For the past 75 years, Captain America has been completely unblemished as a character. Ironman has struggled with alcoholism, Spider-Man has sacrificed relationships and failed in his public science career, and Wolverine has confronted the emotional and psychological damage that comes with a life of violence. But trusty ol’ Cap, after a brief adjustment to the modern era in which he found himself after years of suspended animation, has had a solid reputation untarnished by moral failing or a lack of foresight.
This is one of the things that made his character so great. He has his fair share of detractors; much like Superman, far too many fans see him as a grown-up Boy Scout—a 1980s Hulk Hogan figure telling kids to say their prayers, eat their vegetables, and take their vitamins. Fans of Cap point to this optimism and simplicity as an inspiration, a reminder that simply doing good things can bring about great change for the better. For the large part, I agree: Captain America is a hero because he does what is right, and wants other people to do what is right as well.
But even so, a hero who is not flawed can only be so interesting and engaging. It’s inspiring to see a sentinel of righteousness, unwavering in their commitment to doing what’s right, but it’s even more inspiring to see a character who struggles with their failures and shortcomings and still manages to act with nobility and grace instead of giving in to their own selfish desires—because that’s our reality, and if we see other people, even fictional ones, surviving and even thriving in that condition, we know we can as well.
We don’t have that connection with Captain America, and because of that his stories have, over time, lost value. The only kind of meaningful conflict the character has had in the past several years—be it Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, or Sam Wilson carrying the shield—has been a conflict between what is ethically sound and what is legally allowed (the ultimate depiction of this being Civil War). We could argue that Cap’s refusal to budge on his values could be a flaw, but it’s never been treated as such in any of his stories. He’s never had to sit back and admit that planting himself like a tree beside the river of truth and telling the world, “No, you move” was the wrong thing to do because it never has been. Cap’s values have always been vindicated by the stories in which he’s starred.
Now, we find out that Steve Rogers is—and always has been—a mole for Hydra, the very organization he’s been fighting on both the page and the screen for the past three-quarters of a century. According to Marvel Executive Editor Tom Breevort, this has been a revelation long in the making. I’m skeptical as to how long this has been planned, especially with Cap’s morally righteous reputation being front-and-center in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but regardless it’s one of the most interesting things to happen to the character in a long, long time.
Having Captain America revealed as an agent of Hydra shows that he is fallible, something he wasn’t until now. It shows that he is capable of deception and selfishness. To maintain his cover, Captain America has had to manipulate and sacrifice both his supposed and authentic allies, calling into question just how much he values the lives of those he fights alongside (regardless of which side that may be). It’s obvious now that his true self may not be a concerned with saving lives and upholding freedom—he’s part of a sprawling terrorist organization that seeks world domination.
Marvel has made up for 75 years of unnatural wholesomeness and moral superiority in one fell swoop. Will this make Cap more relatable? Not necessarily. This is beyond a human flaw. It’s not a lapse in judgment or ethics, or a failing in what is considered socially acceptable. Cap hasn’t had an affair, or killed an enemy in cold blood, or used drugs. He’s spent a lifetime betraying the very people who trusted him with their lives and followed his leadership. That’s too big of a negative trait for most readers to sympathize with.
However, it has showed that our heroes are not saints, and there is a darkness behind us all. Yes, fiction should inspire us and give us a reprieve from the sadness that is reality. But it’s folly to believe that even a fictional character is perfect, and all of a sudden we’re confronting the reality that one we thought was untouchable by corruption has indeed been corrupt all along. It’s an uncomfortable position.
That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out. As a reader, we know Cap’s true allegiance, but the other characters won’t. Figuring out how Cap’s actions and words will feed into his true agenda will be a satisfying mental exercise, and Nick Spencer has injected the comics with the paranoia and intrigue of espionage with which the Russos hoped to have laced their first Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Furthermore, if we’re taken aback by this revelation, imagine how the rest of the Marvel heroes will react. I hope that’s a narrative direction in which Marvel is headed, because that will be a fascinating read for sure.
There will no doubt be some moral redemption for Captain America at the end of this, and the status quo will be restored so we can all go back to either loving or mocking Steve Rogers because of his wholesome, all-American persona and can-do attitude. When that happens, then Captain America will have truly earned the respect and admiration he gets, both in-universe and from fans, because he will have had to do something he’s never had to do before: actually become a hero in more than just name.