For generations, Steve Rogers, and several others, have stood as an example of an American ideal, charging into battle decked out in the red, white, and blue.
And when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America in 1941, it was to be as a symbol of America’s best qualities in the face of Hitler’s expanding Nazi empire, even before the United States became officially involved in World War II. But to have a character draped in the colors of a nation is to permanently tie that hero to the real world. In a time when the United States fought against true evil, it was easy for the morals and message of Captain America to be clear cut and inspirational. But what happens when that character is pulled into the modern era and a time of grey morality and murky politics?
Well, the answer is often to have Steve Rogers quit his role as Captain America and try to find some sort of greater purpose detached from the nation he loves. But as the decades have worn on, the reasons for and metaphors of Captain America quitting have changed to suit the times. And as a character whose reason for being makes his real world political parallels harder to deny than ever, these times of Captain America’s disillusionment have only grown more potent and more controversial.
So what does it mean when the person meant to embody the best of a nation throws away that title? What is patriotism when your country commits horrors that you, by your very essence, are now identified with? And what does it take to reaffirm your ideals when everything seems lost?
“You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.” – Malcolm X
Cap’s history of handing in his star-spangled outfit starts off on a rather silly note in 1967 with his story in Tales of Suspense #95 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Sinnott, with Steve suddenly proposing to Sharon Carter over dinner despite this being the first time she’s ever seen him without his mask and him not even knowing her, you know, name. But Sharon’s rejection of Steve due to her duty to the government makes Cap suddenly decide that he’ll quit after his next mission so he can have a more robust personal life. Cap even goes so far as to unmask and name himself in front of the two-bit thug he beats up.
It’s a strange way for Lee and Kirby to inject some personal drama into the life of Captain America and feels arbitrary for how sudden and extreme the decision is, with Cap’s retirement also letting the entire world know his true identity as Steve Rogers. But this is, after all, the Silver Age of comics. Big emotional decisions with little fallout was the name of the game. Of course, Cap wouldn’t stay retired for long. The mafia targeting Steve forces him back into action. But basically, all it takes is Nick Fury telling him that he was born to be Captain America that gets Rogers to accept the title again in three panels. It’s a cheesy, rushed story that only adds up to a single comic in length, and in context with the rest of these stories, it feels even shallower and like an outlier to the far more politically charged reasons for Cap quitting.
“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” ― James Baldwin
By 1974, Cap had been the star of his own long-running title for decades, which had morphed into “Captain America and The Falcon.” It was in the middle of Steve Englehart’s lengthy run on the title that Cap had his first true identity-shaking confrontation with the meaning of Captain America in the modern United States. The climax of an ongoing conflict with the Secret Empire, basically Neo-Nazis, sees Cap unmask their leader, only to discover it was really a high ranking U.S. government official (whose face is never shown), who then kills himself in the Oval Office rather than be taken alive. The shock sends Cap reeling, questioning his reason for being Captain America and whether there is any true American vision that he can embody as a hero in the then-modern age.
While the identity of the Secret Empire leader is never outright said, it’s clear that it’s the President of the United States, and specifically Richard Nixon. And it’s really no coincidence that this entire storyline took place during the height of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, which would eventually lead to him being impeached and resigning from the presidency.
The Watergate break-in and coverup, in conjunction with the end of the Vietnam War, was a time of major disillusionment in the American public. And Nixon’s scandal is really the flashpoint in modern politics, referenced and equated in basically every major political scandal in the decades since. Of course, given the sliding scale of Marvel Comics, a modern Captain America would have woken up from the ice long after Watergate and into a political world long ago reshaped by the event. But in having Cap live through it, we see a real time change in the character.
While that real world event doesn’t happen in Captain America’s storyline, the entire Secret Empire story is an allegory for the scandal and the disillusionment happening throughout America’s youth at the time, with Englehart then being in his early 20s and politically active. “I was writing a man who believed in America’s highest ideals at a time when America’s President was a crook,” said Engelhart. “I could not ignore that.”
