... AKA "How Marvel Comics Pulled Off The Greatest Pop Culture Magic Trick In Recent History, And More Importantly, Why They Did It"
So...Captain America's a Nazi huh?
This is a position taken up by a great many comic fans, many of whose opinions I greatly respect. I feel this is worth emphasizing up front because I'm going to get into some contentious stuff. That said, I can’t help but feel this whole Captain America situation is being somewhat misinterpreted, not just on a surface narrative level, but also on a wider socio-political level. Some of the arguments against it are a tad misguided. (Translation: "Oh God! Please don't hurt me!")
That’s the opening paragraph of a man whose every fibre is wincing in anticipation of the white hot torrent of hate he is no doubt about to unleash by saying something unpopular.
So here goes...
I think the latest Captain America/Hydra twist is a bold artistic choice, and I think its critics are missing the point entirely because they don't want to think about the ugly truths the writer is trying to address.
It’s also worth emphasizing right off the top that I don’t have any problems with a consumer deciding that a particular story isn’t for them and opting out. That's not what this is about. I washed my hands of the Walking Dead after the last season finale and the cliffhanger bait and switch ending. Y’all can go on without me. Enjoy your show. I'm not gonna stop you, but I'm jumping off the train. That's the adult, mature way to decide you have better things to do with your time than consume a particular piece of art.
I support the right of consumers to vote with their wallets. I might think they are jumping the gun a bit, but it’s their right to bail if the story isn't of interest. Much like me and the Walking Dead, there’s nothing saying they can’t jump back on if the story turns out to be better than first thought (I imagine there will be a lot of fans walking back their vitriol once the actual story is revealed).
Where I do have some issues are: A) accusations that such a narrative turn is anti-Semitic due to the creators being Jewish, B) the idea that this story has no artistic worth and is only for shock value, C) the idea that this turn fundamentally undermines Captain America's "legacy, and D) the idea that because a section of the audience finds an idea offensive, that it isn't worth exploring.
The last one is particularly glaring for me because it puts the current outrage machine in the same bucket as the Catholic protesters who threatened Kevin Smith's life for making "Dogma", and then just quietly went away when the movie came out and they realized that a movie with a rubber poop monster in it wasn't a threat to Catholicism.
I guess the lesson is, maybe wait an see if the thing is actually what it initially appears to be, before sending your death threats.
NOTE: I'll start by addressing the "Why they did it" of this situation and then I'll move on to the "How they did it" further down.
For those unaware of the controversy...(how’s the weather under that rock?) Marvel Comics recently stirred up a bit of an ol' shitstorm by ending their issue of Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 with all American good guy Steve Rogers kicking D-List hero Jack Flag out of a plane and saying the words “Hail Hydra”. It was a shocking twist, made even more so by the creators insistence that Captain America has indeed been a Hydra double agent all along.
The implication is this iconic symbol of Americana has been revealed to be a part of a group so evil, the Nazi’s wanted nothing to do with them/didn’t know they existed depending on which version of Hydra we’re talking about. To see Captain America essentially giving a comic book equivalent of a "Seig Heil" is pretty shocking and outrageous, which is kind of the point. It becomes less so when you consider that Jack Kirby himself did a story where a brainwashed Captain America was shown actually giving a Nazi salute and pledging his allegiance to Hitler.
Hence, why I'm a little dismissive of the anti-Semitism argument. Captain America's own creators did worse things with Cap during the war they were fighting.
The internet reaction to this twist has been a fascinating and nuanced discussion of what the symbolism means and where the creators may be going with - nah just kidding! People lost their fucking minds and immediately started threatening death and calling anybody who defended it an Antisemite. They also wished that James Gunn’s pets would be fed into a wood chipper, which is the type of oddly specific threat that tends to come from someone who probably just really wants to do that thing and sees an opportunity to say it out loud. The attitude from this corner of the internet has very much been “I don’t like the premise of this story, therefore - kill it with fire”.
NOTE: Don’t even get me started on the baffling concept of people destroying stuff they bought in protest. Not only are they burning books, which is the most un-Captain America thing possible, but they're also saying "I'm burning a thing I paid money for, this will show them!" Yeah, it'll show them that you can't be trusted with your allowance, now go clean your room mister! And no hot pockets until you take out the trash.
