Favorite Fictional Characters, #255: Captain America
It took me a long time to warm up to Captain America. As a boy, I considered him a bland, boring relic from a bygone era of pulp comics, especially compared to more modern, more hip heroes like Wolverine or Iron Man. As I grew older, I chafed a bit under the shameless flag-waving and boastful jingoism, the blatant personification of arrogant and misplaced American exceptionalism. The world demanded a grasp of nuance and complexity and a multilateral approach, not a tired look-at-me symbol of unilateral righteousness.
I don't think 9/11 changed that for me. If anything, that tragedy affirmed my fundamental belief that we are stronger as a nation and a world when we reach across the divides that some seek to widen, when we work to understand each other and protect each other, especially those who are different from us. That our basic strength lies not in platitudes to individualism but in our bewildering diversity. America is not an organic nation, not an ethnicity given borders, but an invented identity, an artificial state based on ideals rather than tribalism. Ideas like freedom, like pluralism, like cooperation. Long before the Red Scare of the 1950s gave us the politically expedient motto In God We Trust, our national words were E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. As an invented identity, without ancient legends like Gilgamesh or Beowulf or Hercules, we needed to create our own heroes to reflect the qualities we cherished and wanted to see in the collective mirror. And so Parson Weems gave us a superhumanly strong and honest George Washington, and tall tales sprang up about tough Pecos Bill and powerful Paul Bunyan and generous Johnny Appleseed. This America we stitched together out of many traditions and cultures would be honest and brave, strong and tough and generous.
Captain America represents all of those things, along with humility, selflessness, and leadership. He's Uncle Sam with a shield. And how important it is that he carries a shield, a tool for defense. He is a guardian, a protector, a caretaker. He looks out for the weak and the infirm, the sick, the old, the young, the downtrodden. America isn't about seek-and-destroy, about vengeance or bloodlust, but about sheltering all those who need it. A roof, not a wall. And Cap isn't some alien from another world coming down to Earth to teach us about truth, justice, and the American Way. He's one of us, a skinny kid from Brooklyn with more heart than smarts, who just wanted to serve his country. And he doesn't shoot lasers out of his eyes or read minds or blast away with improbable ten-foot cannons. The super-soldier serum unlocked his human potential and made him as strong and fast and tough as a man can be. In the end he's just a guy, holding his own among all these mutants and robots and guys in iron suits because he still believes in the flag that his uniform evokes.
The most important thing about Captain America is that he never accepts defeat. He can be beaten down and bloodied, but he never yields. He is sustained by his faith in an America that never stops striving to be a more perfect union, by the continuing experiment to build a nation where all men are created equal. When the days are darkest and the fight seems lost, he gathers his strength and battles on. Because it's a dream worth dreaming, a fight worth fighting. America isn't done yet, but it needs the Captain America in each of us to endure. Not the guy punching villains in the head, but the guy reaching out a hand to help, the hero who always seeks the better angels of his nature. For all of us to be free, more of us need to be brave.