Captain America, rather than Iron Man, is America

A friend and I have a party game: take the countries that contribute troops to UN peacekeeping forces and argue about which Marvel superhero characters they are. This probably speaks more to the kinds of parties we throw, but below are some of the most consistent results:

  • USA: Iron Man
  • Canada: Captain America
  • Russia: Black Widow

There are a lot of moments of disagreement, particularly over Israel, Germany, and Australia, Spiderman, Magneto, and Hawkeye respectively, but I have yet to hear anyone seriously argue that Captain America should represent America.

I’d like to make that argument today, based on this fascinating post that came across my tumblr dash. In it, kerrypolka shares the thesis that Captain America was written to shame the U.S. into joining WWII. I had never heard this, but it is true: Captain America #1 went on sale on December 20, 1940, nearly 12 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. On the cover, Cap is punching Hitler in the face. Joe Simon, the creator of the character along with Jack Kirby, created from his political values:

Simon said Captain America was a consciously political creation; he and Kirby were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II and felt war was inevitable: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” Wikipedia [7]

kerrypolka goes on to argue that Captain America is a Jewish-American superhero, judging both from the faiths of his creators and the way he approaches the world as a constructive poem to which he is tasked with contributing a verse. It is the first piece of argument I have read that helped me see Cap as subversive and appropriate to representing the country I love, rather than the worst kind of jingoistic and flat in his source material.

In my lifetime, being pro-war in the way Simon and Kirby were has rarely been a good thing. There are moments when I have been pro-military intervention, Libya being one of them, but being for the kind of war Simon and Kirby knew was coming is entirely different. As I’m writing this, I’m hearing this song recapping WWII from the perspective of a woman on the front lines:

I don’t want to misled: I like Cap, a lot, mostly because I met him through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I love that he fights with a shield, that he hates bullies, that he is honorable and loyal and picks fights he can’t win in the worst way. I like his sass.

I had been liking him less this week as I began to read some of his source material from the mid-1980s with Secret Wars*. In those comics, he’s noble and true, but he also takes leadership positions from women on whims, leaves comrades to be tortured, and generally looks like a microwaved peep**.

Though I generally like Cap, in the party game I always argued that in the context of military engagement, as a country we are much more Iron Man, if not War Machine, in our approach. Yes, we try to defend people, but we also create problems doing so, and our tech gets into the wrong hands often enough to have that be a prominent part of our plotlines. Perhaps even enough to take on an entire 3rd movie. We don’t fight with a shield.

But we should. That’s the whole point of Captain America. kerrypolka’s argument about Captain America’s Jewish-themed approach to the world is convincing. She says:

Judaism has this important phrase/concept/slogan/life motto from the third-century-ish text Pirkei Avot, which goes: Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor (it’s not to you to complete the work of repairing the world) v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena (but neither may you desist from it). You won’t be able to fix the world by yourself, or in your lifetime, but that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility to work towards it.


And about saying he’s a symbol of US imperial superiority, I mean, he is a symbol of America but aimed as a criticism at real America.  He’s the American ideal cranked up to five million – for the purpose of shaming America for not living up to what it says it wants to be. And he is aimed at Americans, so I can see a criticism for him being US-centric in that metanarrative sense, but he’s yelling at America to sort their shit out and I think him yelling at non-USAmericans to sort their shit out would be much worse? But I definitely don’t think Cap is supposed to be about how great America is, he’s about pointing out exactly in what ways and how much America is failing to be great. And then saying “but, that doesn’t mean you get out of trying harder!”

Without giving major spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which I have now seen twice and will see again), it revives exactly the kind of uncomfortable-making self-criticism that birthed the character in the 1940s. It takes to task a core set of American assumptions around our role in the world. It’s challenging, it makes Captain America challenging, and it’s got me hooked as a mindworm.

That is what is helping me see him as representing the U.S. in our party game. Not that he represents the way we currently fight, which might be closer to Hulk than any other hero if we’re being tough on ourselves, but the way we could be, the way we should be.

We bring this game to the table not just because it’s fun, but because comics give us a shared language for our values. Do we think a country is sneaky and mundane and creative like Hawkeye, or impervious and magical and flaky like Thor? Do we understand a country as being as young and naive and flexible as Spiderman, or as wise and damaged and peaceful as Professor X? Comics like any form of thought-out popular culture contain detailed, generally understood archetypes, short-hand for deeper issues which are uncomfortable to touch head-on.

Like what military role our nation is playing, and what it could play in the future. Food for thought this Passover.

*I’m cosplaying a lesser-known Avenger this weekend and was doing very-serious-business-research for my costume. Also, I had 8 hours of drive time to fill from Montana to Seattle.

**For anyone interested in a wonderful critique of the ways men’s and women’s bodies are portrayed in comics, see the subversive, hilarious, and occasionally enticing Hawkeye Initiative.

Inspirational Quote:

“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — ‘No, you move.'”–Amazing Spider-Man #537

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