On that note, have you heard about this “1984” book about how this guy works happily for a totalitarian, surveillance state and how great it is to not have freedom? I didn’t read beyond the first chapter, or consider any of the symbolism, or deeper themes but I'm gonna dig up this George Orwell guy and threaten his corpse for making me think about things! (Death threats have become so common place on the internet, I think next year they'll qualify as a distinct language in the census.) Of course I’m being facetious with this example, but is it any more reasonable to want to snuff out a Captain America story because you didn’t like the hook in the first chapter?
The general rule of storytelling is that the hook of every story is based on a “What If” question. “What If someone made a theme park with cloned dinosaurs?” “What if we’re living in a computer simulation?” “What If Shaquille O’Neal was a genie?”
You know…the classics.
It’s with some trepidation that I admit that the hook of “What If Captain America was Hydra all along?” is an intriguing idea. As with all ideas, it all depends on what you do with it.
Captain America is not just a product of another time, in terms of character, he was literally a product of another time. Captain America was created 75 years ago by Kirby and Simon as a means of a) subverting the Nazi Party’s Aryan superman archetype and b) to punch Adolph Hitler in his stupid face.
Believe it or not, this was a bold (and unpopular) move at the time from the duo. America at large was pretty burned out on war and was reluctant to join in until Pearl Harbor drew them into the conflict. Captain America provided a patriotic symbol to rally around and was a part of a greater movement of artists using their medium to convince the average American that this was a battle worth fighting.
That leads me to why this new twist on Captain America is the one we need now. It's a different world and different set of circumstances then it was in 1941. Nick Spencer could have taken the easy road. He could have had Captain America punch out Donald Trump, give a nice speech and called it a day. If he wanted to accomplish nothing and feel good about the way things are, that would have been a great way to do it. That have been completely useless, except making hateful zealots dig in their heels further. Ask yourself this: How many people change their minds based on being told they're wrong vs. being forced to question their beliefs? If you want the answer to that question, look at what happens every time Donald Trump is caught in a lie. His supporters only get whipped into a bigger frenzy because it feeds the "everybody's out to get me" mindset even more.
What if, instead confronting them, you could make them confront themselves? What if you could get them to question their beliefs by having a figure they respect take that same journey? What if you can show an American icon, (temporarily) indoctrinated into a system of hate, who realizes this and rebukes that indoctrination? What if you could explore the complicated roots of extremism and hate? What if you could illustrate the process of radicalization? What if you could communicate that there's a way out of that indoctrination?
Simply put, that is the kind of storytelling that causes real change. Nothing is gained by preaching to the choir. As an example, one of my favourite TV shows of all time was the early 2000's sitcom "Titus". The show did an episode called "Tommy's Not Gay" where they talked frankly about the evils of homophobia. In the DVD commentary, Christopher Titus explained his reasoning for doing the episode was that the audience for his show (which he referred to as a "Nascar audience" due to the heavy presence of hot rods and car culture in the show) was likely to include gay bashers just by attrition. He saw an opportunity to change some minds, because he had the audience that needed to change and he had the means to reach them. In his reasoning, nobody was going to change their mind regarding LGBT attitudes by watching "Will & Grace" because the homophobes weren't watching anyway.
In order to understand why Cap is the perfect hero to take this journey to the dark side, we must first acknowledge the propaganda roots of the character and how that syncs up with the "Make America Great Again" crowd. Up until the war was over (and he got his silver age continuity reboot), he was a tool of pro-war propaganda - Uncle Sam in spandex, wrapped in Old Glory. He had two jobs, to punch Nazis and chew bubble gum (and he was all out of gum). I know it sucks to admit while Chris Evans is charming it up on the big screen but Cap was a one dimensional, jingoistic, mascot. He wrapped himself in a flag and called himself Captain America for god's sake, because "Captain Hitler Punch" was too subtle. Plainly put, this appeals to the kind of empty patriotism crowd that sees a complex issue like immigration reform and thinks "build a wall" is a valid solution.
The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) in "Blazing Saddles" said it best...
You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons.
What makes Cap the perfect character to explore America's dark side is he's the empty vessel that a creator can speak through, whose status carries weight. Every action Captain America takes has a wealth of meaning, subtext and symbolism behind it. Nick Spencer is obviously alarmed by America's white supremacy movement that has felt emboldened and galvanized by Donald Trump, and is using Captain America as a warning to try and halt the spread before it's too late.