The fallout of the shocking conclusion sees Rogers quit as Captain America and eventually become Nomad – a hero without a county but in possession of an extremely deep neckline. While Steve would return to being Captain America 7 issues later, this is the beginning of the hero’s contention with modern political reality and the distinction of his fight for the American Dream rather than the government.
“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” – Charles de Gaulle
Maybe the most iconic split between the captain and his country comes in Captain America #332 in 1987 – “Captain America No More!” – a centerpiece of writer Mark Gruenwald’s lengthy run on the title. Here, Rogers is called before the mysterious and shady Commission – the seeming braintrust behind the president. And it’s here where Gruenwald and Cap are forced to fully divest the super soldier from his political attachments, as The Commission tells Rogers that his powers, shield, costume, title, everything about being Captain America, means that he is legally obligated to serve the political interests of the United States instead of being a hero who chooses his own battles. Most specifically, it stands in contention with a recent story development by Gruenwald that saw Cap set up a hotline so that anyone across the nation could call him for help using a newfangled thing called the internet. Here, Gruenwald addresses a political entanglement that has long hung over the character but had rarely been addressed. If Cap was created as a super soldier to fight a war and be his country’s biggest piece of living propaganda, how can he operate separately from its political demands?
By the end of the issue, Rogers has officially turned in his costume and shield rather than compromise his ideals for a political agenda he sees as contrary to the ideals he fights to preserve.
Soon after, John Walker, aka Super Patriot, is selected by The Commission as the new Captain America, who considers several candidates, including Sam Wilson, The Falcon, with a member stating, “I doubt the country is ready for a black Captain America.” Even back in 1987, Gruenwald knew America. In fact, Walker was chosen by Gruenwald in response to fan letters that poured in saying they loved the image of Cap with a machine gun on the cover of issue 321 and wished Marvel would make the character more like The Punisher. The result is a story that predates DC’s replacement of Batman with Azrael, bringing in an extreme antihero to make readers be careful what they wished for. Rogers then disappeared from the title, with Gruenwald focusing on Walker’s training and takeover as the new Cap, which lasted until issue 350, while Rogers would eventually return as the black suited Captain. Just The Captain. As always, Steve Rogers the man is compelled to fight even when forcefully separated from Captain America the symbol.
While Gruenwald has since revealed that the motivating factor behind replacing Steve Rogers as Cap was sales, noting the then-recent events of James Rhodes becoming Iron Man and the brief takeover of Thor’s mantle by Beta Ray Bill, the juxtaposition of Rogers’ long-standing patriotic ideals and Walker’s darker nationalism provides a contrast that highlights what inherently makes Captain America a complicated political figure when a writer allows the conversation to touch all aspects of him. What America does the Captain truly represent? And who gets to decide that?
The political commentary wouldn’t end there, with one particular Gruenwald storyline seeing Rogers grapple with Ronald Reagan himself, who’s been turned into a literal snake. Just a politician looking on the outside the way he does on the inside. Eventually, Walker spirals into homicidal madness, is relieved of his role, and convinces Rogers to take up the mantle, once more free from the Commission’s influence, stating that it’s Rogers who gives Captain America its meaning and not the other way around.
Of course, Captain America is an embodiment of what a nation should strive to be. And as such, that nation will always fail to live up to his example. And for Steve Rogers, even he as a man will sometimes fail to live up to his own meaning. And therein lies the beauty of the character. At worst, Cap can be used as a tool to prop up a real world political agenda. And at best, he can highlight just how far the land of the free has fallen.
“In international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by because most nations are deceived about themselves. Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following decades would force Steve Rogers out of the Cap identity through several different methods, but none of them quite qualify as actually “quitting” the role.
Gruenwald’s massive 137-issue run on the title ended with Steve presumed dead after the Super Soldier serum breaks down in his body. However, incoming writer Mark Waid picked up the pieces and revived Cap with a super blood transfusion by the Red Skull of all people. These two sworn enemies, and the long-thought dead Sharon Carter, team up to stop the cosmic cube revival of Adolf Hitler. It’s a mind bending story that sees Cap triumphant, but in the aftermath, Steve is charged with treason against his country and the president of the United States, clearly Bill Clinton, strips Steve of the role and exiles him from the US.
