The meaning of the death of Captain America

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[John W. Vest is an Associate Pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and a PhD student in Biblical Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Portions of this essay are adapted from a sermon of the same title delivered at Fourth Presbyterian Church on the evening of Easter Sunday.]

As scholars of religion and popular culture have long recognized, comic books are an important element of contemporary American mythology. In their 2003 book Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil -- a book written in that uncertain time between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war -- Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence explore the relationship between comic books and American civil religion. In what they describe as the "Captain America complex," comic book superheroes both inform and reflect the aggressive foreign policies of the past several decades, epitomized in the current administration's "war on terror" and posturing against the "axis of evil."

What, then, does it mean for the mythology of American civil religion that Captain America was assassinated this past March, in Captain America #25? There is no doubt that America was paying attention as Marvel Comics made headlines by killing off one of its oldest and most iconic heroes; a sure sign that it had become a national conversation was when Stephen Colbert capitalized on the story in his Colbert Report.

To be sure, the death of a major comic book character is nothing new; it's a plotline that has been used time and time again. And more often than not, comic book characters are eventually brought back in one way or another. But because of the circumstances surrounding it, Captain America's assassination stands out, raising questions and demanding reflection.

You see, Captain America was assassinated on his way to trial, having been arrested by the U.S. government. It was the culmination of an epic story arc in the Marvel Universe called Civil War. In the wake of a catastrophic accident caused by superheroes, and in the midst of paranoia and fear, the government enacts legislation that requires all superheroes to be registered and become agents of the state. Failing to do so is considered a criminal act. Half of the heroes, led by Iron Man, support the new initiative, while the other half, led by Captain America, oppose it. Hero fights against hero until Captain America, realizing that the collateral damage of their bloody infighting is causing more injury than good, surrenders. Wearing all of his red, white, and blue uniform except his mask and his shield, he is paraded in handcuffs to the steps of the courthouse, where he is shot dead.

Cap's death can no doubt be attributed, in part, to the sensationalist plot twists that are necessary to sell comic books. But further reflection reveals deeper meanings. For one thing, Marvel's Civil War storyline is obviously a thinly veiled allegory of our current struggle to find a balance between the securities and the civil liberties enshrined in America's civil religion. To hear superheroes debate the Superhuman Registration Act is to hear echoes of our own national debates about the Patriot Act, executive powers, and weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps even more controversial is that Captain America, an iconic symbol of American patriotism, was killed while real-life soldiers fight wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 to fight Hitler and the Nazis, even before America actually entered the war. Among others, Captain America comic books were sent to troops overseas by the thousands to boost morale and provide an archetypal incarnation of American values and patriotic zeal. What message does it send now to kill off a superhero who is literally draped in red, white, and blue? According to shocked co-creator Joe Simon, "We really need him now."

Like good storytellers should, the writers and editors of Marvel Comics are leaving it up to their readers to decide for themselves what these events mean. For some, the story will be pure fiction and escapism. For others, it will be sharp political commentary, with our own anxieties mirrored by the comic book characters themselves, as they try to cope with the loss of a friend and the loss of a dream.

For this reader, the Civil War story arc and the death of Captain America are for contemporary American civil religion an archetypal descent into darkness. The triumph of totalitarian security over civil rights, together with the martyrdom of the champion of freedom, is the mythologized death of a version of the American creed that many hold sacred.

As with the uncertain world in which we live, what remains to be seen on the pages of the comics is how this myth will continue to unfold. Was this the apocalyptic birth of a new world order, or the prelude to a resurrection?


CNN's "Shocking Event for Captain America," by Harry Holmes, Jonathan O'Beirne, and Glenn Perreira (March 7, 2007), can be read online at: Civil War (Marvel Comics, 2007).

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