Loath as I am to bring up superheroes again, it appears there is still some confusion as to how comic book characters do or do not relate to the world as it is. Previously, I gave liberals a hard time for framing the Democratic wins in the 2020 election cycle as Marvel’s Avengers banding together to defeat a Thanos-like President Trump, which, apart from being childish and incredibly cringeworthy on its face, is far too kind to Democrats and rather unfair to Thanos. But the libs aren’t the only ones guilty of applying this corny fabulist lens to U.S. political theater.
Hardcore right-wingers have a different slate of guys to choose from when they want to feel like part of a franchise. If you’re into military and cop vibes — or actually serve in either capacity — you might have a thing for the Punisher, a Marines vet and murderous vigilante who debuted as a Spider-Man villain and became an anti-hero protagonist in his own right. The Punisher’s ominous skull logo is a staple of gun-crazed and Blue Lives Matter merch, because nothing says “I uphold the rule of law” like a dude who extrajudicially kills anyone he deems unworthy of life. A less extreme version of this, sometimes reflected in the fetish for tactical gear on the right, would be the caped crusader Batman, though as of last year he appears to be on BLM’s side.
When rioters stormed the Capitol last week, however, the dominant cosplay was of a more “patriotic” flavor. Stars, stripes, red, white and blue. Shields and helmets. Captain America.
Students of costumed crusader lore were quick to point out that Captain America — long before he was portrayed on the big screen by MAGA-hating actor Chris Evans — had always been an antifascist figure. Maybe, in some incredibly dire situation, he would see a need to storm the Capitol, though definitely not in support of a president who has courted homegrown Nazis and white supremacists. With the insurrectionists’ aim of overturning a democratic election, and given that some were physically attacking Capitol Police in the utterly deranged belief that these officers were antifa, it’s appropriate to say they had a fascist agenda — something Cap has not, to my limited knowledge, ever pursued (when not brainwashed by the bad guys or whatever).
Conservatives missing the message in fiction is nothing new, yet the optics this time were stupid enough that 72-year-old Neal Kirby, son of Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby, issued a statement flaming the chuds for disgracing the icon with their crappy T-shirts and memes. The elder Kirby and his partner, Joe Simon, were Jewish, and debuted their righteous crusader in March of 1941 with a cover that depicted him punching Adolf Hitler. Both would serve in World War II, with Kirby part of the Allied liberation of Europe. There couldn’t be less ambiguity to their most patriotic creation, and that’s sort of the point: Captain America is principled and selfless even to a fault, unwilling to compromise where others would take the easy way out.
To reiterate: It’s a keen embarrassment whenever the nightmarish fluctuations of American power are reduced to an argument over which made-up muscle guy in a codpiece would be on whose side. No need for it! As many presidents, pundits and members of congress have shown, we can cynically exploit nationalist symbols like the flag without infringing on Disney’s intellectual property. Super-soldier serum has yet to be patented, Elon Musk isn’t Iron Man and Ant-Man can’t kill Thanos by going up his butt, because both are figments of pure imagination.
Liberal or conservative, do yourself a favor — find a grown-up way to express your opinions. And leave the comic book stories to 10-year-olds. At least they understand what’s on the page.