He can do this, because Captain America doesn't exist. I don't mean that in a condescending "He's a fictional character" way. I mean there is no definitive depiction of him. Every writer and artist has created a version of him that is a completely unique flavour, just in a familiar wrapper. Just as Joe Johnson and Chris Evans took an antiquated symbol of propaganda and turned him into a box office draw. (The movies will be Hydra-less by the way, as they are too mainstream and expensive to take this kind of risk).
I feel like Nick Spencer has some interesting (if uncomfortable) things to say about the state of America and the slow slide into toxic populism we are currently witnessing. Shouldn't we wait to see where he's going before deciding if those ideas are offensive?
That's why I get a little bit annoyed when people trot out the Antisemitism accusations, or accusations of disrespecting the legacy of someone who exists only as an idea. What about real hate movements operating in the world today? What about the legacy of the real heroes who fought a genocidal madman, only to see America fall under the sway of a madman cribbing from the same playbook. The ugly truth is, America, if weaponized as a tool of hate, has a greater capacity for destruction and mass scale cruelty than any historical villain. That includes the Nazis that Cap was created as a response to. I understand that's a scary thought, that hits on a raw nerve for everyone who has studied the horrors of the Halocaust. It is serious self examination that is going to prevent history from repeating itself. Focusing on the symbolism of 75 years ago, while ignoring the very real threat of fascist white supremacy currently on America's doorstep is a case of shooting the messenger.
Sure, you can beat up on Nick Spencer for pointing out that America has some real, unresolved problems, or you can work on addressing those problems. One thing that is for damn sure, the undercurrent of American grown hate movements will not go away if you simply shout down anyone who tries to bring it up.
After all, isn't it preferable to have Captain America take this journey so that actual America won't?
I hate to pull back the curtain to spoil a story still in progress, but the big magic trick Marvel is pulling off (and has been setting up for a while now) is in service of trying to stem the tide of homegrown fascism before it’s too late. And they're doing it by showing us a dark reflection where America is the villain. Will it be successful? Who cares! It’s worth trying, because the alternative is sitting around ten to twenty years from now and saying "How did we let this happen?"
If you think, it cannot happen to America, that's a big part of the problem.
Let's all think for a moment about the message it sends that Marvel Comics chose to do this story inside of the main continuity. Do you really think a multi-billion dollar corporation like Disney/Marvel would allow a writer to turn a symbol of Americana into a pseudo-Nazi if they weren't going somewhere important with it? They could have easily siloed the story away safely out of continuity as an alternate reality thought experiment, like DC did with their "What if Superman worked for the Soviets?" storyline "Red Son". The fact that they didn't do that, speaks volumes about how important they feel this story is and how much faith they have in it. Would Marvel Comics really risk pissing so many people off, by having Captain America be Hydra forever if they didn't have a legit point to make? By saying that this is Captain America, in continuity, Marvel is forcing it's fans to confront this issue head on. No sweeping it under the rug, no sticking your head in the sand. It may be hard to watch, but Captain America will fall on the sword because heroes lead by example.
Also consider that the timing of this story, leading into the November election (and the 75th Anniversary of Captain America) is not a coincidence. This is using the medium of comic books to talk about some real important stuff. To raise some real, long term questions about not only what the 75 year legacy of Captain America really is, but what the next 75 years of America will be. Will America lead the world into a better future or a broken one?
The seeds Donald Trump has planted will not go away just because he loses this election. Trump is merely the fore shock, a warning that the big quake is on its way. What happens when someone comes along that isn’t a con artist or buffoon? Someone who isn’t an incompetent campaigner? Someone who is electable and intends on doing the things Donald Trump only claims to want to do (because it makes morons cheer louder for him)? What happens when the American people let their guards down when Trump is defeated? That’s why the old “punching Hitler in the face” method wouldn’t work. You can't punch a villain who hasn't revealed himself. Donald Trump isn’t likely to be America's Hitler, but America's Hitler is out there, somewhere, taking notes (that's assuming American Hitler has even been born yet and isn't still several decades down the road). The rise of white nationalism that Donald Trump has stirred in America won't go away when he does, unless America works to face its problems head on.
Cap was created in a different world for a different generation. Hitler was a monster on a level we hadn't seen before, except in the detached pages of history books. A disturbing number of so called “patriotic” Americans seem pretty ok with ignoring the lessons learned in WWII when it comes to treating entire groups of people as lesser than for their race, gender, religion, sexuality. How do Americans square themselves with that hypocrisy? How did "freedom loving" Americans go overseas to fight Hitler, only to come home to a country that still segregated it's population by race and locked up millions of Japanese Americans out of fear and paranoia? How do freedom loving Americans justify profiling Americans based on their race or religion and locking them away without trial? Call me cynical if you like, but addressing those hypocrisies seems kind of important.
