It’s been a decade since Marvel’s “Civil War” event culminated in the assassination of Steve Rogers, and although those 10 years have been filled with no short supply of Cap stories, “The Death of Captain America” remains one of the most immediately remembered and definitive moments in the history of the Marvel Comics character.
The “remembered” part shouldn’t be a surprise; Steve’s death was noteworthy enough to bleed over into mainstream news. But what makes this story — or, rather, the era of this story — so definitive?
Obviously, the answer isn’t as simple as the death being a “shock,” or the replacement (in this case, Bucky Barnes) being well-received. Superheroes die all the time, and are replaced perhaps even more frequently, but rarely do these instances produce stories that gain the same level of critical and fan acclaim (in fact, it’s more common for them to draw scorn). So what was different here? And, more importantly, why does understanding that difference matter so much when talking about Steve Rogers?
To examine those questions, we need to look at much more than just a single issue, or even a single story arc. We need to dig into the thematic DNA that makes Cap — or more specifically, Steve Rogers — the hero we understand him to be today.
Defining the Dream
One of the most common issues fans would come up against before the character’s rise to move stardom was the idea that Captain America is “boring” in the same way that Superman is “boring.” That cliche came on the back of some pretty obvious signals: For one, his name is Captain America, which (and I say this as a fan) used to be a bit of a hurdle when trying to sell him to a new reader. For another, his costume is basically a stylized American flag, which … if the name wasn’t a hurdle on its own, that certainly made it one.
If you judged Steve Rogers by what’s on the tin, he was pretty easy to shrug off as a holdover from a campier time — and there’s certainly text that supports that reading. Even with the thick layer of self-awareness heaped onto his origin by the 1960s “soft” reboot of his story (freezing him in ice in the ’40s and reviving him in modern times to make him a literal relic from a bygone age), the idea that Cap is a character who never quite caught up to the times is one that had staying power.
However, as is probably obvious, when you’re dealing with a guy whose most basic characteristic is embodying “spirit” of a country, some growing pains were inevitable. After all, the very definition of that “spirit” is something that’s in perpetual flux, and leaving Steve as the emissary of an era that’s almost 100 years gone is dated, to say the least.
Thankfully, by and large, Cap’s creative teams have understood this.
Over the years, Steve has ricocheted around to different, topically relevant definitions of what, exactly, the “American Dream” he was representative of was. These definitions largely came on the backs of grandiose political (or, depending on the writer, starkly anti-political) statements wherein Steve would shoulder the weight of his superheroic mantle like Atlas bearing the weight of the globe; one man literally acting as a pillar on which the Great American Experiment rested.
Add to this the fact that Steve’s identity was kept secret until 2002, which made the stark contrast between “ideal” and “human” in Captain America in those previous decades even starker. Stories about Steve Rogers the man (as opposed to Steve Rogers: Captain America) were peppered throughout Cap’s adventures as side plots, comic relief or flavorful fillers between arcs. The effect was to keep the idea of Captain America one of sweeping, idealized, too often alienating symbolism — the walking, talking “American Dream” — as something wholly separate from the vulnerable and flawed humanity of Steve Rogers.
This is important to understand when looking at “The Death of Captain America” and its prelude “The Winter Soldier,” which began just three years after Steve’s public outing. With this new status quo, writer Ed Brubaker was able to realign the very definition of what makes Captain America a hero by definitively bridging the gap between “dream” and “man.” Suddenly, Steve Rogers’ stories were Captain America’s stories, and Cap’s stories were Steve’s stories. His heroism was no longer beholden to a definition of American ideals being imposed on him by outside influences; it was defined completely by him.
Through this radical new approach, the core of Captain America, and by extension, the conceptualization of the “American Dream” in mainstream comics were both deeply personal and intensely emotionally resonant. That served to sidestep Cap’s previous issues with alienation and being immediately dated through plots that were too on-the-nose topical — making the stories told in this era more important and definitive than ever before.
Defining the Stakes
Within these new, zoomed-in parameters, stories endemic of the “Death” era, like “Out of Time” and “The Winter Soldier,” were instant classics and immediate gateways for fans who previously might have felt self-conscious or put off by Captain America’s star-spangled baggage.
