Cap was always one of the more noble characters in the Marvel Universe. He was the All-American patriot: apple pie, baseball, liberty, Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving Dinner, World War II, and most importantly, the true meaning of freedom. Of all those things, only the last one remains relevant. Steve Rogers personified that idea as Captain America: the Sentinel of Liberty.
Steve Rogers fought the NAZIs in World War II; he fought for America. Then, he was frozen in a sheet of ice and woken up some 60 years later to a culture shock that would severely put into perspective all that he has believed about this country and about himself. Without the luxury of at least a decade’s time in which to absorb the march of progressive change, Steve Rogers had a lot of soul searching ahead of him. What would a man born some time in the 1920’s have thought about gay marriage? African-American suffrage? Abortion? The War in Iraq? The war in Vietnam? MTV? A culture of consumption and commercial excess devoid of intellect and critical thought? After all that had changed, did he believe our America was still worth donning a pair of blue tights over?
Above all else, Steve Rogers was an idealist. For years during World War II he had fought for freedom, but for whom? America? His idea of America was limited to the straight, white, Protestant faces living in Pleasantville with the white picket fence and the shiny new Ford parked right outside. Eventually, however, his motivation would transcend geography and his previously narrow-minded vision of an America that never existed; borders change – people change. But ideas remain the same. His own idealism about freedom would make him come to realize that the notion of “fighting for one’s country” is second only to the noble principles this country is supposed to stand for. His notion of America would come to be inclusive of blacks, migrant workers, homosexuals, Muslims, Atheists, hippies, and single unwed mothers and yet he didn’t even see us in terms of the divisive labels we’ve come to place upon ourselves because his idealism would also open his eyes to our common humanity. Sharing a common humanity he was stripped of all prejudice; only a fierce passion for human rights remained. All that remained was his belief that ALL people are endowed with certain inalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Life – He did his superhero thing, stomping ass all over the Red Skull’s henchmen, slapping the shit out of Baron Zemo, kicking Doctor Doom in the nuts.
Liberty – Perhaps no other chapter in his life more clearly defined what Captain America stood for than when he had to stand up to other heroes, former allies turned bitter enemies, to defend liberty. No other chapter demonstrated his principles than when the United States government forced him to stand trial for defending the very ideals America was supposed to stand for. Others may have sacrificed liberty in exchange for the illusion of security, but not Cap. I’d also like to think that he resented the way the word “freedom” was thrown around by neo-cons who only used that word in the economic sense, as if free trade was the same thing as liberty. Steve Rogers was a noble hero; he wouldn’t have bought the idea of selling out our country to corporate interests to line their pockets. He was Ralph Nader-ly that way – uncompromising in his ideals to the point of seeming archaic and irrelevant. But he never lost his conviction. His dedication to the promise of freedom cost him his very life.
The Pursuit of Happiness: In trying to come to grips with the way his country has changed and the way it is being run to the ground, he tried to find personal happiness by learning, slowly, to separate his job from his life – a task that was far easier said than done for somebody so zealous about his country.
What is a world without Captain America like? Only hard core comic book geeks will be pondering that question. Everyone else need only look around. WE don’t have a Captain America. We have prejudice, poverty, cynicism, apathy, despair, intellectual bankruptcy, ignorance, and fear. Sure it’d be nice to have a Captain America around to solve our problems but the truth is we have to be our own Cap. Can we learn to overcome prejudice and embrace new idea, new cultures, a new world – even fight for it? Can we recognize injustice and speak out against it – even if we’re the ones responsible? Can we transcend mere nationalism and embrace the greater idea of liberty for all? Captain America may have been just a fictional comic book character. He may have started out as propaganda, but by the end of his “life” he became a more complex character, making readers re-evaluate what freedom truly means. He personified the virtues of humanism (life, liberty, etc.) and the conviction to stand up for it. Aren’t those ideas just as real?