The idea of Captain America being an expatriate has a lot of potential, with Steve once again putting together a makeshift replacement costume, this time with a shield made out of pure energy. However, Steve’s time out of the country wouldn’t last, and Cap salvages his reputation and returns to the costume 3 issues later to bring the series to a close in time for the Onslaught-caused temporary reboot of Heroes Reborn.
“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
The following years would bring the real world closer to the comics than ever as Cap reached his most patriotic era since WWII in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. John Ney Reiber and John Cassaday’s Marvel Knights Captain America series was quickly rewritten as a direct response to 9/11, pitting Cap against terrorists in a time that linked the character’s patriotism as close as possible to America’s real world political and military agenda. But it wouldn’t last and in its place would come Ed Brubaker’s far more politically murky series.
We then fast forward to 2007 and Captain America Vol 5 issue 25 and the death of Captain America. Unlike our previous incidents, this one has repercussions outside our hero’s comic and across the Marvel Universe. And to some degree this is a one-two punch of Steve both giving up and being forced out, with Rogers allowing himself to be arrested at the end of Civil War and then killed in the pages of his own title on the courthouse steps before his trial.
The intersection of Mark Millar’s Civil War and Ed Brubaker’s ongoing Captain America run sees two major storylines working at cross purposes with one another. Civil War puts Cap on the run from the government when he and a group of heroes refuse to register their identities with the U.S., causing them to battle against the pro-registration forces led by Iron Man. However, unlike previous ideological struggles, Steve retains his Captain America identity. But Brubaker’s run is intensely focused on Steve’s struggle to redeem long-thought-dead friend Bucky Barnes, now the assassin Winter Soldier, and the long-running schemes of The Red Skull. The result is Steve not being the focus of his own comic for multiple issues and becoming suddenly disillusioned with his mission and then surrendering at the end of Civil War (yes, it’s rushed and poorly characterized, it’s Mark Millar) forcing Brubaker to speed up his own story’s timeline. It all culminates in the murder of Captain America, making him a martyr and pushing the reformed Bucky into the role of Cap. Bucky-Cap would face his own challenges as his history of being a brainwashed assassin would cause others to question his place in the costume. While Steve would eventually return (something to do with the bullets being special time-displacing bullets), the surrender and death of Rogers is perhaps the most disillusioned that Steve has ever been, but has little to do with the meaning of Captain America. Really, what is the larger metaphor of Civil War? Is it a commentary on the George W. Bush-led America’s ever-expanding oversight on the world and its personal liberties? Or is it just an excuse to get your favorite heroes to punch each other?
When Rogers eventually returned, he let Bucky keep the mantle for some time until Marvel editorial demanded he take back the shield.
Of course it wouldn’t be the last time Steve would be forced to retire the role. Rick Remender’s Captain America run culminates in Steve having the super soldier serum sucked out of him in issue 21. Suddenly aged, Steve simply can’t fight anymore and passes on the mantle to Sam Wilson, The Falcon. This is, of course, the inspiration for the developments at the end of Avengers: Endgame and the ideas being explored in the Falcon and Winter Soldier series. The difference here being that Steve’s aging in the comics is forced upon him, a reflection of a comic book hero’s never-ending battle being disrupted, and the film’s aging being Cap’s choice, with the character choosing to end his war and retire for a happy domestic life. In doing so, movie Cap and comic Cap are rendered as two very different people by a late-stage decision. Of course, actor Chris Evans’ contract expiring and him wanting to do other things also necessitates a closure to his arc. Something a comic can never truly afford a popular character that consistently sells books. Also, the Avengers of the MCU are a far more militaristic unit than their comic book counterparts, making movie Cap’s libertarian leanings and inability to directly interact with modern political issues less potent than any comic book instance of protest.
