The patriotic icon reveals surprisingly nuanced politics.
Captain America, who gets his first movie today, is ostensibly a right-wing icon — he's basically a muscle-bound U.S. flag that goes around beating people up (in other words, Toby Keith's wet dream). Which is why it might come as a surprise that Cap has a surprisingly — dare I say — progressive past. Here are the five most liberal things Cap has ever done.
5. Captain America champions the underdog.
There's a deeply ingrained love of the underdog in the American mythos. Long before we became the speak-softly-and-nuke-your-ass country going head to head with Russia over who could better imperil all of mankind, we prided ourselves on being the kind of scrappy, "never say die" people who drove off the British with B-squad equipment, determination, and an eight-track of "Gonna Fly Now."
In the Captain America comics, Captain America is born Steve Rogers, the poor son of Irish immigrants living on New York's Lower East Side back when it was less Williamsburg and more Bronx. His parents both die by the time he's a teenager. Then he enrolls in art school. The character basically has the same backstory as John Lennon. But that's what makes him complex — unlike so many conservative politicians who champion the "salt of the earth" or "real Americans" while busting unions and cutting Medicaid, Captain America continues to stand for the idea that no matter what your roots, you too can grow up to punch Hitler in the face.
4. Captain America resigns from service to protest government corruption.
In an '80s issue of Captain America, Cap finds out that a shady secret branch of the government wants to bring him officially under its wing, offering him the option to operate from within the U.S. government and stop traipsing around as a vigilante. The comic implies that the head of the Commission is the sitting President. Ultimately, the whole thing is covered up. Captain America is so disillusioned by this that he resigns. Writer Steve Englehart explicitly meant this issue to be a reflection of the Watergate scandal; in an era that saw growing gloom about government corruption, Captain America took a stand against blind allegiance.
3. Captain America defends free speech, even when it gets ugly.
Captain America, Vol. 1, #275, from 1982, features two Jewish characters whose synagogue has been vandalized. Meanwhile, neo-Nazis plan a nearby rally. With prescient shades of today's Westboro Baptist Church controversy, Cap argues that as much as he hates Nazis, "if we deny them their rights, where do we draw the line? Who decides which beliefs are acceptable and which aren't? A free society has to allow all ideas, both noble and ignoble."
At the rally, the conflict between the Nazis and protesters grows physical, and Captain America intervenes, telling the Jewish protester who attacked the Nazi, "Can't you see that in stooping to your own enemy's level… you're becoming the very thing that you loathe?" The American Civil Liberties Union has often gone to bat for the right of objectionable organizations, including neo-Nazis, to assemble or disseminate their materials — and drawn considerable ire from a multitude of sources for doing so. I think they'd be much more effective if they had Captain America on their side.
2. Captain America fights the military-industrial complex.
Marvel ran a storyline called "Civil War," in which superheroes faced pressure to register and come under the control of the government. The whole thing was rife with parallels to 9/11 and the Patriot Act, and Captain America remained strongly opposed to the idea of registration, fighting with a band of outlaw heroes against corporate shill Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), who was of course on the government's side. (The fact that they called his company Stark Enterprises instead of Starkwater or Starkiburton was an admirable sign of restraint.)
Captain America actually went toe-to-toe with Iron Man at one point, which was a brilliant metaphor: Cap has always stood for the individual armed with little more than determination and a really sweet shield. Conversely, Iron Man is everything that Captain America isn't. Tony Stark is literally kept alive by technology he developed working for the military — he's inextricably bound to the military-industrial complex. In a way, he is the machine. So having Captain America beat him one-on-one was really a victory for humans over war machines.
1. Captain America takes on the Tea Party.
A 2010 issue of Captain America features Cap and the Falcon infiltrating what is obviously supposed to be a Tea Party rally. The Tea Party protested Marvel's use of actual Tea Party slogans like "Tea Bag the Libs Before They Tea Bag You!" and "Stop the Socialists" and the fact that the Falcon refers to the Tea Partiers as "a bunch of angry white folks."
Maybe the Tea Party should have been more upset that in the comic, the protest turns out to be a front for an anti-government fringe group called "the Watchdogs," the actual villains of the storyline. The leader of the Watchdogs turns out to be a former Captain America, whose ultimate plan is to blow up the Hoover Dam. But Captain America's conservative, right-wing incarnation ends up being defeated, as if the writers wanted to remind us that patriotism doesn't have to mean jingoism.