When Marvel Studios decided to introduce Captain America to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, an origin story set against the backdrop of World War II, the choice opened up new possibilities for Marvel movies while punting some of the difficulties of making a movie with Captain America down the road. Directed by Joe Johnston, who brought a similar 1940s razzle-dazzle to The Rocketeer in 1991, The First Avenger pits weakling turned scientifically modified super-soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) against the Third Reich at the height of World War II. The film portrays Captain America as readers first encountered him in the 1940s comics, in the hands of co-creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon: a man engaged in patriotic, fascist-crushing adventures. Kirby and Simon even had Cap punching out Hitler on the cover of his book’s first issue, published a year before the U.S. entered the war. Isolationists took offense, but history soon swallowed any objections. Once that happened, it was the last time everyone could agree on what Captain America represented.
Taking World War II as its setting, The First Avenger was able to tell a story uncomplicated by the complexities of post-war politics. Apart from a stretch in which Rogers becomes frustrated by the government using him as a propaganda tool instead of letting him fight, The First Avenger focuses on pitting Cap against the Nazi menace, an adventure that eventually leads to the loss of his partner Bucky (Stan Sebastian), and climaxes with Cap defeating the Red Skull, but ending encased in ice, destined to be thawed out decades later. The film ends with Rogers awakening from decades of sleep in a room designed to simulate the 1940s. Not fooled by the setup, he heads out into the streets of modern Times Square, a riot of noise and images far removed from the New York in which he was raised. The times have changed with the place, making any story starring the square-jawed, two-fisted, old-fashioned, unfailingly righteous Captain America an anachronism. Subsequent Captain America films have to wrestle with that, just as writers of Cap’s comics adventures have wrestled for years. Cap stands for American values at their best, but what do those values mean when applied to Vietnam? Or Watergate? Or 9/11? From the start, Captain America stories have, unavoidably, been political stories, and the more troubled the political climate, and the further removed from his Allies vs. Axis origins, the more complicated his presence has become.
On the comics pages, Captain America and Bucky originally survived the war. But they had less luck in the real world; their popularity faded as tastes changed. They battled communists into the early 1950s, but to a dwindling readership that largely regarded superheroes as passé, and superheroes strongly associated with World War II doubly so. Superheroes’ fortunes took an upturn at the end of the decade, however, and a full-fledged revival was underway by the early 1960s, thanks to the smash success of Marvel’s early titles. Thinking the world was ready for Captain America again, writer Stan Lee and Kirby (returning to the character he co-created) dropped him into the fourth issue of the superteam book The Avengers, cover dated March 1964. Retconning Cap’s past and conveniently forgetting about any post-War stories, Lee and Kirby have him recount Bucky’s death and the icy suspended animation that’s kept him out of action. He makes an immediate impression on both the next generation of heroes and others he encounters, including a police officer moved to tears by meeting him. “All of us,” he says, “your fans, your admirers… We thought you were dead! But you’ve come back—just when the world has need of such a man—just like fate planned it this way!” (Again, take a moment to consider the publication date.)
The Cap of those early appearances is a walking symbol of American righteousness, but he’s also a man out of time, haunted by the past and all he’s lost in his time away. That’s more or less the Captain America who shows up in Marvel’s The Avengers, the character’s second appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rogers has to share screen time with the other characters, but director Joss Whedon, working from a script co-written with Zak Penn, uses him smartly. He’s uneasy in the modern world, and unsure about how he and his fellow Avengers are being manipulated by S.H.I.E.L.D. But, in the end, he goes along with it for the sake of the greater good. Revealing the deceptive practices Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) uses to get the results he needs was as close as any Marvel film had then come to making a political statement. In The Avengers, the ends—saving the world—justify the means. But is that always true?
Which brings us to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film largely about those who justify ends with means, even when the means involve many deaths. Without giving too much of the plot away, suffice it to say that The Winter Soldier, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, blows a number of ripped-from-the-headlines fears—from intrusive surveillance to drone warfare—up to blockbuster size. The plot pits Captain America, Fury, and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) against enemies within S.H.I.E.L.D., which has been infiltrated by the forces of the nefarious secret-society HYDRA, a conspiracy the movie suggests goes to the highest reaches of the U.S. government.
The film draws heavily on elements from writer Ed Brubaker’s long, recent run on Captain America, particularly the Winter Soldier himself, a figure from Cap’s past who wears the scars of several decades of international skullduggery. But its lineage goes back further, making it part of a long tradition of Captain America stories that comment—sometimes obliquely, other times pointedly—on the politics of the times. For example, Captain America #175 (cover-dated July 1974) brought to a climax a long storyline in which Cap and companions like Fury and The Falcon (mainstream comics’ first African-American superhero, also making his big-screen debut in The Winter Soldier) do battle with an underground organization known as The Secret Empire, a battle that takes them all the way to the lawn of the White House, then beyond. In the issue’s last page, Cap heads inside the White House and unmasks the Secret Empire’s leader. His face is never shown, but it’s strongly implied that it’s the president, who then says, “I’ll cash my chips then!” before killing himself.
In the comic’s letters page, “Let’s Rap With Cap,” writer Steve Englehart didn’t try to hide his inspiration. A few issues earlier, he published a short essay referencing Watergate. One issue later, a disillusioned Rogers took off his costume and surrendered his role as Captain America. He stuck with his decision for a while, too, even assuming the man-without-a-country nom-de-superhero Nomad. (Cap similarly hung it up for a bit in a Reagan-era run, written by Mark Gruenwald, and was replaced by the no-questions-asked, authority-worshipping Super-Patriot.) Readers objected to the story’s conclusion a few issues later. “I was disappointed to see the magazine take such an obvious political role,” one wrote. “Cap’s superhero role has been perverted into a political role where Cap is merely the mouthpiece for a writer’s political views.” The response, written by either Englehart or editor Roy Thomas, doesn’t budge an inch:
[I]f, as we suspect, it’s the type of views Cap holds that bother you… why then, we’d still have to say thee nay. We may be crazy, but we don’t think Cap’s changed his basic standards at all. Rather, it’s America which has changed around him. That may land him in the anti-establishment camp, but only because the establishment has gone astray for a while—and we don’t think Cap cares what camp people put him in so long as he stays true to the precepts of freedom and justice he’s always sworn allegiance to. ’Nuff said?
The response nails much of what makes Captain America such a powerful character, whether in comics or movies: He’s a exemplar of what we want America to be, someone whose innate goodness highlights where the country falls short of its ideals. A veteran of the last war on which everyone could agree, The Winter Soldier’s Cap is forced to consider whether he believes in what he’s fighting for anymore. Here, HYDRA is a fig leaf for a real-world disillusionment with the growing security state and the reckless foreign engagement of the years since 9/11. It’s a film perfectly suited for the times, and another example of how the times when America seems confused about what it stands for tend to produce the best Captain America stories. Cap may not understand the way the world’s changed, but he never gives up on it—or on his unerring sense of how it might be better.