Last month Marvel Comics released a new title, “Steve Rogers: Captain America #1.” It was in most ways nothing new—yes, it brought the original Captain America Steve Rogers back to his red, white and blues, after a couple years in which his superpowers diminished and he actually became an old man. (Just go with it. It was a whole thing.) But Marvel pulls twists like this, along with major new rebranding and new #1s, every 12 to 18 months.
This particular release, though, was also totally different, in that it ended with the big (seeming) reveal that Steve Rogers may have actually been all these years not really an agent for humanity, but a super-secret Hydra operative. Now if you don’t know comics, that probably sounds completely ridiculous and anyways have you seen the record temperatures in the Arctic and heard about the deaths of thousands of child refugees in the Mediterranean, so who cares?
Except that this super-secret, want-to-rule-the world-for-themselves organization Hydra was (and sometimes still is) connected to the Nazis. So basically, Marvel comics released a book that could be read by some as turning its greatest agent of liberty and freedom and respect for all humanity into a covert Nazi.
In a word: Yeesh.
The thing is, that’s actually an inaccurate reading of the story. The current comic book iteration of Hydra does not have anything to do with Nazis. And it seems very clear neither the writer nor Marvel were suggesting such a connection either.
But as you know, the Internet doesn’t care about any of that or the actual comic book in which this twist occurred. Who has time to look at 22 pages of art and dialogue when one has seen a headline on Facebook and feels outraged? #GettingMySpleenOn
So there have been tweets and comments and death threats. The “mainstream media” (a term we have to use more and more advisedly in the cable/TMZ news blight in which we find ourselves) picked it up, pumped it up, then reported on the responses to its reports, then on the reactions of celebrities like Chris Evans, who plays Steve Rogers in the movies, to the story and the reports about the story and the reports about the reports of the story.
(Evans’ two-word[ish] tweet, “Hydra?!?!? #sayitaintso,” was widely reported—including at Time Magazine—with some suggesting that he was not happy with the move. But I don’t know, combinations of exclamation and question marks have been more indicative of humor than outrage since Shakespeare and Plato, haven’t they? Seriously, human civilization is coming to an end and in its final days all people will be worried about is who has the funniest hashtag.)
There have also been condemnations from Jewish groups. Virtual Jerusalem and others denounced Captain America for being “a Secret Nazi” (though again, if you read the comic, he isn’t), while Haaretz posted “His creators [both Jewish] must be turning in their graves” (which they very well may be).
Over the weekend I’ve been trying to figure out what the takeaway from all this is. Jessica Plummer at Panels makes the good point that at a time when we’ve got a presidential candidate randomly spewing hate (and I would add we have so many people online regularly threatening women, the LGBTQ community and other minorities), making Captain America a fascist sympathizer of any stripe may not be a great decision.
Then again, our political reality might also make Marvel’s choice the best move of all. One of the things Marvel has gotten really good at in the last 10 years is constructing stories that echo and comment on actual political realities. (The 2006-07 comic book version of the recent movie “Captain America: Civil War,” for instance, was a fascinating take on the divisions that developed in the country and world after the United States invaded Iraq.) If we’re living in a country where a candidate preaching what Trump preaches can get this close to the presidency, we probably should have stories that try to reflect on that in interesting and unexpected ways.
And again, this was issue #1. The whole fun of a comic book or TV series is putting your lead in an insanely impossible corner and then seeing if they can get themselves out. Is Cap really Hydra? Call me crazy, but something tells me it’s going to end up being more complicated than that.
For me, though, the bigger lesson is the amount of free-floating frustration that’s out there in the world right now. To get to the outrageous conclusion that “Marvel made Captain America a Nazi” actually requires quite a bit of willful ignorance. You have to prevent yourself from asking the simplest and most obvious questions: “Did they really? Is that true?”
And we can turn that refusal to fact check into yet another Internet, low-attention span, instant-gratification sermon.
Maybe the Captain America freak-out is actually another version of loving Trump (or for some, Sanders). For various reasons, a lot of people feel both frustrated and impotent. And all that feeling has to go someplace. Emotions are not that different than thermodynamics; they cannot be destroyed. They just get redirected.
So some look to pick fights at Trump rallies. Others launch fatwas against comic book writers online. Still others like to eat. (I highly recommend option three.)
In the end I think we waste a lot of time arguing about the latest hot controversy. It’s like arguing about who’s going to clean up the dead canaries in the coal mine and not realizing there’s a lot more gas a-comin’.
If you’ll forgive a Star Wars analogy (because an article about comic books is not geeky enough), sometimes we have to get like Luke on the Millennium Falcon trying to learn how to use that light saber, stop paying attention to what’s in front of us and try to get in touch with what’s going on underneath. Because what we’re arguing about is mostly not what we’re actually arguing about.
Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.