Yes, even more important than Chris Evans biceps.
Is America really a beacon of freedom, or is that just a PR catchphrase? Does it really stand against oppression and injustice of all types, or only when the oppressed group fits into an acceptable mold that the so called "average American" (translation: middle class, straight, white, male) can muster sympathy for? You'll find no shortage of "patriots" keen to trot out WWII as an example of America's moral superiority, while turning a blind eye (or outright supporting) America's history of slavery, segregation, homegrown Antisemitism, treatment of Native populations, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-LGBT or anti-Muslim sentiment. How does the old saying go? We're all the hero of our own story.
The world is much more complex now than it was when the hero could just punch a bad guy in the face and take a victory lap. In the 75 years since Captain America was created, America has grappled with segregation, Nuclear arms proliferation, Japanese Internment, McCarthyism, Watergate, Vietnam, 9/11 not to mention the ongoing legacy of Eisenhower's warnings about the "military industrial complex" that went completely ignored.
As always, Captain America will lead by example, based on what is needed at the time, because he can survive it. That is his legacy. To be the means through which serious conversations can be had (like this one!).
That means, a heel turn is necessary. Like Hulk Hogan going to the dark side (maybe a poor example considering current events?), Captain America needs to show us his darker reflection before we can truly appreciate what he stands for. Otherwise, we just take his virtues for granted.
The Captain America created by Simon and Kirby was the one needed at the time. As a symbol, he led by example by smacking America across the teeth and saying, “Get off your ass and do something about Hitler!”
This Captain America is the one America needs right now. He’s the Ghost of Christmas Future, showing Ebenezer Scrooge his own headstone with the message of “Hey asshole! Get your house in order, or this is your future.” The question that remains to be answered is: is this a vision of things that will be, or things that may be?
America still has a chance to turn things around where Germany (the Jacob Marley of this Christmas Carol analogy) exists in hindsight to serve as a warning of what America might become if they wait until it’s too late to address their problems. It's still Christmas Day, we haven't missed it after all!
Captain America is a superweapon, much like America itself. Overpowered in comparison to all around it, but always keeping in mind that power without responsibility is tyranny. America is not immune to fascism. It has no inherent inoculation of righteousness that protects it from being corrupted and used for evil. A distressing notion (for the rest of us especially) considering if America turned heel there would be no military might on the planet that could match up to them. They would be a force the Nazi war machine could only dream of being...
...but it's not too late.
There is still hope and that’s what will come out of this story Marvel Comics is currently telling. Whether an alternate version of Cap confronts Hydra Cap (stay tuned for that explanation), or Hydra Cap rejects his indoctrination, hope will win out in the end because the alternative is everything falls apart. We may have to walk through Mordor, but we'll eventually make it back to the Shire, which will seem all the greener once we've seen the alternative.
Nick Spencer is going to take us on that journey.
How do I know that you may ask? How do I put so much faith in this story unfolding in this way? How do I know they aren't just using this as a cheap sales bump (they are trying to sell a product after all)?
It’s because Marvel Comics are in the middle of pulling off the narrative equivalent of a magic trick, and they’ve been leaving us clues in plain sight all along. That brings me to the "how" of it all.
It’s time for a segment I like to call…
"This Is The Part Where I Explain How The Magic Trick Is Done...Ruining It For Everybody Like An Asshole"
Anybody who has seen Christopher Nolan’s film “The Prestige” will recall the three acts of a magic trick outlined by Michael Caine's character as one of the core aspects of the film. I’ve included the full quote as follows...
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"."
In order to pull off a big narrative "trick" (ie - a twist), a writer must follow the same structure in order to have the desired effect of creating that shock.
The Pledge is showing us Steve Rogers as Captain America. Everything looks normal. Everything seems normal. No extra Steve Rogers' tucked away up Nick Spencer's sleeve.
The Turn is Steve Rogers revealing that he has been Hydra all along. They’ve managed to make good guy Captain America disappear and swapped out Hydra Cap in his place. The audience gasps in shock.
The Prestige is bringing back the real Captain America and delivering a satisfying payoff to the audience can applaud and the trick concludes. That's the hardest part, and where the real meat of the story will be included. After all, the audience is primed with anticipation, meaning they're in a captive state and paying close attention now. Nick Spencer has our attention, and now has a chance to really do something with it. The fact that this conversation is even happening is an indication that the Turn was successful. People are wondering how he did it, and where the trick is.