While Remender would go on to explore Sam’s role as Captain America in a brief series, it was really writer Nick Spencer’s “Captain America: Sam Wilson,” paired together with his “Captain America: Steve Rogers” series, that examined what a black man in modern America would face as the symbol of the nation. If you have any knowledge of modern comics, then you likely know the twist here – that the newly returned Steve was a Hydra sleeper agent, secretly working for the Red Skull all these years. And then you probably know the double twist – that the cosmic cube used to repower him had rewritten his history to be that sleeper agent.
Sam’s story as Captain America is the story of a man trying to embody the best of America while being rejected by so much of his country. And as Sam struggles to do what’s right despite being hated by so many, Steve works to secretly undermine his longtime friend. It all ends in the wrongful conviction and brutal beating of fellow black superhero Rage, fully disillusioning Sam toward the America he hoped to embody in his role.
Sam soon quits the role out of protest, stating in his goodbye letter, “If Steve’s Captain America is a symbol of a great country pushing forward — then let Sam Wilson’s Captain America have been a reminder of the people it’s leaving behind. This is my protest … This is my goodbye.”
But this wouldn’t be the end of Sam’s time behind the mask, with the character picking up the shield one more time during the Secret Empire event, where Steve reveals himself as Hydra Supreme and takes over the country. To no one’s surprise, the reveal of Steve as the embodiment of everything Captain America should stand against was extremely controversial at the time. In retrospect, Sam Wilson’s time as Captain America feels more prescient and socially-engaged than ever, and easily the most outwardly political Captain America has ever been.
“In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People.” ― Eugene Victor Debs
In the aftermath of Steve’s restoration, Cap would return to his roots for a short while in Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s brief run until writer Ta-Nehesi Coates took over the title in 2018 with a story focused on division in America in the aftermath of Secret Empire that plays as a clear allegory for what a potential post-Trump America would look like.
Coates makes it clear that Hydra was evil, but that many in America benefited from their rule after feeling ignored by their country for years. The result is a post-Hydra country still split in its beliefs and a Cap distrusted by both sides. Soon, Steve is framed for the murder of General Thunderbolt Ross and sent to prison, but not before he gives up his identity and shield out of protest.
Soon, Steve breaks out of prison to clear his name but he simply can’t go back to the Captain America identity, which has been tarnished by the plot against him. Instead, Steve Rogers chooses to fight as … Steve Rogers. In the time since, Steve has once again taken up the mantle of Captain America, but Coates’ story continues to have Steve’s enemies wage war on the idea of Captain America as Steve himself wonders how he can represent a deeply divided nation.
As we come to the end of this journey through Cap’s cycle of hope and disillusionment in his country, what becomes clear is that even a character as staunchly patriotic as Steve Rogers has the potential to speak to his time. And given the never-ending cyclical nature of comics, Captain America will always live within the tension of representing the ideals of a very fallible nation.
Yes, this is a character who has stayed in print for generations because of his ability to make money for his publisher. But through art we see a representation of a country’s continual political struggles, and often a return to despair when a nation promised to be the greatest in the world fails miserably.
So why have I chosen to include all of these quotes in a video about a propaganda-inspired, jingoism-adjacent super soldier? Because the struggle of understanding patriotism, nationalism, and whether the idea of a country still has value today needs more than a fictional character often bent to the whims of a corporation. It needs the people who have lived and died, often violently, in pursuit of a better world and a better nation. Without them, our values as a nation and as people, which are so often changed to suit those in power, are meaningless notions used to prop up those who most benefit from it. Because patriotism is only so good as the amount of good a nation does in return for its people.
It can be easy to say that comic book stories about superpowered, tights-wearing men and women fighting cartoonish exaggerations of evil should stay out of politics. But what else are superhero stories but colorful extrapolations of our real world beliefs?
If a character like Captain America, designed by two Jewish men to embody the hope and power of a country that could stand in direct opposition to the Holocaust, turns a blind eye to his own country’s failings, then that character has, in essence, failed. What is patriotism without despair? What is Captain America without hope? What is a nation without a willingness to confront its darkest sides and fight to do better by its citizens?
This is the struggle of every living person working in communion with their fellow people. And is the struggle of Captain America, so long as he wears the red, white, and blue.