Events leading up to the death of Captain America in the Marvel Universe (the tragedy at Stamford, the Superhuman Registration Act, and the ensuing Civil War) were direct correlates of current hot button political topics in the United States. The fiercely debated real world concept of trading freedom for security was on the table from the very beginning of the Marvel crossover event.
Captain America #25 carries the hot buttons to new allegoric height. “The Death of the Dream”: it doesn’t get much more direct than that. Cap wore the red, white, and blue and lived as an embodiment of the ideal that the United States had found for itself in the first half of the twentieth century. At stake in the story is nothing less than what we, as citizens of the United States of America, dream of; how we see ourselves, who we consider to be our heroes, and why.
In weighing civil liberties against national security, casting suspicion on the loyalty of free citizens, and dividing vast swaths of the population along partisan lines, the question of where someone like Captain America would stand had to be asked. This was a man whose identity was forged through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Suddenly transported from then to now, what would he honestly think of the world he saw around him?
Writer Ed Brubaker opens issue #25 with a stark retelling of Cap’s origin and early career on the battlefield and allows the story to unfold through the eyes of several narrators. Newsreels, “live” coverage, memories, and the here-and-now are sewn together into a reflection on the life of Captain America even as he is shot, rushed to the hospital, and pronounced dead.
This pronouncement, of course, must be balanced with the knowledge that major players in the world of comic book heroes rarely stay dead for long. Ed Brubaker, as a writer, has a particularly notorious track record for establishing rumors of deaths that later prove to be greatly exaggerated. The Red Skull, the villain who masterminded Captain America’s assassination, was supposedly killed, and then revealed to be very much alive, earlier in this same series. Also, Cap’s junior partner from WWII, Bucky Barnes, missing in action and presumed dead for over sixty years, was discovered to be alive, brainwashed, and in action as the Winter Soldier.
Both of those key players, Red Skull and Winter Soldier, are in the game as it unfolds in Death of the Dream, alongside S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Sharon Carter, Falcon, and Nick Fury. There is action in the aftermath of the shooting (Winter Soldier and Falcon take on Crossbones, the apparent sniper, in a rooftop throw-down) but essentially the people featured in this issue (Sharon Carter, especially, having had an unwitting hand in his death) are there because they are the ones for whom the death of Captain America has the most direct personal meaning. How they deal with the loss is ultimately the story.
The shock and mourning reverberating throughout the Marvel Universe, not to mention headlines in the real world mainstream media, speak volumes of Cap’s gifts and how he touched the lives of others.
Already there is talk of who could wear Steve Roger’s colors, lift up his shield, and take his place. The series, after all, is slated to continue even after its title character is laid to rest. But asking the question of who could replace him only hammers in the truth about how rare leaders like him truly are. What do we dream of, who are our heroes, and what does it mean when we lose them?