The trouble with pulling off this type of magic trick in a storytelling sense, is if you don’t set up the trick, you get accused of cheating the audience. To put it in magic trick terms, you need to set up a mechanism to execute the trick. The magician has to build the trapdoor in order to disappear and then reappear later, otherwise the trick doesn’t work.
Ladies and gentlemen…I present the trapdoor.
That’s from the pages of Sam Wilson’s Captain America comic. There are two Captain America’s currently in the Marvel world Steve Rogers - the original and Sam Wilson formerly known as Falcon who took up the mantle when Steve was forced to retire. As Hobie Doyle would say…"it’s complicated"(would that it were so simple?). It’s a news broadcast talking about declassified S.H.I.E.L.D. documents which have revealed the existence of a top secret project called “Kobik” which is basically a sentient cosmic cube in the form of a little girl (think the Tesseract from the Marvel movies).
This particular cosmic cube has the power to “make changes in the very fabric of reality without public knowledge”. You don't say! That's nuts! Kind of like a longtime hero suddenly revealing himself to be an agent of the bad guys.
An “ethicist” (is that even a real job title bro?) goes on to say:
This means they could change anything about me, about you, about anyone or any group of us—enemies of the state, dissident groups, critics…
If this plan came to fruition, they could simply wipe any of these out of existence…
…and they would do so with no oversight or accountability. It’s terrifying!
There’s your trap door. The real Captain America is hiding under the stage somewhere, waiting for his cue. The rapdoor was there hiding in plain sight, we just didn’t know where to look. Somebody with a sinister agenda has messed with the fabric of reality and spliced out the old Cap with the new Hydra version who, yes, was technically “Hydra all along” but also is a completely different person meaning the Old Cap still exists on some level.
It's a bit of wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff, but it makes narrative sense because it isn't cheating.
The point is, the creators aren't lying when they say that Captain America has been Hydra all along because the current version of him has been. Captain America has always been Hydra because that's the current reality in the story Marvel is telling.
Think of it like this. You have a word document on your hard drive full of lovely poetry. Now imagine some nefarious person has come along, copied and pasted a similarly named document of filthy limericks (many containing the word "Nantucket") in the same folder, overwriting the original in the process. Is it the same file? Now imagine that instead of copying and pasting the new document over the old one, someone went in and changed the text of the original file. Is it still the same document it was before? After all, the day it was created is still the same, and it has the same name. That's basically the gist of what's going on in Cap's world these days. Someone swapped out the files without anyone noticing. Luckily, comics have ways of easily restoring the file to it's previous "Nantucket" free, version.
It's meta as hell because we, the audience, have been included among the "public" who had no knowledge of the shift in reality until it happened (just like the people in Cap's story). In order to tell this story, we have to temporarily adjust our perspective to one that says Captain America was dirty Hydra scum all along. It isn't a cheat because they already built in the trapdoor for the trick. It was there all along, we just didn't see it until it was time to make Cap disappear. Keyzer Soze was sitting on the couch, in front of us the whole time, we just weren't paying attention.
This isn't anything new. Game of Thrones fans will likely recognize the concept of creator double speak. Captain America has been Hydra all along in much the same winking way that Jon Snow was totally dead on Game of Thrones (for about one episode). The creators said something that was technically true at the time, but leaving themselves enough wiggle room so that when they revealed the Prestige part of the trick of bringing him back, it wasn't a cheat.
Is it duplicitous? Absolutely! Will we hold it against them when the story turns out fine? Probably not.
In closing, for those still unconvinced, keep in mind, this is still the middle stage of the trick. We still need the old Captain America to come back in spectacular fashion for the audience to applaud (probably by defeating his darker self or some other means of restoring the status quo). And now that they’ve built the trap door, once this Dark Captain America story has run it's course, the OG (Original Grandpa) Cap has a way back into the toy box, so the next artist can have a turn. We'll have some challenging story material that asks some tough-but-necessary questions, along the way, and that's ultimately what separates art from disposable entertainment. We'll journey through the darkness, to get to the light.
If the story plays out like I suspect it will, at the end we may even find some hardliners will have decided to reject their own indoctrination and go another way on the whole "embracing the rise of American fascism" thing?
Then Nick Spencer takes a bow, and the stage is reset for the next performance.
Hi, my name is Mitch and I write things sometimes.