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Has Captain America Become Marvel’s Greatest Villain?

“Hail Hydra.” With those two words, Nick Spencer sent the internet into a tantrum of crying, screaming, death threats, and (most puzzlingly) book burning. As you probably know, it was because he stuck those in Steve Rogers mouth in the new series Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 and people got upset. Well, Captain America: Steve Rogers #4 just hit stands and things are not looking much better for Steve. He’s violent, calculating, and apparently planning the death of the Red Skull. Once again, everyone is freaking out. Is Marvel setting up Steve Rogers to be Marvel’s newest supervillain? Is he destined to become a bad guy forever, down a road which there is no turning back? The answer is, obviously, no. No, everybody.

You are going to read some things on the internet. You’re going to read that Steve Rogers is killing monkeys (super apes, but whatever), and cutting bad guys’ arms off, and plotting murder and hostile takeovers. Technically, it’s all true as of Captain America: Steve Rogers #4, but you need to relax. Your favorite superhero is not a murderous psychopath, not in the long run. We don’t know which reality we’re in, which Steve Rogers this is (there’s more than one; it’s complicated), or how this will all end. Captain America, as a series, has been running this course for a long time, so just chill out.

Look, I get it, Captain America means a lot of things to a lot of people. He’s been one of my favorite comic characters as long as I can remember, I understand the love and admiration fans have for this fictional character. I’m also not concerned–at all–about his legacy or that Nick Spencer is out to destroy the character. That thought literally never crossed my mind and it shouldn’t cross yours either. There are a number of reasons for this, and we’ll break them down in a second, but first be warned, there are spoilers for the last few years of Captain America comics ahead. Tread carefully.

First, let’s talk about the scope of history we’ll be discussing. Comic book characters’ pasts are often being rebooted, updated, or shifted in order to keep them relevant with time periods. For our purposes, we’re starting with Steve Rogers story as portrayed in Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Captain America #1 that launched in 2005. This series opens with Steve Rogers beating the crap out of a bunch of terrorists on a train, much like Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz’s recent Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, which is likely no coincidence. Brubaker made Steve Rogers a soldier first and superhero second. This run of Captain America was filled with flashbacks to World War II and involved clear indications that Cap and his crew were surrounded by, and caused, plenty of death. Bucky was typically pictured with a machine gun, firing into German ranks. You can’t point at the latest issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers and say “but Captain America doesn’t endorse killing! He’ll never be the same!” Death has been a part of the character for a long time.

Brubaker’s run also featured the return of Bucky Barnes as the Winter Solider–and that pissed everybody off back then, even though it was clearly awesome–and brought the Cosmic Cube heavily into play. Brubaker and Epting also killed Steve Rogers–spoilers, not really–and put Bucky in the role of Captain America, which pissed everybody off even though it was and is also clearly awesome. This run also established a heavy toll on Steve’s psyche; the opening pages have Sharon Carter calling him out for being more violent and brutal than usual. Steve Rogers is a messed-up dude and things only get worse for him from here.

Captain America volume 5

For my money, this run is the greatest modern superhero run in comic books. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (along with a host of other artists along the way) created the perfect series that was part nostalgia, part new ideas, part reinvention, and all kickass. During its run, people were constantly furious for several issues and then readers would calm down and look back and go, “Oh, I see, it all fits. Cool.” Captain America vol 5, as it is officially known, is also one essentially one long story. If you were to judge it merely by its first arc, you might be pissed off forever. If you have not read the whole thing, you should probably do so right away. The important take-away here is that this amazing run made a lot of people very, very mad for admitting people died during world War II (weird), for bringing back Bucky Barnes, for killing Steve Rogers, for having Bucky become Captain America, and scores of other stuff. In the end, it’s fondly remembered and often pointed to as one of the best runs on the character, but while it was going readers were constantly enraged.

Let’s go back to the Cosmic Cube, which Brubaker used to great effect. It plays a big role in Nick Spencer’s run on the character, even before Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 launched. The Cosmic Cube is Marvel’s great MacGuffin. It’s a fix-all and break-all toy that often comes into play. Brubaker used it to bring back the Red Skull and restore Bucky’s memory and erase his Winter Soldier programming. Nick Spencer has had the Red Skull use a now-sentient Cosmic Cube (it’s complicated) to erase Steve Rogers’ past and replace it with one where he was raised to be an agent of Hydra. How easy is that to back track? Well, you could just have somebody else use the Cosmic Cube and fix things in like one freaking panel. Somebody like, oh, I don’t know, maybe Bucky Barnes? By the way, in Captain America: Steve Rogers #4, the person who seems to be befriending the sentient Cosmic Cube is Bucky Barnes. Seems like a setup to have him return the favor to Rogers for freeing him from the Winter Soldier curse, right? Maybe.

Captain America: Steve Rogers

That’s the biggest thing we need to remember here: it’s all a maybe at this point. Pretending you know the end of this story is like saying you knew the end of the Harry Potter saga halfway through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. You don’t know where this is going and that’s half the fun! We’re 4 issues into Spencer’s story and Captain America comics in the modern age have all leaned towards big, long story arcs. Rick Remender followed Ed Brubaker by trapping Steve Rogers in a dimension created by Arnim Zola called Dimension Z (it’s complicated). Steve was stuck there for 12 years. 12 years, guys! He raised a kid named Ian there! Remender’s run was, like Brubaker’s, one big story and it saw Sam Wilson become Captain America (which everyone is pissed off about). You have to think of Nick Spencer and company’s story in the long term; you simply can’t call it in four issues.

Yes, the latest issues seems to set up Rogers as an evil mastermind plotting to take over Hydra and kill the Red Skull. That might happen, but it won’t be the end. It’s just a piece of Steve Rogers’ story and it’s something that he’ll bounce back from even stronger than he was before, because he always does. That’s why he’s Captain America, guys. That’s why he’ll always be Captain America.


Benjamin Bailey writes for the Nerdist and can be found on Twitter talking about Godzilla, comic books, and hardcore music.


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