Man, during the rise of the MCU and the DCEU, people talked a lot about superheroes that represent the US. In DC comics, you have Superman, who represents Truth, Justice, and the American Way. In Marvel, you have Captain America, who represents traditional American values, and Iron Man, who represents the futurism of American values.
Now, we are getting all kinds of shows and movies that are taking those characters, and twisting their American Nationalism on itself, and showing the realities of our current situation.
Returning readers know that I am a massive Captain America fan, being raised by two military officers, growing up moving from one base to another every 3ish years. However, I also know that the America that I was raised to believe in is not the one we find ourselves in today, and so I still identify as a wildly patriotic person, for a nation that doesn’t exist.
In the MCU Disney+ show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we follow Sam Wilson who doesn’t believe that anyone can properly fill the shoes of Steve Rogers, so he gives away the shield to a museum, only to find out that the US government finds the propaganda-power of the shield to be too valuable, and give it to a man named John Walker.
John Walker, on paper, looked like he would be a good replacement for Steve Rogers. He was a high school football captain (the ’80s equivalent of star baseball player), served in the Army and earned three Medal of Honors (the first person to ever do so), had a Person-of-Color best friend, and matched the Blonde Hair/Blue Eyes aesthetic of Steve (more on that later). However, his years in the Army would later be described as the worst years of his life. I feel like if we wanted to get a glimpse of what his Army career looked like, we could go back and watch the flashback scenes from the Marvel Netflix show The Punisher, because both these men served in less-than-public missions.
Then, with the ensuing Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he was given the Super Soldier Serum that made Steve Rogers into Captain America. Except, it didn’t. To understand what went wrong, we need to remember two lines from Captain America: The First Avenger, in a scene from Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci):
The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion.
Whatever happens tomorrow [when you get the serum], you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
Steve Rogers was a good man, and he got the serum before he went to war, before he saw the atrocities that is war. Who knows, if Steve had gotten the serum after a few years of service, would he have turned out okay?
Unfortunately for John Walker, he never got that choice. So his PTSD was amplified, his ego remained unchecked, and he believed that as long as he followed orders, he would always have the support of his country, because that’s what they told him, and that’s what his career exemplified.
So, when he, in a fit of rage, kills a member of the flag smashers by bringing his shield down on his enemy’s neck, he is surprised, and furthermore outraged, that the military didn’t support him.
I lived my life by your mandates! I dedicated my life to your mandates! I only ever did what you asked of me, what you told me to be and trained me to do, and I did it. And I did it well.
You built me.
He was the result of the US military’s desire for results without fully understanding the process. When it first happened with Steve Rogers, there was a single person who was trusted to make the right decision, who all responsibility falls upon. That decision was not made by committee.
Every time after Steve Rogers that someone tried to recreate Captain America failed, and not just because they couldn’t recreate the serum itself, but because the focus was always on results, and not on the process.
Also, if you think that John Walker is redeemed by the end of the series, I would suggest you examine why. Does merely regretting your actions absolve you of them? Is losing your job all the atonement required after extrajudicial murder?
The desire to become a superhuman cannot be separated from supremacist ideals. Anyone with that serum is inherently on that path.Zemo
Isaiah Bradley was one in a long line of people that were used to recreate the Super Soldier Serum, not including the other 299 African-American soldiers who were lied to during the Korean War. Throughout the Weapon Plus Program and other experimentation, Bucky “Winter Soldier” Barnes, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff, Carl “Luke Cage” Lucas, Frank “Nuke” Simpson, James “Wolverine” Howlett’s adamantine bonding, and Wade “Deadpool” Wilson were all subjected to some kind of biochemical process in an attempt to recreate Steve Rogers and his Super Soldier Serum.
To learn more about Isaiah, you can read this article, where I talk about how Steve Rogers is the America we wish we were, Isaiah Bradley is the America we have been, and John Walker is the America we are.
For a shortened version, what happened to Isaiah Bradley was a mix of different racist policies and culture throughout our history. Starting with lying about what the serum was (like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of 1932), and later incarcerating a person of color for engaging in acts that are celebrated when done by a white person (Bucky gets pardoned in the series).
The first well known satire of Captain America was from the 1986 Alan Moore comic Watchmen, which had a film adaptation in 2009 by Zack Snyder. Ironically, this is the only superhero movie from Zack Snyder I’ve enjoyed, because Snyder and Watchmen both love to break down superheroes.
In it, The Comedian is a superhero, part of a superteam, who fought in World War II, in the Pacific Theater. A famous shot of him is holding a flamethrower, which he uses to light a cigar in his mouth. After being forced to register with the US Government (similar to Marvel’s Sokovia Accords), he gets assigned to multiple Black Ops missions, including killing John F. Kennedy on Richard Nixon’s orders. It is a poorly kept secret that the US Government has undertaken dozens of illegal extrajudicial murders on their own soil for various political purposes. I don’t know which ones are true or not, but if you don’t believe in any conspiracy theories, that’s a strong stance to take.
One of the hardest things about his character, though, is that he is a rapist, with attempted rape “on screen” against his coworker/fellow superhero, Silk Spectre.
It is also well documented that there is a major sexual assault/harassment issue with our military servicemembers.
