Captain America has his fair share of famous enemies. They may not be as immediately recognizable as Dr. Doom, or as cosmic as Thanos, but characters like Red Skull, Crossbones and Dr. Faustus certainly aren’t to be shrugged off.
But the strange reality is that Steve’s literal roster of rogues — from the biggest and most terrifying fascist organizations to the most street level brawlers — is far from being the greatest or most important threat he’s ever had to face.
That’s because the most terrifying enemy Captain America can possibly face is himself.
As Secret Empire rolls into its mid-point, it’s time to take a look at one of the most repeated and insidious narrative motifs in Captain America’s long publication history to find out why it happens and, more importantly, what it means.
A LIVING EMBODIMENT
To really dig deep into Cap’s contentious relationship with his own identity, we have to go all the way back to basics. Let’s talk the fundamentals of Steve’s legacy as a hero.
And to be completely honest? That’s a complicated subject. Steve is a tricky character to define, for more reasons than you might expect.
The most complicated parts of Cap’s history aren’t tied to it’s length (almost 100 years old at this point), or its web of not-quite-reboots that keep Steve hop-skip-jumping through the decades without dismantling too much of his Golden Age history — though both of those things have their role to play, to be sure.
The real reason Cap is so complicated is because, unlike his fellow Golden Age holdovers, he doesn’t represent a fixed point. He’s hard to distill down in any concise way, because he inherently lacks a permanent definition. His mission statement and core values are immutably transformative.
The easiest way to explain Steve’s “core” in so many words is to call him the “living embodiment” of the American spirit, of the flag, of patriotism. But you’d be hard pressed to find a list of words more subjective.
That subjectivity is key. It’s what separates him from his contemporaries like Superman, Batman or Namor, all of whom can be distilled down into relatively easy to parse value systems (Superman’s universal altruism, Batman’s iron clad discipline, Namor’s sovereignty, etc.) These are set coordinates of super heroic longitude and latitude — characters that, though they may be updated, retconned, rebooted, or overhauled, can still be easily defined by their rock solid and immediately understood narrative skeletons.
Steve doesn’t have that luxury. There is no real “default” state for Captain America — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Steve’s blurred edges have positioned him in such a way to be pretty consistently on the bleeding edge of topical relevancy in the Marvel Universe — a fluid being poured from mold to mold as needed. It’s kept him relevant and interesting for decades.
However, it also represents a major challenge. How do you create a lasting and memorable roster of villains for a character that is essentially a moving target? How do you define the super heroic stakes of someone who definitively the opposite of Captain America, when Captain America is so inherently transformative?
Well, it turns out you do so by taking that concept very, very literally.
The thing about having a foundation built on sand is that to the untrained eye it can seem…well, rickety. It’s a scary thing to be hard to define, even if that lack of definition can be spun into an asset. It’s still a source of anxiety.
But, luckily, if there’s one thing superheroes are predisposed to deal with, it’s sources of anxiety.
It’s just that, normally, those sources of anxiety are a little more external — and considerably easier to craft into walking talking metaphors that can be punched in the face.
Nevertheless, Captain America comics found a way to deal with this problem, and they even managed to do it in a way that was (relatively) subtle (…for something coming out of the Bronze Age, at least.)
Though he’d had his fair share of wacky one-and-done mistaken and/or stolen identity stories during the post-war years, it was the “Modern” age of Cap when things really began to solidify. Specifically, in 1972 when Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema first committed to explore the idea of what an impostor Captain America would actually mean and how it would work in an extended story arc.
In issue #153, Englehart and Buscema introduced a “fake” Captain America who was, for all intents and purposes, a villain. He looked and sounded exactly like Steve, and even had his own version of Bucky to act as his sidekick, but his brutally violent and racist ways caused a huge public crisis. The arc explored doubled as a way to retroactively explain how Captain America comics existed in the ’50s, when it had just been established in the early ’60s that the real Cap had been frozen in an iceberg since World War II.
It was eventually revealed that the fake Cap was actually a man named William Burnside who, growing up in the ’40s, was a massive fan of the real-world exploits of Captain America. Burnside dedicated his life to the study of Captain America, even going as far as to uncover Steve’s real identity and the origins of his powers. Burnside eventually changed his name to Steve Rogers, and bribed and blackmailed his way into becoming the next recipient of the super soldier serum so that he could serve as the Captain America of the ’50s through the Korean War.
Of course, if the obsessive tendencies and the name changes didn’t give him away, Burnside was completely unhinged — but the public, by and large, had no real way to differentiate between him and the real Captain America as poor Steve tried to take him down.
It was a messy situation, but one that tapped a nerve. Steve himself may be difficult to define as a character, but it was easy to create things that weren’t him. The same way it’s hard to talk in any concrete way about subjective concepts like “patriotism” and “the American Way” it’s simple to list of things that don’t fit the bill.
What’s more, Burnside’s obsessive origin stories also provided a means for creators to shine a spotlight on another major element of Steve’s character — the strange dichotomy between his position as an aspirational hero, and a completely unobtainable goal. Steve’s history as a figure meant to inspire literal, military heroism put him in a tricky position with fans. The fact that Steve’s Golden Age stories still followed him around like a shadow made him hard to write off as a hero who wasn’t meant immediately and overtly intended to be used as a role model, but the fact that he was literally a chemically enhanced superhuman made it…well. It was certainly a catch-22.
