Why I may never forgive Captain America

Captain America has abandoned us all.

Maybe I shouldn’t take comic book characters so seriously, but this past year Marvel Comics brought me back into the funny books in a big way with the most ambitious crossover event I’ve ever seen, Civil War. There’s a lot that I could complain about over the course of Civil War (the attention to continuity between books that dealt with the same events, the job of making tie-in books actually matter to the fundamental plot, all the anti-climactical red herrings [see Wolverine/Damage Control story arc]), but even if other crossovers have been better executed (see Inferno), this is the most ambitious subject matter I’ve ever seen Marvel or D.C. address in a major comic book event.

What is Civil War and why should a non-comic book fan care?

If you’re not into comics, you won’t appreciate Civil War to read it, but it is worth knowing that some 100,000 plus comic book fans across the country have been deeply involved in one of the most political debates that has ever entered comics. Screw side issues like which characters have turned out to be gay, this is big stuff. Marvel effectively created a USA PATRIOT Act for the Superhero Universe.

Basically, all people with super powers or other major equipment, magic items or talents have to register with the Federal Government. If they want to continue operating as a hero, they have to enter into employment with the Feds, too, and become a duly deputized officer of the law, under the direction of central command. No more lone rangers out looking for crime. Everyone would get trained, vetted and directed systematically from the top.

Similar stories have been tried before, but it was never all so radical nor so immediately relevant and the big components weren’t so intense. For example, there’s parallels to Guantanamo, the lack of a trial, the detention without just cause, disappearances. This is just a much more updated and real version than has ever been tried before.

So for one minute try to forget that this is about superheroes and think about what a big deal this is: Marvel is making the political context we now find ourselves in meaningful to thousands of voters in a world that they really do care about: comics. Remember, most comic fans are in their late 20s and early 30s. It really isn’t kids stuff. So if you don’t like the current Administration, hats off to Marvel for sinking comic book fans knee deep in a major metaphor of all that’s wrong about the Bush/Cheney agenda.

What did Captain America do?

Not to spoil it for the five or six Marvel zombies out there who may not have made it to the store for Civil War #7, the final issue, yesterday, but Cap surrendered. Basically, it was the final Royal Rumble between the heroes who supported registration and the underground resistance, led by Captain America.

The Resistance was winning.

The final battle made it out to the streets of New York City. Some of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe were punching it out. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were in danger and property was getting hammered. All the sudden, some civilians grabbed Cap and held him down. When he saw all the destruction around him he decided that everything he was doing was wrong, that they had lost track of what it meant to be heroes, allowed himself to be arrested and ordered the Resistance to stand down.

Captain America v Iron Man, story banner from the series

But Cap isn’t real, so how can you forgive him or not forgive him?

It’s true. Cap isn’t real. If you’re a hardcore fan, I hate to break it to you, but that’s exactly right: Captain America is a fictional character.

But he’s an important one.

I was born into comic books as a Marvel fan and I will die one. Yes, I like Marvel and D.C. I like Dark Horse and Top Shelf. Hell, I liked !mpact comics back in the day and I think some of the Image stuff is pretty cool. That said, I loved Marvel best early on, and I always will.

Both of the major universes have a lot in common. One of the things they have in common is that despite an enormous array of characters, it’s only a handful that are really really famous and meaningful to most fans. At D.C., it’s the Trinity (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman). At Marvel, it’s probably Cap, Spidey and Wolvie. Maybe some others.

I’m focused on Cap here, though, so what’s the deal with Cap? Well, in most ways, Cap is Marvel’s Superman. That is, in the D.C. Universe, when people think of the heroic ideal, they think of Superman. He’s the hero every other hero looks up to. He’s the shining light of truth and justice. They all respect the Bat, too, but Superman is the star, the inspiration, he is the Dawn to Batman’s Dusk.

It’s like a friend of mine who complained recently that other grad students were pissed at her for getting the highest score on an exam. She said they acted really childishly after she beat them all and it made her disappointed in her colleagues. Of course, it’s really easy to be righteous when you’re on top, and Superman is so powerful he will always be on top.

In the Marvel Universe, though, it’s Cap. He’s the leader of all heroes. He is the one that inspires them all and the one they all believe in. This is what makes Marvel so great, because its greatest hero, it’s most noble star is really just a man. Captain America, unlike Superman, has no real superpowers. He has a serum that allows him to stay in peak physical condition, as long as he keeps training very hard, but you can cut him and he’ll bleed, he’s not nearly as strong as most characters and all he fights with is a shield.

Yet he is one of the most dangerous and revered fighters in Marvel. Unlike Superman who can’t be stopped, can’t be killed, can’t be hurt, Cap could very easily die out there.

Yes, it’s all fiction, but in terms of the way your imagination responds to these characters, it’s important. Superman finds it easy to be perfect: he has nothing to fear. Captain America is just a man, yet he stays true to his ideals and completely uncompromised, despite the fact that he’s not much tougher than you or me.

And everyone on Marvel’s Earth looks up to him. They love him. Hundreds of heroes with far more raw power and much less to lose would do anything, anything Cap asked them to do. He’s that good. He’s that special.

So why do you feel betrayed?

Because he surrendered.

Captain America surrendered to the Federal Government and called off the Resistance because the actual physical destruction the War was costing actually outweighed, morally, the principled fight about freedom. At least in his mind. That’s completely wrong.

Captain America had always been about the ideal and the idea of America. The idea of freedom and equality. How many thousands died, how much destruction was there, over the course of the American Revolution and the real Civil War? If he stood by those Wars, if he fought proudly through World War II, why couldn’t he fight this one out?

Most days, he was an employee of the U.S. Government. But when the Government went to far, he’d bow out. Previously, he’d shed the mantle of Cap in protest, but this time he kept it and used it against an unjust system to lead a principled resistance.

Cap had been right: the Registration Act is wrong. It’s wrong for the U.S. Government to register citizens on the basis of ability. It’s wrong for all heroes to be on file with the Government. It’s wrong for powers to be controlled by Uncle Sam, who could as easily use the heroes for evil as good.

Americans, even Americans that can leap tall buildings with a single bound, should have civil liberties and freedom. That’s worth fighting for and it’s worth waging a war in the streets, even to the point of putting lives at risk and destroying property, to preserve that freedom.

It had to be war. It could not be a political fight. The Government said that heroes had to register or go to jail for life, without a trial. There’s no way a principled person could register first and fight the issue by lobbying and organizing later under those conditions. They had to simply stand up and fight it. They could not register and they could not go to jail.

So they fought, but when the costs started to get too high, when the weight of the battle became too much for Cap’s conscience, Captain America caved in on all he stood for and turned himself in.

I know he’s just a character, but he’s not going to look the same to me anymore after doing that. Captain America let down the idea that’s kept him alive all these years.