According to RAND, a nonprofit research organization that works with the military,
One in 16 women and one in 143 men are estimated to experience sexual assault within DoD. At the service academies, one in six women and one in 29 men experience sexual assault.
Estimates for sexual harassment are one in four women and one in 16 men.
In 2018, there were 6,053 reported sexual assaults, compared with the estimated prevalence from surveys suggesting that over 20,000 service members were sexually assaulted.
In 2019, the military services and the National Guard Bureau processed and investigated over 1,600 formal and informal complaints of sexual harassment. However, in a survey of active duty service members in 2018, approximately 119,000 individuals reported experiencing sexual harassment in the previous 12 months.RAND.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1318-1.html
In fact, throughout her decades long career in/with the military, the position my mother has spent the most time in is as a Sexual Assault Response Counselor (SARC). Her job is exclusively to be a safe place for victims to come to, and then find the perpetrators, and make them face consequences. Her biggest problem, is that the consequences rarely fit the crime. They might be dishonorably discharged, but then they are free to walk the streets, continue their lives, and continue to be a threat to those around them. This is a major problem that the military has suffered, and will continue to suffer.
When it comes to satire, however, I’ve not seen a show do it better than Amazon Prime’s The Boys. In it, the biggest superhero in the world is a Superman satire, with more American Exceptionalism and Iconography thrown in. Homelander, played by the wonderfully terrifying Anthony Starr.
In the first season, Homelander can be defined by the vulgar mantra “I can do whatever the f*ck I want.” He knows he is unkillable, and no one can physically control him. He works as an employee of Vought, which is a superhero company that manages superheroes around the country, not unlike the Hero Association from One Punch Man. They do their best to control him, by giving him purpose and appreciation from the public, but as the show progresses, he realizes that he doesn’t need Vought to feel appreciated by the public.
Not only is he a metaphor for American Exceptionalism, but also for a certain previous US President who believed that he could do whatever he wants.
He’s always been a Trump analogue for me.
He has this really combustible mix of complete weakness and insecurity, and just horrible power and ambition, and it’s just such a deadly combo.
All he ever wants is to be the most powerful person he can be, even though he’s completely inadequate in his abilities to handle it. So it’s white-male victimization and unchecked ambition.
The more awful public figures act, the more fans they seem to be getting. That’s a phenomenon that we wanted to explore, that Homelander is realizing that he can actually show them who he really is and they’ll love him for it.RollingStone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/boys-penis-homelander-trump-billy-joel-season-3-1369258/
However, the biggest aspect of American satire for me, is in his relationship with Stormfront. In it, Homelander falls in love with another superheroine named Stormfront, who likes to get into trouble with popular, though “politically incorrect,” speeches about defending the nations borders from illegal immigrants, Social Justice Warriors, and conservatives being persecuted.
Later in the show, it is revealed that Stormfront is literally a Nazi, as her superpowers keep her from aging. She was friends with Adolph Hitler. Not a metaphor.
People love what I have to say! They believe in it! They just don’t like the word “Nazi”. That’s all.
She also falls in love with Homelander, because he is a Blonde Hair/Blue Eyed superhero. Which brings to question, why is Aryan seem to be the “classic” American look? Well, it’s part because Nazi ideas are still prevalent in our society, and also because of Steve Rogers. What needs to be mentioned, is that Steve Rogers was designed that way not because his creators, who were Jewish, believed that is what was perfect, but because that is what Hitler and Nazis thought was perfect, and it was supposed to add insult to injury. Unfortunately, it took on a life of its own and people have lost the irony in it.
I think that you are the best of us. I think that you are everything that we should be.
Why do I believe that Nazi ideas are so popular in American culture? Again, Stormfront spells it out for us.
Operation Paperclip was a secret US intelligence program from 1945-1959, wherein over 1,600 Nazi scientists, engineers, and technicians were employed by the US government. These weren’t just soldiers, or boots-on-the-ground Nazis, no these were leaders of the Nazi Party, because they were successful at what they did. These 1,600 Nazis were given positions of power during the formative years of post-war America. Is it any wonder that Nazi ideals have spread from those positions over the decades? We literally absorbed high-skill Nazi’s into our government. Of course we did it before too, after the Civil War, with “Galvanized Yankees,” when about 5,600 Confederate soldiers were able to rejoin the Union army.
Lastly, in the new season of The Boys, we have Jensen Ackles’ as Soldier Boy, a more direct reflection of Captain America. If we remember, in The First Avenger, after Steve Rogers gets the Serum, he is only involved in propaganda, and isn’t until he breaks orders does he actually begin to be involved directly in action. Well, Soldier Boy never broke those orders, and thus never left the Propaganda machine. He never stormed the beaches of Normandy, he never did half the accomplishments he is credited with.
What he did do, however, was help smuggle cocaine into the country (famously done by the CIA). It can also be pointed out that Soldier Boys black outs lead to mass murder, with a rather nuclear style. The fact that he kills 19 civilians, and then leaves without any punishment or justice, can be seen as a metaphor for the US using nuclear bombs in WWII, but was not charged with war crimes for it.
There are a lot in superhero satire, but I think that the nationalism satire is the best from across these different shows and movies.