What the Death of Captain America Really Means


March 8, 2007 — -- Rest in peace, Captain America.

You wore red, white and blue and had superhuman abilities, but the war on terror was too much even for you.

Comic book fans are mourning the death of the Marvel Comics' icon, who was gunned down by an assassin in "Captain America Vol. 5, No. 25." The "Sentinel of Liberty" was perhaps at his lowest point -- he had become an outlaw while fighting and ultimately losing a war against his fellow superheroes to protect the civil liberties of all Americans. At the time of his death, he was facing a life sentence in prison.

Bullets took the life of the Sentinel of Liberty, but he was really a victim -- and product -- of the times.

"Heroes are often a reflection of the times. When Spider-Man came along in the 1960s, there were a lot of kids entering college who had a hard time finding their identities, what cause to get involved in," said M. Thomas Inge, author of "Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip: Centennial Reflections on an American Art Form."

"There were a lot of internal problems in this country, with the civil rights movement going on. A lot of kids continued reading comics after entering college, which is unusual since most teens stop at that time," Inge said.

Cap's demise followed the climax in Marvel's "Civil War" storyline, in which a newly passed law requiring all heroes to register their secret identities with the government divided the superhero community.

The law, the "Superhero Registration Act," was passed after an encounter between a reckless teen supergroup and a villain called Nitro led to the deaths of hundreds, mostly children, in Stamford, Conn.

Captain America thought the act violated basic civil liberties and led a group of crime fighters who went rogue after refusing to register.

His former friend, ambitious billionaire Tony Stark -- aka Iron Man -- championed the law and considered it a natural evolution of superheroes' role in society. He secretly orchestrated a campaign that created circumstances to scare and mislead the public and government officials into supporting the act and all the programs that it entailed.

Does this sound vaguely familiar? Politically-motivated opportunists preying on the fears of a nation? A conflict based in part on questionable intelligence, arguably lies?

You're not crazy if you think Captain America's struggle parallels the debates over the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the Bush domestic surveillance program and other controversial programs in the post-Sept. 11 world.

The civil war among the heroes ended when a distraught Captain America, overwhelmed by the carnage around him, took off his mask and surrendered to authorities as his alter ego, Steve Rogers. Some readers may have been shocked to see Cap give up and imprisoned but they didn't expect him to get killed off.

"I'm definitely pissed off," said Ken Feliu, a 34-year-old commercial production director and lifelong comic book reader. "I mean, why did they have to kill him off?"

"He's supposed to represent all our ideals, everything we're supposed to aspire to and they couldn't leave him intact?" Feliu said. "And the way he died -- with two bullets to the chest by a sniper? Come on!"

"All the heroes today have to have an edge, have to be gritty," he continued. "No one has enough creativity where they can't leave a hero who actually stands for something well enough alone."

Captain America was born during a simpler time when the United States was much more united against a common enemy. World War II and the battle against the Nazis provided the backdrop when he debuted in Marvel Comics in 1941. The cover of the first issue of Captain America shows the superhero punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

Both Superman and Captain America represented patriotism and in some ways, American wholesomeness, omnipotence, idealism and innocence. Besides battling the Red Skull and a slew of other supervillains, Cap battled the Nazis.

However, against the background of the civil rights movement, assassinations, and the Vietnam War, heroes -- along with the rest of the nation -- lost their innocence in the 1960s.

Marvel Comics' creator Stan Lee introduced characters such as The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and The Incredible Hulk, all of whom had very human problems and weaknesses. Spider-Man worried about paying the rent while The Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl worried about her marriage to a workaholic. The X-Men, who debuted in 1963, were foils for the civil rights movement. The driving conflict in the X-Men -- classified as mutants -- was that their powers were also their curse.

Still, nothing, especially death, is final in the world of comic books. DC Comics resurrected Superman in 1994, one year after he was killed. Captain America will live on as Marvel writers explore the fallout of his death and reveal more about his alter-ego, Steve Rogers.

"Killing Captain America was really a more compelling story for our readers," said Dan Buckley, publisher at Marvel Entertainment. "It was more interesting than to see Cap in jail, reflecting. Besides exploring the question of who killed Captain America, we will be focusing on who was Steve Rogers the character, since not much really known about him.

"We know about Captain America, the hero, the icon, but we don't know much about Steve. We will be exploring what Steve Rogers meant to those close to him and on a macro level, what Captain America's death means to the Marvel Universe. We'll be exploring what Captain America the icon means and whether the legacy should be carried on," Buckley said.

Buckley also said there are no plans to resurrect Captain America -- for the time being.

"Steve Rogers is dead," he said. "As [Marvel Entertainment editor in chief] Joe [Quesada] says, 'A death should mean something. A resurrection should mean something.'"

And whether he was battling Hitler and the Nazis or fighting a losing battle for civil liberties, Captain America meant something. Captain America is dead, true believers ... long live Captain America!