Warning: this article contains spoilers for the Captain America comic book universe.
Marvel has made millions off of its superheroes. Its 13 movies released since 2008 amount to almost $4 billion in box office sales. Its three Captain America movies alone (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, and Captain America: Civil War in 2016) have made $789 million at the box office. And these whopping sums exclude the sales of comics, DVDs, action figures, etc. Yet, the franchise doesn’t seem to respect its characters or their original creators. This became clear in Marvel Comic’s Captain America: Steve Rogers, with the debut issue released May 25th.
In the comic, Captain America is revealed to have been a Hydra agent all along. Hydra – the evil, Nazi organisation he & his fellow Avengers have been fighting since World War II. This comes as a shock to fans of the comic and movie franchise; Cap is one of Marvel’s most beloved characters, currently celebrating his 75th anniversary. Captain America: Civil War, now playing in theatres worldwide, has made $353 million so far and received rave reviews. Cap is a symbol for all the Avengers stand for, for all superheroes as a whole, and for the Marvel brand itself. And suddenly he’s supposedly an evil agent. Fans worldwide are enraged at this development, as evidenced by the #SayNoToHYDRACap trending topic. This rage is very much rooted in real-world issues.
Marvel’s plot twist would be disappointing – not to mention inconsistent – in and of itself, but the story of Captain America’s creation makes it downright offensive. The character of Steve Rogers was created by cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two Jewish men, in 1941 as a response to Nazism. America was not involved in the war yet, and many thought it should not get involved, making it an awkward and politically charged time. But Captain America is intended to be political. On the cover of the Captain America’s debut issue, he’s seen punching Hitler in the face. The next few covers of the comic series were equally anti-Hitler. Cap was introduced to the comic universe 75 years ago quite literally as a Nazi-fighting hero.
Simon and Kirby received threats from Nazi sympathisers and non-interventionist groups for Captain America’s success and portrayal of Hitler as a maniacal buffoon. They were inundated with hate mail, death threats over the phone, and even found groups of menacing-looking men lurking in front of their creative team’s office. Despite this, Captain America continued to enjoy great success as a deliberately political comic figure. His creators would be infuriated at Marvel’s current treatment of their character, and rightfully so.
It’s been hypothesised that the plot twist of making Cap part of Hydra was a publicity stunt, just an act, just brainwashing. Regardless, it evidences an enormous lack of respect for Jewish creators and characters, as well as a glamorisation of Hydra itself. Hydra, created as a Nazi criminal organisation, is often presented as a meme; Marvel’s employees regularly wear Hydra merch, include Hydra in their twitter bios, and generally play it up and romanticise it. This was all worsened by Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort’s confirmation that it is indeed Steve Rogers revealing himself as a double agent in the latest comic, proclaiming the words “Hail Hydra” after a battle with Baron Zemo. Brevoort states this is no clone or alternate universe; “[Captain America’s] mission is to further the goals and beliefs of Hydra. If that involves taking down the Marvel universe, sure. But it may not be as simple as that. It’s not like he’s exchanged his white hat for a black hat – it’s a green hat”. Whatever this last ambiguous sentence means, however Marvel tries to justify the decision, Captain America hailing Hydra is no less offensive.
Sadly, this erasure of Cap’s anti-Nazist roots reflects a trend of anti-semitism and whitewashing in the modern Marvel Universe. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff – the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively – are canonically half Roma and half Jewish. They’re the descendants of Holocaust survivors and were raised by a gypsy couple. But in recent cinematic adaptations their origins are never discussed – deemed unimportant by Marvel executives, but actually crucial to their story. They are played by white actors, and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wanda is seen with a cross hanging in her room – effectively replacing her Jewish identity with a Christian one. The same applies to Magneto, canonically a Holocaust survivor whose resentment for Professor X’s pacifism has been compared with civil rights leader Malcolm X’s own attitude. His backstory too is considered insignificant by Marvel executives.
Lately the Doctor Strange trailer has been criticised for whitewashing The Ancient One, a Tibetan mentor for Stephen Strange in the comics. Screenwriter Robert Cargill’s justification? “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political”. He then complained about how people weren’t praising Marvel for genderswapping the role from male to female. Pat yourself on the back again for being so progressive, Robert, will you?
Essentially, comic heroes are part of a minority themselves. They were created to represent outsiders, the kids who never saw themselves in mainstream media. Narratives of oppression and acceptance, of what makes one “different”, have always been central to the comic superhero world. That’s important when Storm provided representation of black superheros at a time when they were even scarcer than today. That’s important when Dust, a more modern X-Woman heroine, defeats evil while wearing a Niqāb. It’s important when Magneto’s experiences in a concentration camp explain his impatience with regard to human rights progress; it’s important when Wanda Maximoff battles against Roma persecution.
Comic book themes of oppression and acceptance are just as important when Nazi-fighting hero Captain America proclaims to be on Hydra’s side, when Marvel creators indulge in inappropriate games of ambiguity & moral relativism. The modern Marvel franchise has warped the unapologetic, politically charged creation of two jewish men. What was probably a publicity move is costing it its legacy, as well as misrepresenting all the outsiders who consider the Marvel universe their home.