When I was a kid, your choice of hero was a lot more limited. This was before the X-Men broke out as a perennial best-seller; before comic shops were widespread along with a “new” wave of heroes in the late 80’s and beyond. If you played “super-heroes” with your neighbourhood gang, you’d generally want to be Spider-Man or Batman. If you had less imagination, you might be Superman so you’d be able to do everything yourself or pick The Hulk because he was “the strongest”. I started out as a Batman guy. I was given a Batman “from the 30’s to the 70’s” treasury during a hospital stint when I was five and got hooked. He was all over the place – in cartoons, re-runs of the 60’s t.v. show were still prevalent, and there were toys-a-plenty as one of DC’s marketing faves.
But as I got a little older and my appetite for comics grew, I got my hands on the Avengers and everything changed. As I’ve shared in a past column, they are “my” team for many combined artistic, nostalgic and personal reasons. As with any ensemble, favourites inevitably emerge. For me, it wasn’t Thor’s godhood, Iron Man’s tech superiority or the Vision’s mysteriousness. I always gravitated to the lesser-powered members who managed to keep up with the heavy hitters and chip in at crucial times during the big battles. There was the Black Panther in his cool and simple costume, kicking ass bare-handed with his acrobatic and fighting skills. Then you had Hawkeye, before the character was matured into an old guard/leadership role, armed only with his trick arrows and a smart mouth, just as ready to question authority as flip off the bad guys. Finally, usually leading the charge and co-ordinating the offensive you had…him. Cap. The Captain. Captain America.
Always looked to as the de facto leader and figurehead of the Avengers when he’s there, even when someone else is officially in the chairperson’s seat (apologies to luminaries like Shell-head and the Wasp). No utility belt required, just an amazing proficiency with a cool-looking shield (which you had to emulate with a garbage can lid before the crummy toy version available everywhere today even existed). Yeah, he is technically powered by the super-soldier serum but dig out any old Marvel Universe guide and you’ll see it explained Steve Rogers is heightened to his full human potential. Anyway, for me as a skinny little kid, it was easier to imagine being stronger, faster and getting tired slower than finding an enchanted hammer or being given a power ring by an alien. The “America” in his name is incidental. Even if his government would like it, Cap won’t serve as a propaganda tool. He fights for everyone’s freedom and the original ideals he believes America represents, not his current administration’s agenda. Cap went against his government during the super-hero Civil War and even abandoned his identity out of shame when White House corruption was exposed in the 70’s (reflecting the real-life Nixon office), originating the identity of Nomad, the man without a country, before finally returning as Cap and handing that role off to others.
With many partners over the years, both official and unofficial, Cap never treated anyone as a subordinate, always showing respect and earning that respect back along with their undying loyalty in exchange. Two storylines which demonstrate this explicitly (by the way, featuring characters who are prominent in the new Cap film) are Cap’s search for the Falcon (through the 220’s/230’s of the first silver age series) and the Winter Soldier arc which (while also serving as major source material for the film) after many prior failed attempts, finally reunites Cap with a living Bucky Barnes, after fighting and rescuing him from the clutches of Soviet brainwashing as a programmed assassin. Not really a spoiler with the movie out, but I won’t say anything else – just read it, it’s that good.
Even though the costume (before it got modified to more of a battle suit in The Ultimates and the films) was based on the flag, I never saw Cap as a symbol of America or felt “unpatriotic” as a Canadian kid digging him as a hero. Something about this character always radiated a sense of likeability and trust. Every Marvel hero wants his respect and friendship, and those that have it are honoured by it. In a classic scene demonstrating his status, a bunch of heroes are gathered by the Beyonder to fight their enemies on a battle planet during the first Secret Wars (1984) limited series. As Cap steps up to take on a leadership role, Wolverine of the X-men (still seen as an “outsider” group, long before Wolvie became an Avenger himself) asks why everyone should follow a guy “who doesn’t even have any powers”. No less than Thor proclaims that he would “follow this man to the gates of Hades itself!” Uhh…’nuff said, discussion over. Maybe it’s some of the good old-fashioned practicality carried over as a survivor of WW II’s “greatest generation”, but Cap always seems to lead with a level head and presents the right strategy that utilizes everyone on hand. No trash-talk during, no gloating afterwards; just always calmly finding a way to win.
Batman’s role in recent years on any super-team has been customized to field tactician (and shadow operative); Cap’s been doing it from day one. When Batman and Cap fought in the Marvel vs. DC/DC vs. Marvel limited series (1996), fans voted and Batman got the win. The best the creators could come up with to deliver this verdict was a bullshit sneaky returning batarang to the head. For all the throws/combos Cap has pulled off through the years with his shield (which I’m guessing weighs at least ten batarangs), you can also add master of spatial geometry to his already long credit list of fighting skills.
Does identifying with a hero with such strong leadership qualities say something about my personality, like some kind of super-hero Rorschach test? I don’t know, but in case you’re wondering, no, I never served in the cadets or any other form of military. A two-fisted hero who’s become a legend, who talks the talk but is always ready to back it up by walking that walk. Inspiring on his own and as a leader to others. Values and a style that will always be in, never a flavour-of-the-month. Nobility that’s not overblown, even a role model if you’re looking for one. Larger than life, but still the good neighbour next door. Putting the great in Greatness. Worth cheering for as a kid or an adult. When all these qualities are consistently distilled from one person, you’ve got no choice. You might not care for the flag but you’ll still salute the man behind that shield: Steve Rogers, Captain America.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!!!