Burnside was the first crack in the ice, the first sketch of a blueprint that would come to inform our understanding of modern Cap for decades to come — and he wasn’t alone. Burnside himself became a recurring character, both as a Cap-impostor and original villain well into the modern age. He was joined by a cavalcade of literal Steve Rogers clones along with other inspired-but-unhinged young men trying to do their part, like Nuke, the super soldier answer to the Vietnam War. Even The Punisher was eventually revealed to have been inspired by the heroism of Steve Rogers but to much, much more violent degree.
As time went on, Cap’s history became littered with these types of cautionary tales — stories rooted in the idea that Steve’s identity was a sort of magic eye test for “American Values,” something indescribable but absolute that could neither be recreated or completely destroyed.
But more than that, the growing roster of characters who found themselves wanting in the shadow of Steve Rogers provided an easy vehicle for constant adaptation. By letting him be defined by the characters who mirrored him back incorrectly, creators afforded Steve the room to constantly change without having to commit to a definition himself.
The same way The Joker defines Batman by being his antithesis, by the end of the Bronze Age, creators had unlocked the secret weapon of Steve Rogers: he must, time and time again, be brought up against himself.
Of course, failed imitators weren’t the only way that secret weapon was displayed.
Almost immediately after Burnside’s introduction, the original Secret Empire story line kicked off. It featured a shadowy Illuminati-flavored organization launching a campaign to destroy Steve’s credibility. To do it, they launched an ad campaign (no, really,) featuring images meant to spin Captain America as scary, dangerous, and not to be trusted. To really seal the deal, they even “framed” him for murder. (Quotations because he did kill the guy, but it was part of a Secret Empire set up… It was the ’70s. These things just happened.)
The foundation being constructed here wasn’t all that different from the one poured in by characters like Burnside, but it did have a few major, fundamental disparities — namely, the type of anxiety being explored.
Putting Steve up against an enemy who is literally or metaphorically wearing his own face is one thing — it’s a problem that, however existential in nature, can still be punched. Cap’s many would-be pretenders to the throne could do as much damage as they could to Steve’s image, they could define Steve’s character through all their negative spaces, but at the end of the day, they could still be carted away in handcuffs.
The enemies like the original Secret Empire began building a precedent that was far more ideological in nature.
This is an important point to see clearly, thanks to Steve’s inherent marriage to loaded and deeply personal concepts like “patriotism” and “American pride” — things that carry with them a deep and all consuming fear of wrongness. And not the sort of wrongness that can be punched or locked away, the sort of wrongness that slips into people’s minds and makes them do or think things en masse, things that misrepresent the spirit of the whole.
Translated into comic book story speak, that meant the dramatic question these smear-campaign flavored plots eventually made forced Steve to answer time and time again wasn’t your standard rhetorical Golden Age fair (“What if he’s not strong enough to save the day?” “What if he can’t make it in time?” “What if the villain wins?”)
Instead, through these stories and motifs, Steve’s biggest and most pointed question became “What if he’s wrong?”
That’s a pretty weighty rhetorical to pose against someone who is, for all intents and purposes, designed to embody everything that’s right.
Naturally, it became a rhetorical that was pulled front and center again, and again. The concern that, maybe, just maybe, Captain America didn’t deserve the trust of the people he was trying to protect blended nearly seamlessly with the recurring thematic element of people trying, and failing, to become him, to the point where the two motifs became so heavily intertwined they’re almost indistinguishable.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The continued tapping of the very nature of Steve’s identity as a narrative wellspring is the way we have formed our concept of just who and what Captain America is today. It’s these unanswerable rhetorical questions, these esoteric values, and this ever shifting list of traits — and how we exploit them in the form of corrupt imitators and shaken trust that form the fundamental parts of our Steve Rogers vocabulary.
The most memorable, and most lasting Captain America stories aren’t macro-cosmic ruminations on the nature of America, the political climate, or the definition of patriotism, they’re stories about one man up against a personal, microcosmic existential crisis.
The strength of Steve Rogers as a hero, the strength of that strangely but carefully crafted vocabulary, is the ability to articulate things that are generally really challenging to articulate. But that ability comes on the tail of a persistent need to add via subtraction — the act of talking about what is by showing what isn’t.
This makes Steve unique among superheroes, and uniquely challenging for both fans and creators alike.
So what does that mean for his future?
Well, with any luck, the shifting gears of Marvel’s current Secret Empire event (named after the aforementioned ’70s story arc) can find it’s home in the cadence of Steve’s past. The recent inclusion of the other Steve Rogers — the one who hasn’t had his reality re-written by a sentient cosmic cube — makes for the potential narrative jumping on point for a good old fashioned existential jaunt.
The issue, of course, becomes the fact that Marvel has spent the greater part of Secret Empire’s promotional lifespan making a concentrated effort to sell it, and by extension, the reality-rewritten fascist Hydra Steve as absolute truths, and in the process, inadvertently answered the unanswerable rhetoricals that form Steve’s engine. And worse yet? The answer was a bad one, one that not only flash-froze the amorphous, endearing core of Steve’s character, but solidified it into the very same entities he’s spent the majority of his history trying to overcome.
There’s still time for Secret Empire to find it’s footing — but doing so will require a careful touch and a deft hand with regard to the “Second Steve.”
The legacy of Steve Rogers and his endless, ongoing war with his own identity is not a well that will dry up any time soon, but it is a well that has to be carefully maintained, lest the water start to look more like mud.
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