America, one not united by patriotism and hope. Captain America finds himself in a world in which many people were ashamed of the flag he wore on his costume, and, today, as an American icon, Captain America seems to represent a much more idealistic picture of the United States, one in which heroes were broad shouldered, cleft-chinned, dedicated, loyal, gentlemanly, and, most importantly, naive.

Captain America's shield, as seen in the 2011 film "Captain America: The First Avenger."
Credit ze_bear / Flickr

So we wonder, as the new Captain America film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes out, if Cap still matters? Is he more than a reminder of the way that the U.S. used to think of itself? Have Vietnam, McCarthyism, and now, the NSA made it impossible to believe in a U.S. in which freedom, truth, and justice always prevail? Probably. But that, in some ways, was never really the most important part of Captain America.

Yes, Cap was a political tool used by comic book creators to help perpetuate patriotism and war fervor. But Captain America still has a few lessons to teach us.

If you watch the films or read the comics, there is one thing about Captain America that you know, though most of us don’t pay much attention to. 

A weak and sickly young man, Steve Rogers, becomes Captain America after volunteering for an experiment that will make him stronger and faster. In other words, the real hero was never the red, white and blue Captain America; it was little Steve Rogers who believe in something so much that he was willing to risk his life for it.

On one hand, sure, that is simple propaganda, a way of telling the American public that they too can do their part. But on the other hand, it is a story about someone who believe that his size and stature didn’t have to be an impediment to his dreams and beliefs.

In other words, it was always Steve Rogers with the real super power. Although we often think of him as naively still touting blind patriotism and gentlemanly decorum, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America was never really naive. He knew his weakness, he knew his flaws, and he faced them.

Sure Captain America became pretty strong and pretty fast, and he has that indestructible shield he could throw around, but little Steve Rogers believed in himself when no one else thought he had anything of value to give. That’s the quality that makes Captain America still relevant, and it means he has something he can still teach us.

Maybe the best message we can get out of this new film isn’t that we should kick butt or that we should ignore our flaws, but, instead, that steadfastness, dedication, and belief in oneself still matter. We don’t always have to agree with Captain America, but we all could afford to be a little more like him.

Nicolas Michaud is an author and editor of numerous pop culture and philosophy books.