I’ve been reading through Marvel Comic’s Secret Empire crossover event leisurely, keeping an open mind despite the uproar throughout the comic book world when Captain America was revealed as a Hydra sleeper agent whose reality had been manipulated by Red Skull via a sentient Cosmic Cube named Kobik.
A Chitauri invasion while the Planetary Defense Shield was disabled has trapped Captain Marvel, Alpha Flight, and countless other heavy-hitter heroes beyond the shield after Steve Rogers unfurled his treachery. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange and his allies are trapped in the Darkforce dome engulfing half of Manhattan after being lured there by the Army of Evil. Tony Stark is in a coma, functioning via A.I., Hawkeye has gathered the remaining heroes-in-exile in Nevada (dubbing themselves the Underground), and Washington, D.C. now sits firmly under Hydra’s control.
Secret Empire isn’t as horrible as many critics and fans alike have painted it, and in fact has interesting subtle (and heavily denied) contemporary political commentary. In his April article for Bleeding Cool, Richard Johnston probably put it best:
“Here’s how I see it. Secret Empire appears to be, to me, about how fascism can sneak in through the back door. Legally, peacefully, unable to be stopped until it’s too late. How it can have insidious appeal that can seem totally justified by events at the time. How only equating Nazism with fascism means you can’t recognize it when it doesn’t wear a swastika. You put your trust in someone who rewards that trust, who is charismatic, who lets you know everything will be okay. And then it’s too late, the freedoms disappear and the bombs drop.”
While I wholeheartedly agree with Johnston’s assessment, there’s just one problem with Marvel’s premise: Hydra-Cap isn’t what America needs right now.
The idea for Captain America was conceived back in 1940 by Timely Comic’s writer Joe Simon and comic book artist Jack Kirby as a pro-World War II intervention conscientious political creation. Both men the sons of Jewish immigrants (Kirby’s parents Austrian), they were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the late-30s and believed that America needed to enter the war. As Simon put it, “The opponents to [United States involvement in] the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”
Captain America Comics #1 went on sale December 20th, 1940, nearly a year before President Roosevelt announced to the nation that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Imperial Japan; the cover showed Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face and sold nearly a million copies. While much of the public response was favorable, Simon and Kirby received a sizable amount of hate mail and threats, including menacing groups loitering outside their office. New York mayor Fiorella La Guardia personally contacted the pair to offer his support, and police were stationed at the Timely Comics office.
In his own way, Captain America helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of the war, and served as a symbol for the soldiers fighting in Europe. He was strong, had grit, and an unwavering moral compass in the face of absolute evil. Captain America represented America’s greatest values and our commitment to defending freedom and democracy. But therein lies the problem: Hydra-Cap is none of those things.
What’s so wrong about Secret Empire? It’s intended to hold up a mirror to America, to show us how perilously close we are to falling off the edge and losing so many of our defining values, that which men and women have shed blood and sweat defending. Americans don’t need a mirror to see the rotting core of our democratic institutions and the seemingly daily attacks on the First Amendment and free press. All one has to do is turn on the news or scroll through their Facebook feed to witness that precarious tipping point.
Obviously we must prioritize keeping Americans safe. But we mustn’t become un-American in the process.
— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) January 29, 2017
As it stands, the Marvel Cinematic Universe Captain America actor Chris Evans is doing a better job in the role both on and off screen than his comic book alter ego. Not only do we get to see Captain America’s true values shine through him, such as the confrontation with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Captain America: Winter Soldier when he rightly said, “This isn’t freedom, this is fear,” Evans himself has taken up the mantel via his very public political views. Evans doesn’t shy away from criticizing the Trump administrations hardline rhetoric when it comes to the global Muslim community, voicing support for the Standing Rock protesters and a congressional sit-in for gun control measures, and duking it out on Twitter with the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan:
“I feel rage. I feel fury. It’s unbelievable. People were just so desperate to hear someone say that someone is to blame. They were just so happy to hear that someone was angry. Hear someone say that Washington sucks. They just want something new without actually understanding […] look, I’m in a business where you’ve got to sell tickets. But, my God, I would not be able to look myself in the mirror if I felt strongly about something and didn’t speak up.”
With just a bit of touch-up, that could’ve been ripped right from the Civil War screenplay, and we are so lucky to have a man of integrity like Chris Evans carrying that shield. However, when children leave a Marvel film now and go out to buy the newest Captain America comic, they’ll find a fascist staring back at them.
Sure, by the end of Secret Empire Steve Rogers will be back to normal, but the plot, however well-intentioned, has already muddied the waters. Right now, America doesn’t need a mirror showing us what we’re dangerously close to becoming—it needs a symbol, someone to idolize and aspire toward, reminding us of who we were and whom we can become again. We need a Captain America who stands unflinching in the face of injustice and fascism, a hero proud of his immigrant roots, patriotic and unafraid to do the right thing even if it means standing alone.
That is the Captain America we need, maybe now more than ever.