Steve Rogers in the Age of Donald Trump: On Cynicism, Fiction, and the Power of Fan-work

You know what first turned me on to Marvel?

Steve Rogers. Otherwise known as Captain America.

I was a casual fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, always enjoying the movies but never really going further, buying the movies but not merchandise, not diving into the fandom, not reading the comics.

Then I saw Captain America: Winter Soldier, and the love affair began. I re-watched the first Captain America movie with gusto. Steve Rogers was flawed like anyone, but he was good. He was brave, he was a character created by two Jewish men as a symbol of hope against Hitler, and as he came down into modern day, he fought against Hydra and a multitude of other enemies in defense of the little guy on both page and screen. He became an icon of light and fighting for what was right. An icon who stood up for the marginalized and never gave up the fight.

And then, in 2016, Marvel comics said Steve Rogers was a Hydra double agent.

They said Steve Rogers was, in all the ways that matter, a Nazi.

Steve Rogers, who fought with the French Resistance and said they were some of the bravest people he knew.

Steve Rogers, who stood toe to toe with the Red Skull.

Steve Rogers, who fought like life and death for Bucky Barnes.

Steve Rogers, who earned the love and respect of countless characters throughout the Marvel universe; Tony Stark, Sam Wilson, Sharon Carter, Carol Danvers, Spiderman, Hawkeye, Black Widow, pretty much any Avenger he every fought with. During Ed Brubaker’s run when it seemed like Steve was dead after Civil War and The Trial of Captain America, all the heroes in the Marvel universe mourned him.

Steve made mistakes. Steve was human.

But Steve was one of the best of them.

Steve Rogers stood up against bullies. Steve Rogers started out as an ill, asthmatic, poor kid in Brooklyn, disenfranchised himself, and he’s the last person in the Marvel verse that would join Hydra. That would spout the kind of xenophobic rhetoric they represent. And you know, sure, it’s comics, it won’t last, but the fact that they did this, that they turned a character created by two Jewish men who faced hatred for creating Captain America, into a Nazi who throws people out of planes, is unforgivable. Steve “plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and say no, you move” Rogers into a Hydra agent. You can be sure I won’t ever pick up a thing either of those writers has written, and it makes my trust in Marvel falter. How can you have a comics studio with Kamala Khan and then do this?

And to do something like this in the political climate we’re facing right now as a country, to take CAPTAIN AMERICA and turn him into a Hydra agent is one of the single-most tone deaf things I’ve ever seen done in fiction. One of the writers of the issue said the following:

“Captain America has always reflected the era he’s lived in, and adding this level of complexity to Steve Rogers’ character just reflects where we are as a country. In the zeitgeist of the moment that we’re in, in the middle of sort of a very volatile election cycle where there’s a lot of strange things going on in the world of politics, and the world and the country, it feels kind of appropriate, kind of right timing-wise, that you could get a revelation like this and it not feel out of step with where the nation happens to be in the moment.”

Of COURSE it feels out of step. How could essentially saying that Steve Rogers might now sound like Donald Trump not out of step? Steve Rogers has been political since the beginning. He’s been political since the first issue when he punches Hitler in the face. The man is nothing less than an FDR Democrat. If the writers at Marvel comics really wanted to tap into the political climate and the volatile election, if they really wanted to do something courageous and “fall into step” with the current climate, if they wanted to “fall into step” with who Steve Rogers has always been they have Steve Rogers speak out against the kind of horrible rhetoric we’re seeing in this election from Donald Trump and the rest of the Republicans. Don’t have him reflect the absolute worst of our era; have him reflect the best. Have him reflect the crowds in the streets standing up for Black Lives Matter and against big money in politics. Have him stand not against immigrants, but for them. Have him stand up for the marginalized as he has ALWAYS. DONE.

Otherwise what kind of cynicism are we standing for? That a man like Steve Rogers would inevitably give into something terrible, and not only that, but the idea that he’s stood for it all along? Give readers hope in this climate, give them a symbol, give them a fiction that pushes back.

They could have not picked a more terrible thing to do to Steve Rogers.

The worst part is the creators of this just look at it like some normal plotline. And they don’t even blink. They don’t say “gee our bad.” They don’t say sorry. Media is a powerful thing, fictional characters MEAN something to people and they act as if they don’t care. And that’s why the outcry. That’s why people are upset about this. Steve Rogers means something to a lot of people for their own reasons. Steve Rogers has given hope to people precisely because of the things he stands for, and they spit in the face of that. It’s as if they were sitting around the room going “hey guys, how about a Nazi AU?” except they made it canon.  We aren’t interested in your useless shock value, Marvel. We are not impressed when you say you feed off our upset and our rage. This is not the same as making a reader’s heart race in an intense scene or cry when someone dies or experiences a trauma. It is not the same as making readers think. This isn’t clever, this isn’t fresh, and it isn’t interesting or provocative.

Granted the sheer rejection of that canon speaks to the power of fandom and fanwork. That we know there is so much better canon material, as well as fanwork to turn to, that fans are so very confident as a collective about this character, speaks volumes about just how heinous this plot is. Is this decision-and many decisions made by plenty of other pieces of media this year, it seems- a pushback against a more progressive fanbase? It does feel that way. Are they uncomfortable that a fanbase made up of so largely of women and LGBTQA people as well as people of color, are speaking out against trends in entertainment, and even more, creating their own fanworks that transform the canon? Fics and art and meta and music and discussions that include female characters and gay and lesbian and bi and trans and non-binary and asexual characters, that includes characters of color, that includes narratives they and others can relate to? Do they feel like they’re losing control of the narrative so they’re making a horrible attempt to take it back? How can we trust the kind of place that scoffs at the #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend campaign, but then has no trouble making him a Nazi? Captain America can be Hydra, but he can’t be bisexual, apparently.

But that’s the power of fanwork, isn’t it? The power to take back the narrative, to transform it, to feel inspiration from the original source and run with it. It’s a powerful experience and a fantastic community even when the canon creators don’t betray you.

And especially when they do.

Ever since I heard this news, all I heard in my head was Steve’s iconic line from the first Captain America movie (I hold out hope they won’t touch the MCU with this storyline): “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” And when I think of that Steve Rogers, when I think of all the outcry I’ve seen today, I don’t only say #CapIsn’tHydra, I say “not my Steve Rogers.”

 

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