Well, it's July 4th, the anniversary of the United States, and I'm required by law to write about how wonderful it is to be an American citizen.
I never really liked Captain America. I'd read a handful of his comics as a child and I just couldn't "get" the character at all. To me, the concept of a person being so patriotic that they'd eagerly have experimental, completely untested drugs pumped into their system for the sole purpose of having the chance to serve their country seemed much more far-fetched than gaining super powers by being bitten by a radioactive spider. Why would anyone so willingly forfeit their life for the sake of a faceless government body?
A lot of my disbelief in the concept stems from being born decades after American patriotism faded. If the Korean War didn't disperse our collective illusions sufficiently, the Vietnam War certainly did. I was born when Americans began looking at politics and politicians with suspcision, and I'm certain that my parents -- although not particularly politically active -- were outraged at what they saw on the news every night. While I'm just a tad young to remember most of the 1970s, I do recall the emotions and impressions of that period -- when good, hard-working men were out of work, there was a seemingly impossible gulf between the rich and the working-class, and you recycled/reused as much as you could, not out of environmental responsibility, but out of economic necessity. The ideals of the American dream were giving way to the realities of life.
Growing up with that outlook, I find it astounding that Captain America survived the entire decade. I suppose that the bleakness of the situation must have been countered somewhat by America's bicentennial in 1976, and I think the then-new American cynic was gratified by some escapist culture like Star Wars and Superman: The Movie. But it remains that I, like so many Gen-Xers, grew up being cynical of government. I think we were the first generation who began questioning the American dream en masse. (I don't mean to suggest that we were the first generation who questioned it, merely the first who more or less unilaterally questioned it.)
In the mid-1990s, when I had an opportunity to get paid to review Captain America, I looked at it as a chance to try to understand not only the character, but also patriotism in general. How is that someone can pledge their allegiance so blindly to a government as to adopt its national image as their own? To so blindly follow a government as to accept it as inherently right and justified regardless of what the means or the ends actually are?
What I learned, though, through reading the comics and other independent research, was that Captain America is NOT the embodiment of America, the U.S. government, or even the American dream. He's an embodiment of the Bill of Rights: the first ten ammendments to the U.S. Constitution. Captain America -- at least the Steve Rogers character who is the most often referred to as Captain America -- is NOT beholden to the U.S. government and has repeatedly run into sharp contrast with them.
Here's the problem, though. While I now understand better where the character is derived from, and how he is generally approached by creators, his character now strikes me as shallow. Effectively, there's never really been a difference in character between Steve Rogers and Captain America, even before he let his identity be publicly known. And the extent of the character is essentially the Bill of Rights. There's no real political or religious affiliation (by design). There's no long-standing love interest (by design). There's no real questioning of his actions or his methods. He's right, he's just, and he believes that unconditionally.
Which bores me to no end.
The appeal of a Spider-Man or a Thing character is that they have internal questions that they keep asking. They question their actions and, more frequently, the consequences of their actions. They question themselves and their worth. There's a depth of character that simply isn't present in Captain America. Captain America isn't really a person; he's a set of ideas. Valid and noble ideas, to be sure, but that's not enough to make up a character in my mind.
So on this day, where U.S. citizens detonate in excess of 250,000,000 pounds of explosives to celebrate our collective two-fingered salute to the British, I'm reminded that while the Bill of Rights contains some excellent ideas and was crucial to the inception of both the United States and Captain America, the ultimate results in both cases have long since ignored the brilliant original structure and have been wallowing in hollow symbolism, relying on muscle to sanction their own self-imposed, unwavering self-rightousness.