If you’re at all a follower of superhero stories—movies, comics, whatever—it has probably come to your attention that somehow or other Captain America has recently turned into a crypto-Nazi and that fans are understandably outraged about it. That’s absolutely true, but what’s happening in the stories in question, and the way they’re being received, is more complicated than it seems.
The premise of “Secret Empire,” the current Marvel Comics storyline whose effects will be felt in most of the company’s superhero comics this year, is that Steve Rogers, aka Captain America—the compassionate, bully-bashing, blue-eyed hero played by Chris Evans in Marvel’s recent movies—has turned out to be a murderous fascist. “Secret Empire” is the payoff to several years’ worth of buildup across a handful of comic book series, mostly written by Nick Spencer, but the gist of it is this: The past year of Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers has detailed how (thanks to a deus-ex-machina gizmo) the character’s history has been retroactively changed. In the newly altered reality, he has always been a sleeper agent of the fascist organization Hydra. At the beginning of a new miniseries actually called Secret Empire, he reveals his true goals, betrays his heroic allies, and helps Hydra launch its totalitarian conquest of America.
That’s an enormously upsetting turn of events—it’s supposed to be. It’s the cliffhanger at the beginning of a serial. But rather than drawing closer to see what happens next, the reaction of a lot of superhero fans has been to recoil in disgust. The heel-turn that’s transformed Steve Rogers into an oppressor of the weak is not just alarming but, somehow, unspeakable: a betrayal not just of readers’ expectations but of their needs. It’s been interpreted as if the story, or Spencer himself, were overtly endorsing fascism. Marvel’s boneheaded spin on it—downplaying the idea that “Secret Empire” is especially political and suggesting that comics store employees wear Hydra T-shirts—has mostly just fed the flames; early this month, it took the remarkably odd step of issuing a statement to reassure fans that everything will ultimately turn out all right.
But what, exactly, is it about Steve Rogers that makes this particular plot such an affront? (It’s hard to imagine the same torrent of fury in response to a story about, say, Green Arrow or Iron Man turning evil.) There’s an argument that depicting the character as having been involuntarily transformed into something very much like a Nazi is intrinsically beyond the pale because his creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, were Jewish. That’s not entirely convincing, especially since Kirby drew (and probably plotted) a 1965 story in which a mind-controlled Rogers is shown Sieg Heil–ing Hitler himself.
It’s probably more accurate to say that there’s a substantial number of fans who think of Rogers—the star of Captain America comics for most of their 75-year history—as a sort of secular holy figure. In a long-running era of flawed heroes and antiheroes and broken heroes, Rogers has almost always been written as a genuinely good, entirely earnest guy: the indomitable spirit of liberty, a defender of the afflicted and oppressed, more uncompromised and virtuous than any real-life political actor. He gets to give inspirational speeches about how you can “plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world—’no, you move.’” He even gets to punch Nazis in the face. (In fact, he was punching Hitler on the cover of his very first appearance, published several months before Pearl Harbor.) And now he’s suddenly become another monster who wants to see the world burn, at a moment when American politics is not short of those monsters.
As it happens, since before Captain America: Steve Rogers began its current run, Spencer has been also writing a series starring a genuinely heroic, red-blooded Captain America. It’s called Captain America: Sam Wilson. Wilson, formerly known as the Falcon (Anthony Mackie’s character in the movies), has been a part of Captain America’s cast for close to 50 years. He is as patriotic a totalitarian-smacking American as anyone could wish, and he was also Marvel’s first black American superhero.
A few years ago, Wilson inherited the name and the shield of Captain America from Rogers (who had been transformed into a frail old man; long story, but aren’t they all?). Ever since then, he’s been in the position of trying to defend a public that refuses to accept him, even while it demands that he act as a figurehead. In one sequence, a younger black superhero stops a robbery, but the police robots that arrive at the scene beat and arrest him. When community rage about the incident boils over, Wilson is in the impossible bind of being expected to say or do something that quiets the streets but doesn’t deny the protesters’ well-warranted fury.
As soon as Rogers came back, rejuvenated (and secretly an agent of Hydra)—in an issue whose cover depicted Wilson punching him in exactly the same pose that Rogers punched Hitler—Captain America: Sam Wilson started hammering home the idea that, no matter how heroically Wilson acts, the people he’s protecting won’t see him as legitimate. Neither do a lot of readers. The title of the first collected volume of CA: Sam Wilson is “Not My Captain America”—a phrase disgruntled fans have used to dismiss his series. CA: Sam Wilson—with the same writer as CA: Steve Rogers (and comparable artists), telling the same story from a different angle—has been selling roughly half as many copies each issue as Steve Rogers, damningly underscoring the point of both.
It’s a blunt and very political point, but Captain America has never not been political. Even the title “Secret Empire” comes from a 1974 sequence that ended with a thinly disguised Richard Nixon being unmasked as a supervillain and killing himself in the Oval Office. The incident that sets off Secret Empire involves an equally unsubtle metaphor: the construction of a wall around the entire Earth that’s meant to keep out dangerous aliens (the kind from outer space) but ends up locking out the world’s defenders.
If you go into Secret Empire and the two Captain America series thinking of it as Rogers’ story—in which Rogers is the “real” Captain America and Wilson is the temp who’s been holding down the job—then yes, Evil Cap is a horrifying development. But if you read Spencer’s three-pronged narrative as Sam Wilson’s story, it looks very different. It becomes the story of an impeccably qualified black hero whose time in the spotlight is abruptly cut off by the return of an old white man who once had his position and of a public so thirsty for the moral certainty of the Greatest Generation that it can’t see the nightmarish perversion of it that’s right in front of them until it’s too late.