Is the Star Spangled Avenger too nice? Hell no. Wishing he was meaner is failure to grasp the concept.
Look. I like Batman. A lot. But Batman is, unfortunately, a lot like bad BO or patchouli that, once introduced, gets all over everything and can never quite be washed out without herculean effort, making it likely that the only solution is to throw out the offending clothes/furniture/friends entirely. Replace “horrid stench” and “jam bands” with “brooding, over-traumatic backstory” and “creepy, half-apology for authoritarian strongmen” and you get the point.
I bring this up because of an article published a couple of days ago by Vulture’s Abraham Riesman which purports to explain “Why Captain America Is Only Interesting If He’s a Prick”:
Not only does he save the world and the American dream, he does so while remaining flawlessly kind, endlessly moral, and effortlessly charming at all times. Even Superman might find all that perfection to be a bit much.
But with perfection comes blandness. It’s sort of astounding that a character as featureless as Captain America has endured, mostly unchanged, for nearly 75 years after readers first fell for his Hitler-punching adventures. And he’s not just enduring, but thriving: The Winter Soldier grossed more than $300 million worldwide in its opening weekend. But even though a successful and decent movie can be built around him (read our own David Edelstein’s positive review here), Cap remains a fundamentally dull character on screen and in the comics: He only grips us because of his place in a larger story, not because his character is inherently fascinating.
All of these complaints may call to mind the timeless question about Superman: Why should we care about a guy who’s invincible and endlessly nice? But in recent decades, comics writers have done a great job explaining that Superman is basically a god, capable of doing godlike deeds and inspiring us to be as good as we can be. Captain America isn’t a god; he’s just a soldier. In 2014, of what artistic good is a flawlessly nice soldier?
Never mind the fact that the summation above grossly misunderstands precisely what happened during Captain America:The Winter Soldier, the simple fact is that Captain America the character isn’t a prick. And what’s more, he absolutely doesn’t work when he is.
Wishing he was a prick is the fan fiction equivalent of someone coming into your house and trying to spray patchouli all over your stuff. It’s wishing that Captain America was Frank Miller’s version of Batman, or The Punisher, or even Tony Stark when he had a drinking problem. It’s like complaining that Harry Flashman never seems to repent for all his drinking, whoring and raping. It’s letting Batman get all over everything. And it has to stop.
The Cult of Assholes
It’s interesting that Superman was name-checked here, because the same complaint is often made about the Big Blue Boy Scout. These nearly perfect characters, so the argument goes, can never experience true pathos, never face real risk, and even when they do, the fact that they remain committed to a value system that eschews unnecessary bloodshed (which almost always means they are never faced with the temptation to commit truly horrible, unforgivable acts) makes them unrelatable and boring. They largely provide nothing but context, you see, existing as the original template against which all subsequent (and “cooler”/better/more realistic) superheroes are defined.
Long story short, darker, and meaner, is considered more interesting and more serious, artistically, than portraying a fundamentally decent person. Is this fair? Sure, but only if your understanding of serious art or complex characters is stuck at an 8th grade level.
I brought up Batman at the beginning of this article because it’s largely Batman’s fault we’re stuck with so many people who reflexively see optimism as some kind of con. Starting in the 1970s, as the mainstream comic book industry began to tentatively break free of the Comic Code Authority self-censorship system, Batman began to be treated as an increasingly difficult, troubled man with his rogues gallery of psychopaths now mirroring that personality. In the 1980s, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns took that change of direction to its logical extreme, turning an aging Batman into what amounts to a tired old right winger embittered about the world of sissies and cowards he lives in, and the Joker into a mincing homosexual.
TDKR came out the same year as Watchmen, a book based around exploring the authoritarian undertones of comic book tropes that, appropriately, features psychosexually twisted characters who are broken inside, ruthless, and morally compromised in the extreme. Both books were huge critical successes and that led, for the first time, to American comic books being treated like literature instead of cultural toilet paper. They also reflected a larger zeitgeist of distrust for authority, heavy ambivalence about social changes, and uncertainty about big picture issues like the economy. At the same time, the comics industry’s creatives were desperate to be able to deal with more adult subject matter. The success of Watchmen and TDKR proved the tipping point that revolutionized comics.
