Captain America and ‘The Seventieth Pt. 3’: Patriotism Redefined

The idea of patriotism, embodied by a comic book hero like Captain America, and what it means to be American, must be examined from time to time.

“I cannot represent the American Government: the President does that. I must represent the American people. I represent the American Dream, the freedom to strive, to become all that you dream of being. Being Captain America has been my dream.”

– Steve Rogers

As America’s new president Gerald R. Ford takes office and the last US troops leave Vietnam, it doesn’t take Steve Rogers long to return to his calling as Captain America. During his time as Nomad, he realizes that the Captain America identity could be a symbol of American ideals, not its government. It wouldn’t be until 1987 that Steve Rogers would again be forced to make the choice between his government and his principles.

In 1987, a storyline entitled “Captain America No More!” pits Rogers against the Reagan-era US Government, which discovers the secret identity. In response, they proclaim his shield, costume, and the character Captain America identity as their property. The government insists that Rogers can only retain his persona as Cap if he served as a federal agent under a commission that oversees superhuman activities.

The Captain, of course, declines and turns in his uniform and shield, taking on a persona called “The Captain”, a black suit that mirrors his Captain America costume. In his new identity, Rogers ends up saving President Ronald Reagan, who had been transformed into a man-snake (take that how you will) and was eventually given back all rights to the Captain America identity, as well as the costume.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Captain America comics explored various political and social themes, including terrorism, vigilantism, and even homosexuality.

“Bring them on.”

– US President George W. Bush

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the world changed. Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four US airliners, intent on crashing them into American landmarks. Two planes destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. A third crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth plane originally meant to take out either the Capitol or the White House, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers and crew members attempted to retake control of the plane. Nearly 3,000 victims died in the attacks.

In response, US President George W. Bush launched a global “War on Terror”, first invading Afghanistan, and then Iraq. America united in its efforts to assist the victims. But, the nation seemed divided, once again, however, on the definition of true patriotism.

As with the Vietnam War, the question arose at Marvel: How should Captain America respond? The answer was a series restart depicting how Cap would handle living in the post-9/11 world. It starts off with Steve Rogers searching for victims in the rubble of the Twin Towers alongside New York firefighters, policemen and other rescue workers. Six months later, a terrorist called Al-Tariq and his followers hold an entire town hostage. Captain America’s mission is to free the hostages and defeat Al-Tariq. The series deals with the mixed emotions many Americans, including Cap, were feeling: anger, sadness, despair, compassion and hate.

In the essay “Captain America, Traitor?” for the conservative magazine National Review, film critic and radio talk show host Michael Medved, comments on how Marvel’s new direction with the classic patriotic hero has basically made Cap anti-American. He cites several instances in the series where the star-spangled hero expresses remorse for various misdeeds America has done during times of war, as if being American means never having to say you’re sorry.

The immediate post 9/11 America struggled to define, once again, what it meant to be patriotic. And Captain America’s new ideals, as well as many other Americans at the time, were a dividing point that the nation still struggles with.

In early 2003, Marvel published another controversial piece, Truth – Red, White and Black. The story, which takes place prior to Steve Rogers becoming Captain America, is about the original testing of the super-soldier serum on an African-American regiment, a storyline inspired by the real life Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a 40-year study on the effects untreated syphilis had on African-American men.

In the comics, Isaiah Bradley, an African-American US Serviceman who is the sole survivor of the experiments, becomes the first Captain America. Marvel received criticism for the story, not just for the fact that they depicted a black man as a symbol of American patriotism, but for the fact that the company brought to light one of several dark periods in American history. Joe Quesada, Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics at the time, defended the comic, stating, “We’ve done things in our history that aren’t right to our own citizens. The beauty of America is that we can tell these stories and learn from our mistakes and move on.”

“A great wave of oppressive tyranny isn’t going to strike, but rather a slow seepage of oppressive laws and regulations will sink the American dream of liberty.”

– George Baumler

In 2006, a dramatic Marvel crossover event began to take place. Spanning over a limited seven-issue series and crossing over to multiple other titles, the story revolves around a mandatory federal registration of all superhumans, calling for all superheroes to register with the government or be imprisoned.

Captain America opposes the registration, which he sees as a contradiction of American ideals, and leads an anti-registration resistance. He becomes a fugitive and opposes the heroes of the pro-registration group, led by his former friend, Tony Stark aka Iron Man, who secretly used scare tactics to manipulate the public into supporting the act. The two eventually engage in a climactic battle but Rogers surrenders, in fear of endangering the very people he has sworn to protect.

Led in handcuffs into a federal courthouse and facing a life sentence, Rogers is shot four times, dying at a nearby hospital. An outlaw to the country he loved, he died protecting the civil liberties of all Americans.

His death sent shockwaves throughout the Marvel Universe. In reality, it meant the end of a true American icon. Media outlets covered Cap’s death as if it really happened. In some ways, it was argued, it had. ABC News reported, “You’re not crazy if you think Captain America’s struggle parallels the debates over the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the Bush domestic surveillance program and other controversial programs in the post-Sept. 11 world.” Just like in Marvel’s ‘Civil War’, many Americans felt they had to choose between their civil liberties and national security, all in the name of patriotism.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

– Barack Obama

In 2008, Bucky Barnes, Cap’s old World War II ally, was discovered alive and in suspended animation since 1945, à la Steve Rogers. Trained by a Soviet assassin to become The Winter Soldier, Bucky eventually reforms and assumes the mantle of Captain America, in honor of his fallen comrade.

Joe Simon looks back on the character he helped create, “Captain America is a great character–it’s that simple. A lot of people have written and drawn the book, some poorly and some well. But the character always bounces back.”

And he did, in more ways than one. In 2009’s Captain America: Reborn Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, was discovered alive. He was given a full pardon for his actions during Civil War and was offered a new role: Captain Steve Rogers, the new head of security of the United States, a role he currently holds in the comics.

The relevance of a character such as Captain America is challenged from time to time. “We need Captain America today more than ever,” says Simon. “With all of the things we face today, wars and terrorism, people need a symbol they can look up to. I said so when they ‘killed’ Captain America, and people from all over agreed with me”. An inspirational icon – specifically a comic book hero created to rally American patriotism during a time of worldwide crisis – is something that will always be needed. It’s the idea of patriotism, however, and what it means to be American, that must be examined from time to time.

This summer, Captain America: The First Avenger will open in theaters, giving longtime fans and new ones the chance to experience the Star-Spangled hero on the big screen. “I’m very excited about the movie, and loved the commercial they put out after the Super Bowl”, Simon exclaims. “I’m not sure about the costume change, but these movie people have to put their own stamp on everything. I suppose that’s okay”.