America is divided. This much is obvious. In such a time, the decision for Marvel Comics to split the heart of their comic universe in two with the “All New, All Different” reboot in July 2015 made sense: if there are two sides to America, there should be two Captains for America. The most recent iteration of the Marvel comic universe had both: Steve Rogers, the original Captain America character from the 1940s and Sam Wilson, The newest Captain America (both written by Nick Spencer).
After the launch of Marvel Legacy in September 2017, the newest Marvel Comics universe reboot, there will only be one Captain America title again. As reported by CBR.com Sam Wilson will be giving up the shield and retaking his former moniker as The Falcon.
Despite the reason the Marvel team has for dropping Captain America: Sam Wilson, Sam Wilson fit the Captain America role just as well as Steve Rogers for this modern age. In Sam Wilson’s comic, America is split – even on whether Sam deserves to be Captain America at all. The divisiveness present in the Sam Wilson comic reflects the current state of affairs in the real world, just as Captain America always does.
The Eight-Year Divide
To put Captain America: Sam Wilson into the context of current political climate, consider the fact that over the eight years Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America, some of what he had set out to accomplish did not happen because of strong push back from the Republican opposition. President Obama campaigned on the idea of Hope and Change for a more perfect union. There are many factors over the years that led up to this, like the thirty years where Americans migrated to like-minded political communities (detailed in The Big Sort), and none of it is the 44th President’s fault. However, the ironic reality is that America’s polarization only escalated from then on leading to an increase in partisanship and gridlock.
Frontline, for PBS, released a documentary at the beginning of 2017 that chronicles the progression of the split that occurred during the eight years of Obama’s two terms. The documentary explains that Sarah Palin tapped into an anger that neither party had really found thus far. Palin’s discovery snowballed into the Tea Party Movement, as Holloway Sparks starts her paper, Mama Grizzlies and Guardians of the Republic: The Democratic and Intersectional Politics of Anger in the Tea Party Movement, “One of the trademarks of Tea Party movement protests in the United States has been the public performance of political anger and rage.”
It further snowballed into the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President. The 2016 election was incredibly divisive, but so was the choice to have Sam Wilson as Captain America. In the Sam Wilson comic, several hashtags begin to trend, including #NotMyCaptainAmerica, which bears a striking resemblance to the reaction to the president, #NotMyPresident.
The Tea Party anger and the rejection of Sam Wilson come from an idea that Katrinka Somdahl-Sands, Professor of geography and politics at Rowan University, pointed out as ‘Ideological Purity.’ The concept means that as we get more mobile as a society, with our physical spaces and media spaces, we no longer need to worry about the ideas that oppose our own, or in her own words, “Two people can be sitting next to each other and be in different worlds.”
As these physical and political spaces grow between the American people, politicians lose their incentive to move towards a middle ground because if they no longer seem pure towards their ideology they will be punished by their constituents.
A recent example of ideological purity pointed out by Somdahl-Sands is the situation Tomi Lahren, an anchor for Glenn Beck’s network, TheBlaze. When Lahren appeared on The View she stated that she was pro-choice. She explained herself saying that she was pro-choice because of her Libertarian viewpoint, and believes that if she says that the government should not regulate her guns, they should not regulate her body.
This seems to be a logical argument, but in this current political climate, that is not enough. Lahren was reportedly suspended from her show because of the backlash over her comments. This ideological purity test slowly etches away any middle ground between opposing ideologies, especially for politicians that aim to keep their jobs.
In the same way, Sam Wilson makes a political decision as Captain America and receives criticism for acting in a way that some people think Captain America should not act, and more people turn against him. Throughout the comic, Sam attempts to stay in the middle ground and faces condemnation from both sides.
Captain America and the American Identity
Now, extend this political polarization to comic books. Jason Dittmer, a professor of Geography at University College London, explained, in an interview, that beyond the general push to sell more comics, “the decision to have two Caps (for at least a while) is also a manifestation of the limited appeal of the singular Captain America as an icon at the moment when the nation is so fragmented.”
Dittmer has written a lot about the Steve Rogers version of Captain America through the lens of popular geopolitics. He explains, in Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics, popular geopolitics, as “the construction of scripts that mold common perceptions of political events,” and he says this, “is the key to a full understanding of both national identities and global orders.”
He uses this lens to answer the question of what Captain America means by analyzing him as a symbol of the American identity. A good example of Captain America as a symbol is the one-of-a-kind vibranium shield. Dittmer reflects that while many superheroes carry offensive weapons, Captain America has a defensive weapon. Though he often uses it offensively, Dittmer argues, “It is important for the narrative of America that he embodies defense rather than offense.”
This narrative, aided by the fact that Captain America can narrate within his own comic, helps to create an ideal of what Americans should see themselves as, through Captain America. The answer Dittmer comes to is this:
“Captain America (and thus, the American ideal) is patriotic without being a government stooge; he is a self-made, rugged individualist who still cares about his community and nation; he is willing to stand up for what he believes but is ultimately defensive of the status quo.”
Sam Wilson became Captain America in a complicated era and is relevant. Jason Dittmer commented on his relevancy in an interview stating, “I certainly think when it comes to the racial issues facing America, Sam Wilson is able to take those issues on in a way that is more constructive than Steve Rogers can, by turning our attention to the structural ways in which race manifests in America.”
Captain America: Sam Wilson has dealt with issues with the Tea Party, Ferguson, and Too Big to Fail in its own way (and not so subtly gives validation to Sonny Bunch and his paper, Comic Book Liberalism, where he said, “Recently, the comic book industry has engaged in what seems like an almost concerted effort to taunt the American Right.”). With each new problem, Sam Wilson finds himself in the middle of it but often taking a side trying to do what he sees as right.
Todd Seavy, who has written Justice League for DC Comics, believes, “Sam Wilson is, like Steve Rogers, a very good man, but he finds himself being Capt. America in more partisan times, and it’s worth noting that right out of the gate, he seemed to be behaving…too partisan and left-wing…”
However, is it wrong that Captain America is taking a side? Jiri G. Ruzicka, in his paper American Superheroes and the Politics of Good and Evil, explains in recent years super heroes have come to a turning point, “As times have changed, the definition of what it means to be a superhero, and a villain, has dramatically changed as well.” This the nature of the discourse that surrounds all of what Sam Wilson does. Nearly half the world sees Sam as a villain, but in the real world, in this divided country, this Captain America may actually best reflect the current American identity.
Sam Wilson embodies what it means to be Captain America but in a modern era. While still fighting for the same political liberalism that Steve Rodgers stood for, but he stands in a divided nation that seems steadfast on remaining that way.
Interestingly though, Dittmer explains that Steve Rodgers is still important:
“I think Steve Rogers is equally relevant to other issues facing America — look at the Russia investigation at the moment. What is needed here is some good, old-fashioned bipartisan patriotism that rejects a diminished view of American politics. That’s the kind of thing Steve Rogers is totally aces for. So I think these different heroes each speak to different aspects of America.”
Along those same lines, Captain America said it best, as Dittmer added in his paper; “Americans have many goals, some of them quite contrary to others. In the land of the free, each of us is able to do what he wants to do, think what he wants to think. That’s how it should be, but that makes for a great many different versions of what America is.”
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— Indiecomicblog (@indiecomicblog) July 23, 2017