Unfortunately, the thing often missed in the reading of TDKR and Watchmen is that, despite widely differing moral and philosophical outlooks, both were intentional deconstructions of comic book themes, not arguments about what constitutes the correct way to approach comics as serious art. They proved comics could tell more complex stories, but did not insist there was only one way to do so. But while they did spawn a rash of groundbreaking titles that remain important to this day, they also spawned a rash of imitators who simply aped the tone of these books and thought that made for trenchant satire or complexity. Either way, comics in many ways appeared to be overcompensating for decades of censorship by being as provocative and grim as possible. For better or for worse, by the end of the 80s, “serious” comics were defined as “dark,” and “dark” was far too often defined as “mean.” And for many people, as Reisman’s article demonstrates, it’s been that way ever since.
Actually, Being A Prick Is Uninteresting
Ask yourself if any of this sounds familiar: A brooding, conflicted hero who is often mean, even to his friends; stories, themes and characterizations emitting bleak fatalism that, even when attempting to appeal to a more sunny moral disposition seems resigned to failure; and a willingness to be ruthless for The Greater Good. If the answer is yes, congratulations. You’re familiar with characters who are pricks.
Starting in the late 80s and extending throughout the 90s and into the oughts, the precise period when comics finally enjoyed approval as a relatively mainstream pastime, the influence of Miller and Moore (and their imitators) is enormous. This period is subsequently littered with morally ambiguous heroes, with (philosophical) cynicism, and above all, with characters whose motivations seem to stem in part because they’re suffering from serious personal problems. They’ll do the right thing (as they define it), whatever it takes, but they won’t cuddle and hug you while they do it. It’s tough love applied to characters and readers alike.
Hellblazer1, Sin City, Preacher, The Authority, The Sandman, or the politically and philosophically garbled mess that is Christopher Nolan’s filmic take on Batman are all examples of how mainstream these themes became. Hell, at one point The Punisher had three ongoing titles at the same time, and for fuck’s sake, even Lobo became a popular character. And they’re all just the tip of the iceberg. It was for way too long extremely common for characters in comics to be, quite frankly, complete fucking assholes.
Once you’ve seen the 10 millionth example of a hero who is constantly tempted to shed whatever restraint remains and go crazy, once you’ve seen the 10 millionth example of a world in which the only way to fight evil from a position of strength is to adopt an “it’s not torture if the good guys do it” mentality, once you’ve seen the 10 millionth example of a character who cannot maintain any close relationships because they’re congenitally incapable of trust or warmth, you start to realize you know exactly how the story is going to turn out. It is at this point almost a tautological narrative construct. Dark gonna dark amirite? Deconstruction without any intention of reaching greater understanding, just tearing things down. And it is the defining cliche of our time.
But here’s the thing: today, characters like Captain America work precisely because they defy that cliche unapologetically.
Captain America in The Winter Soldier
A good, effective demonstration of just how characters who, like Captain America, aren’t dicks really work is with “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?,” an excellent Superman story by Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo. Superman finds himself reluctantly butting heads with a new team of superheroes called “The Elite,” who become world famous for their criminal-stopping methods, which include outright murder of their enemies. The Elite see Superman as a washed up old fuddy duddy hopelessly out of date and unwilling use his powers to do what must be done in the pursuit of justice. You really should read it yourself, but the long story short is that Superman’s restraint despite his power is expertly portrayed as his choosing, willfully, to do the right thing even if it doesn’t personally benefit him because he refuses to compromise his beliefs. He’s is consistently decent and nice, and he works hard to be this way.
This is Captain America summed up, and it’s used to tremendous effect in The Winter Soldier. The assertion that he does not struggle, that he is always nice, that victory in film comes easy for him does not conform to this shared canon we call “reality”. In that film, in fact, he is almost killed twice, the second time sending him to the hospital with serious injuries, and he spends a great deal of the plot not trusting Black Widow to the point that he’s outright rude to her on two occasions. Of course, his rudeness is tempered by the idea that there’s no reason to go off half-cocked and burn down a lot of bridges if you don’t have to.
Early on, Nick Fury shows him the helicarriers2 SHIELD intends to use to police the world, and despite Fury’s admonition that the world is not as black and white as it was 70 years ago, the Cap is unwavering in his rejection of the premise that people need to be kept in line through fear. This scene mirrors some of Captain America’s best and most interesting comic stories, the ones that force him to choose between his value system and the government he serves. More than once, he’s quit in disgust rather than serve someone or something that offends him. It’s almost like the point is that doing the right thing isn’t supposed to be easy just because it’s right. And for the Captain, being decent when he doesn’t have to be is part of doing the right thing. Apparently, that’s too boring for people who would rather their heroes casually adjust their moral compass to suit their mood.