Here, something strange began to happen. The more personal the stakes of Steve’s stories, the more important they became for the macrocosm of Marvel continuity. Without the burden of literally representing an ideal that was rapidly becoming too undefinable, Steve was free to become the manifestation of morality and ethical consciousness within the universe at large — perhaps in the way that his creators and cascading creative teams had always intended him to be.
Let’s focus specifically on “The Winter Soldier,” as it exemplifies that shift in paradigms in spades, and had the most significant impact on the post-“Death” landscape for Cap’s stories.
With this elevated accessibility, “The Winter Soldier” was able to reintroduce Bucky Barnes — a character killed off in a 1960s retcon and popularly pegged as one of three comic book characters never to be permitted to return from the dead (the other two being Jason Todd and Uncle Ben). However, unlike Jason Todd, who was similarly resurrected much to the chagrin of fans, Bucky’s reception was overwhelmingly positive.
The secret of Bucky’s success isn’t all that mysterious: With Steve more relatable than ever, it was easy for readers to connect the empathetic dots. Bucky was important to Steve — that was the backbone of the “Winter Soldier” story after all — therefore, Bucky was important to readers.
What’s more, Bucky’s importance to Steve was genuine. It wasn’t at the hands of a pocket universe, of cosmic manipulation or Skrull intervention; it was honest to the point of being nearly blinding. The story of “The Winter Soldier” was true for Steve Rogers, and because of that, it rang true for fans in a way that set the tone for their expectations of Captain America stories to come.
Defining the Legacy
After the titular death in “The Death of Captain America,” the endearment of Bucky to fans would turn out to be critical. After Steve’s murder, it was Bucky who was made to step in and take his place.
Now, Cap’s relationship with legacy is a complicated thing. Although he’s never “officially” been a legacy hero in the way it’s traditionally defined (a mentor passing the mantle to a sidekick or relative, and so on), over the years there has been no shortage of Captains America to fill in when Steve found himself indisposed. A common thread with these other Captains, however, was their general inability to live up to precedents Steve had set. Some would go on to forge their own unique identities, and some would happily retire from the role or be written out of the narrative. But more commonly, those who wanted to stand in the shoes of the original Captain America would find themselves worse off for the experience — maimed, psychologically shattered or manipulated into full-blown villainy.
In retrospect, the tendency for Cap stories to continually return to themes of failed imitation of an unreachable ideal is actually pretty self-aware, especially for the pre-2002 era of esoteric core values. But by the time “The Winter Soldier” had wrapped up, readers were more than ready to see those tropes turned on their ear.
Bucky, in his newly reworked history, represented everything the most monstrous pretenders to the throne exemplified, but with a twist. Bucky was the monstrous reflection, redeemed; the achingly aware replacement, thrust into the mantle of his hero, not of his own volition, but because it was the only correct choice to make. It was a rare instance of a legacy character not trying to step out of the shadow of his or her forebear, but rather, trying to figure out how to step more firmly into it. Through Bucky’s struggle to live up to Cap’s example (and subsequently absolve his own past trauma by creating a new Steve-shaped identity for himself), readers were invited to define the core of Captain America through his absence. Which is to say, they were able to see Steve through the lens of potential rather than iconographic artifice. Potential that may not be explicitly obtainable, sure — Bucky certainly never felt like he really, truly lived up to the legacy — but rewards the effort and tenacity of people who try.
This is the power of Steve Rogers, and the reason Captain America has grown into the global cultural icon he is today.
His death and the subsequent fallout was an exercise in addition by subtraction. It was a moment in time that served to cement the most elemental components of any Steve Rogers story from that point on: the humanity at its heart, and the personal convictions within that humanity — two things that, counter-intuitive as it might feel for a man whose identity was crafted from the literal distillation of vintage patriotism, count for far more than any sweeping attempt to distill down a commentary on American idealism or political topography.
“The Death of Captain America” teaches us in no uncertain terms why Steve Rogers is the timeless, powerful symbol — not of the country, but the potential of people to be better; a hero who will always work best, and have the greatest impact, when he is allowed to function as the true north of the Marvel Universe.