Last week, I rambled on about the lack of superheroes in both Futures End and the two Avengers titles written by Jonathan Hickman (or about what constitutes a ‘superhero’ at this point) and, as much as I’d like to find some other topic to ramble on about this week, a couple of big ol’ softballs were lobbed up in the form of shirtless, bearded Superman and obsessive, cranky old-man Captain America. The two most ‘superheroic’ characters in DC and Marvel depicted as men that barely resemble their so-called superheroic selves. If these two aren’t superheroes anymore, what hope is there for anyone?
When Billy Batson wore the S and a mask to pose as Superman, the biggest giveaway that it wasn’t the original (after the different costume) was the voice. It didn’t sound like Superman. The Superman we get in Futures End #25 doesn’t talk much, but, when he does, it’s near monosyllabic and doesn’t particularly sound like the Superman we’re familiar with either. The war supposedly changed him, caused him to give up his superhero identity, move to Africa, and spend his time trying to turn desert into farmland. Here, Kal-El fights the robot Brainiac left on Earth to kill him. It’s quick and brutal and he goes straight for the kill. He just wants it done, so he can get back to farming, and even comes close to swearing with his “Who give a—“ that’s cut off by John Constantine. He’s mostly upset by the idea that he will have to be a superhero again. He doesn’t seem to like committing violent acts anymore and wants nothing to do with them.
We knew this before, but his attitude here is more forceful. It’s one thing when John Constantine shows up and says “Bad stuff’s going down, you need to do something” and Kal-El blows him off with some curt remarks. In this issue, he’s even more direct and rude about wanting nothing to do with this despite having just fought tangible evidence of the danger that Constantine warns of. A global threat from something bigger and older than God... and Kal-El barely bats an eye. By the end of the conversation, he looks to be on board, at least for the time being (and that six-page teaser that ran a few week ago showed both Superman and Shazam in the same drawing), but it’s a little shocking to see the man that was Superman so adamant in not being a superhero anymore. The hero that gives it up is a cliché and one that Superman has experienced a time or two, but rarely in such bold terms. The world will be under attack by something that only fears Superman and Superman says... no? What does it mean when the superhero is no longer a superhero and doesn’t want to be one anymore?
In Avengers #37, Steve Rogers is no longer a superhero and not by choice. He’s technically not Captain America anymore. The super-soldier serum has been sucked out of him and he’s running SHIELD. He’s only referred to as ‘Steve’ throughout the issue. No ‘Director Rogers’ or affectionate ‘Cap’ or anything like that. All sense of his former superhero life is gone. Except, he still wears a costume (the same one he wore when Bucky was Captain America after his return from the dead). He may not be Captain America or possess any superhuman abilities, but he still clearly views himself as a superhero. He is a moral guardian of the world, chasing after the breakers of law and morality. He’s a bitter old man who looks increasingly out of touch as the issue progresses.
His main obsession is hunting down the members of the Illuminati, whose only crimes were protecting the world in secret using the very same methods that the world now supports the Cabal to undertake. It seems less like global hypocrisy and more that no one cares about the Illuminati, so Rogers and SHIELD are free to hunt them, while the Cabal are publicly known and off-limits. It’s an interesting quandary: he’s been put in charge of this massive organisation sanctioned by the US government, is mostly obsessed with taking down folks who save the world by blowing up parallel worlds, and is handcuffed by that same government as it also sanctions the group currently saving the world. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a tale of scrappy superhero renegades fighting the good fight against impossible odds; it feels like people that would kill everyone mired in the muck of not being able to face up to that reality. When Rogers watches Terrax’s speech and says “Your day’s comin’ too, pal,” it’s not inspirational; it seems petty.
This comes after we see Rogers smash the holomessage left by the Illuminati and balk at the idea that Sunspot bought out AIM to curb their criminal ways. He’s more Captain Ahab than Captain America. It’s not even that global morality wins or anything like that; it’s that it doesn’t seem like it’s about the morality anymore. It’s about Steve Rogers is always right. For the past decade or so, that’s been the only unbreakable rule in the Marvel Universe: whatever side of a fight Steve Rogers is on, that’s the right one. And, here, he’s faced with a fight where everyone is telling him, no, he’s wrong, he’ll doom the whole world, shut up. He’s not Captain America anymore; he’s an old man that looks like he’s coasting on who he once was, surrounded by friends and followers too loyal to question him. When Maria Hell refers to Reed Richards as Mr. Fantastic, he cuts her off and tells her not to do that: “Don’t refer to those people by those names. That’s not who they are anymore. They don’t get to have that.” Is that because of their actions, is it because the world decided that they were right, or is it all of that and that he doesn’t get to have that anymore? What does it mean when the superhero is no longer a superhero and desperately wants to be one again?