This year is a true landmark for Marvel Comics’ Star-Spangled Sentinel of Liberty. It’s not just because Captain America is the star of the biggest movie of the year (to date) Captain America: Civil War, but most importantly because this is the year Marvel is celebrating his seventy-fifth anniversary.
Imagine that number, three quarters of a century old and up there with the likes of modern-day legends like Superman and Batman. Unlike those two icons, Captain America didn’t always enjoy a high level of popularity. There are many reasons which reflected the mood of the times and the character’s level of development.
Unlike Batman and Superman, Captain America was undeniably a byproduct of the World War II era. When he made his debut in Captain America Comics #1 in 1941 World War II was occurring.
The U.S. was not involved in the war but sooner or later the country would be and this left U.S. citizens with frayed nerves. It was the right time for a morale booster in the comic book pages. Comic book creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both of whom were Jewish and particularly alarmed by Adolf Hitler’s undisguised anti-Semitism, wanted to bring to life an American counterpart to the so-called German Aryan super race. Keeping that in mind they created Steve Rogers, a weakling who wanted to serve his country and was transformed into the super-soldier Captain America.
To their shock, almost immediately after his debut, Captain America became a sensation with the American public. But after the war ended, interest in the Sentinel of Liberty waned. The public was ready to move on from its war footing and Captain America was too ingrained in the World War II era to seem relevant in a post-war America. Even an attempt to modernize him in the 1950s as a “Commie Smasher” failed to reignite interest and before long his title was canceled. It seemed as if he would be relegated to the dustpan of comic book history. Or so it seemed.
Thanks to the efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, the good captain was resurrected as part of the new wave of comic book superheroes that took the nation by storm. Due to the ingenuity of Lee and Kirby, Captain America was brought back into the limelight after being found frozen in the landmark comic book The Avengers #4. This plot twist was ingenious in that it brought back the same character without having to pull an Earth-2 introduction of a new character with the same name. At the same time, the man-out-of-time twist added a lot of pathos to Captain America, who now struggled to find a place in a new world and find a sense of relevance. Of course, what helped the captain’s newfound popularity were the exciting stories that placed him in the middle of the Avengers’ battles. From these early tales it was obvious that Captain America was a born leader and the other team members gravitated towards him and treated him as such. It wasn’t long before he became the actual leader of the Avengers and led the team into higher levels of greatness.
At the same time, he was rewarded with his own comic book that featured many interesting supporting characters and villains, among them a resurrected Red Skull–his greatest enemy during World War II. But what kept the stories interesting was the character development of how he struggled to fit in and overcompensated by throwing himself into his work of saving the world.
This came to a head in the 1970s during the Watergate era when he lost faith in the U.S. government and actually gave up the Captain America identity. This theme would be revisited time and time again in several stories in the following decades that coincided when the nation was plagued with self doubt.
The Heart of America
During these events other heroes have taken up the mantle of Captain America and provided fresh new outlooks on what it is to be the iconic hero. Most readers know that currently Sam Wilson, who was Captain America’s partner the Falcon, is the new Captain America. The twist here being that Wilson is African-American, but it feels natural because who else but Steve Rogers former partner is worthy enough to wield the shield and honor of being Captain America? It is a testament that the role of Captain America is larger than any one person.
Fans of the more traditional Captain America should not fret. As these cyclical stories go, eventually the original hero will reclaim the mantle. Steve Rogers has done it in the past, most famously after he was supposedly assassinated in Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run of the title last decade. Keep that in mind with the current absurd plot twist that Steve Rogers is a Hydra sleeper agent. This is just a sales gimmick and it too shall pass.
With Sam Wilson as Captain America now, this development illustrates the universal appeal of the superhero. Despite his bright costume, Captain America isn’t some jingoistic right wing ideologue who sprouts platitudes about making America great. He is more than that, he is a symbol for what this country represents and strives for: freedom, justice, perseverance, hope, and decency. He doesn’t go around boasting about the U.S., he just fights for what is universally right. It is part of his core belief and why he resonates with people from all walks of life.
Another reason for his success is because given his situation, it would be natural if he wallowed in self pity, but he doesn’t. Of course, he does have regrets and doubts, but Captain America just plows ahead and adapts to any situation.
Reaching Legendary Status Through Film
These days, seeing how popular he is in our culture, it is hard to believe that some had doubts about his widespread appeal, especially overseas. It’s why his first film Captain America: The First Avenger was called simply The First Avenger in Russia, South Korea and Ukraine, while other countries were given the choice of dropping the name Captain America, but kept it anyway.
That film and its sequels turned him into a A list superhero that has in many ways eclipse Marvel Studios’ most popular superhero Iron Man. Much of the credit is due to the smart writing and direction that delivered exciting and thought provoking films. Of course, the casting of Chris Evans was truly inspired. Marvel Studios could have gone the easy route and hired some square-jawed hunk but went with Evans. His portrayal of Steve Rogers/Captain America feels natural and he emotes a sense of empathy and iron will that quickly won over audiences. Just like with Robert Downey, Jr. or Hugh Jackman it is difficult to imagine who can take over the iconic role.
It is clear that the superhero is more revered these days because of the films but it is more than that. Captain America has a special quality that is sometimes hard to pinpoint but he evokes an ideal of who we all should be, not just Americans but everyone. That is why we are all celebrating his 75th anniversary.