This week, Marvel shocked comic readers in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 with the revelation that Captain America is a member of Hydra, the evil organization that was part of the Nazi regime during World War II. If that wasn’t shocking enough, the comic also revealed that Cap has always been part of Hydra and was playing perhaps the longest game in the history of long games. As it turns out, Steve Rogers (Captain America’s real name) was recruited when he was young, so everything we’ve known about Captain America for the last 75 years is, essentially, premised on a lie.
Naturally, there’s been a huge reaction towards this online. In writing this piece, I’m joining a growing list of people who are authoring think-pieces about the reveal. Marvel undoubtedly wants that. Even if the totality of the reaction ends up being negative, that reaction will generate comic sales. That’s why publishers try to create stories like this that make a big splash; even those who hate it are likely to buy it, or at least influence others to buy the comics to see what all the fuss is about.
Comic book fans are used to this sort of sales gimmick. At one point, Captain America was assassinated—until he came back, of course. Superman, Batman, Wolverine, and more are all characters who have been killed off only for people to respond by saying, “Yeah, they’ll be back.” Because, at the end of the day, iconic characters can’t die or stay evil forever. Short-term storyline changes like that can sell comics, but can often be harmful for long-term sales. Is the DC Comics universe as interesting without Superman? Is the Marvel universe going to be as interesting with an evil Captain America, once the initial fuss over this revelation wears off? Arguably, no.
Plus, this will probably turn out to not be everything it seems. In the Star Wars comic series that launched last year, the end of the first arc revealed that Han Solo was married and had what seemed to be an estranged wife, Sana Starros, who was out to get him. But not all was as it seemed—she was actually mad that he conned her out of money, as part of a con job where their marriage was a ruse. So it’s entirely possible that Captain America hasn’t actually been a Hydra agent all along, and that this is some sort of fake-out.
That’s why many of the think-pieces about Steve Rogers #1 are telling people, “Don’t worry, it will be fine, this won’t last for very long.” Other pieces that have been critical of this change are also met with comics fans saying “this always happens, you don’t understand how comics works.” The problem is, that’s not a defense. It’s one thing to kill a character and bring them back a few months later. It’s another thing entirely to make a beloved comic book icon a Nazi, and to say that he had been a Nazi all along.
Hydra, as an evil organization in a comic book, is inherently goofy. Nazism is not. There’s a lot of nuance involved in what led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, of course, and why many good people ended up supporting the Nazi regime, but there is no nuance in what the Nazis actually represented. If there’s a textbook definition for evil, then surely Nazis are part of that definition. They are not a gimmick. They are a real and oppressive evil that caused real suffering in the world. Marvel has taken a symbol that represented the fight against the Nazis and, as a gimmick to sell comics, turned him into the very thing that he fought against. The very thing his existence as a character has been fundamentally opposed to for 75 years. In doing so, they are using as a gimmick the ideology that murdered 11 million people and caused a war that resulted in the deaths of over 60 million people. That is disrespectful, that is insensitive to those who suffered, and that is wrong.
Even without the “this is how comics work” argument, it may seem natural that someone people wouldn’t bat an eye at this. “Who cares?” they might ask. “Get over yourselves,” others might say. It’s just a comic after all, right? Seems logical, but we know how media can influence people, even subconsciously. Comics are held in such a high regard precisely because of their ability to influence and inspire people. People love superheroes because of what they represent. I don’t mind subversion here and there, but is making Captain America a Nazi the right subversion? Is this gimmick actually worth it?
While we can’t answer that with any 100% certainty until this storyline concludes, I’d argue it’s not worth it at all, not with the influential power of comics in society. Throughout the world, as economic conditions worsen and many white Europeans and even Americans feel (rightly or wrongly) like a more diversified world is changing without them, we are seeing a frightening rise in support for far right parties and candidates. Whether it’s Donald Trump in the United States or actual, outright fascist parties in Europe, authoritarianism is on the rise. Now is the time to tell stories about how those ideologies are wrong. Is making Captain America a Nazi the right way to tell that story, or does using it as a gimmick undercut the message? Arguably the latter. Captain America is best utilized as a symbol against authoritarianism. The waters get muddied when he’s suddenly on the side of the fascists.
I may very well slightly revise that stance once we see the outcome. If Cap infiltrated Hydra and is trying to take it out from the inside, that could be an interesting story. That allows for a lot of layered storytelling in which Cap has to struggle with the methods he’s employing to defeat his enemies. How far is he willing to go to stop Hydra? Perhaps there was some sort of time travel involved to change the past. How will the characters deal with what happened to change those past events? Those are interesting questions a comic can explore, but that storyline will always be tainted by how Nazism was used as a gimmick to sell comics. In that, this storyline has fundamentally failed.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, Marvel has made a decision insensitive towards the real history that Hydra represents. They are wrong to tell the story like this.