Captain America is, at his core, someone who believes, really believes, in the potential for goodness in people, in the values America purports to represent, and in basic concepts like personal freedom, equality, and fair play. He isn’t a “my country, right or wrong” kind of person, he’s a “my country can and should be better” kind of person. If there’s any period from US History he embodies, it isn’t the Nixon years, it’s the New Deal. (Literally, but also figuratively).
1. No, I’m not evaluating these comics on an artistic basis – many of them are in fact extremely excellent, and remain so today. Definitely not Lobo, or The Punisher however.
2. Obviously it’s implied heavily that Fury isn’t sure who to trust, and is showing Cap the Helicarriers to gauge his response.
Captain America Works Because He Isn’t A Dick
It’s true that Captain America seems kind of corny at face value. He is after all wearing a red, white, and blue costume and never seems to swear, treat people with disrespect, or lose his cool. In The Winter Solider, when Nick Fury tells the Captain that “SHIELD takes the world as it is,” that things are far more black and white than they were in his day, it’s easy to believe him, because we all look back on the World War II era as a much less complicated time. But it really wasn’t the case, was it? Steve Rogers grew up in an era when segregation was not only legal but required by law in a large section of the country, and yet the Nazis were our arch enemies. And this is only the most obvious of the troubling contradictions of the era.
But in The First Avenger, when he’s asked if he wants to kill nazis, he says “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they come from.” That line is an apt summation of the character’s long history, and it’s part of why he’s such a nice guy. There’s no point in being a dick to people for no reason – doing so doesn’t make you interesting, it makes you a bully, just like every single version of Captain America who is a prick. Further, much like Superman (by the way,) Cap understands something about the value of leadership – it’s better to inspire people to follow you than it is to scare them into submission. Being decent isn’t evidence of a lack of personality, it’s a burden to be shouldered with care and responsibility, and it’s something he does in fact struggle with. And it’s central to understanding him.
Maybe the problem Riesman is having with the optimistic portrayal of Captain America is that he wants him to be a satirical, if not outright cynical evisceration of US Foreign policy. At least, I have to assume that’s why he hailed the execrable Ultimates universe-version of Captain America as a shining example of how to do the character right. Notably, that version is an aggressive jingoist who gladly signs on the invasion of Iraq, later invades Iran, drops sexist epithets willy nilly and projects a xenophobic attitude that even includes taking cheap shots at France.
Personally, I think that version of the character fucking sucks. It also completely misunderstands the character. Captain America has typically been a defender of American values, not American power. Hell, he enjoys the distinction of being the very first mainstream super hero to openly defend gay rights, and that’s in addition to the fact his enemies are quite often shadowy authoritarian fanatics, white supremacists and the like. More often than not, he’s saving America from itself rather than from external threats.
The Captain is far more interesting because he strives to be open minded and free thinking despite the crazy shit he’s experienced. It takes real character to decide that having been on the right side once doesn’t make you right all the time, especially when you’re surrounded by sycophants telling you the opposite. That’s the source of far more realistic tension and character development than any amount of needless douchebagging.
More Importantly, It’s Been Done
Captain America doesn’t have to be your favorite Super Hero – he isn’t mine – in order to like what he stands for, how he’s depicted, and the struggles specific to him. Frankly, people complaining that Captain America is too nice, that he doesn’t work unless he’s an asshole, are actually unhappy because Captain America is Captain America. If you reject the idea that no character can work if they’re fundamentally decent and generally nice, that’s a conversation I’d be willing to have (even though I’d think you’re a child). If you think a particular character simply does not work on any level, so long as you can demonstrate with actual evidence and not just head canon, then that’s fair game too. But being unhappy that a character has been portrayed largely as they were imagined isn’t criticism, it’s projection of your personal fan fiction. It’s as pointless as being annoyed with JK Rowling because Ron didn’t have a butter beer-induced hook up with Draco Malfoy.
But of course, if people are unhappy with an optimistic portrayal of Captain America, they’re in luck. As it turns out, comic book history is filled to bursting with artists and writers who took the concept of America’s avatar and tweaked it. Why not see for yourself, and then ask yourself, would you rather have Steve Rogers, or Captain America: Commie Smasher?