Blood on the Shield: The Importance of Acknowledging the Complicated Narratives of American Heroism
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In our house, we are big fans of Captain America. My husband and four boys all have multiple Captain America shield emblem T-shirts. There are Cap sweatshirts floating around, Cap facemasks, action figures, and of course plastic shields. But all of this pales to my husband’s really (truly) impressive Captain America Funko Pop collection. We are a little too proud of this collection—a collection we are still growing—and we have definitely spent more money on it than perhaps grown adult people should spend, but everyone has their thing that brings them joy. Captain America is one of those things for us.
What we’ve never felt while watching Captain America is a temptation to become nationalistic—or to overly idealize what America is. I’ve often wondered why. With the title hero literally named after our nation, it would be so easy to go there, the softest of softballs ever pitched. In the first film, Steve Rogers, the little guy from Brooklyn, New York (the most American city in America), stood up to bullies again and again and became super-soldier Captain America. He went on to fight Nazis and save the world. He got the girl, and sacrificed everything, all while wearing the red, white, and blue. It doesn’t get much more American than that.
I would not, however, call Captain America: The First Avenger a nationalistic film, or propagandistic in any way, really. Not compared to Independence Day, which I recently rewatched for the first time in probably a decade or more.We don’t do “once upon a time,” and we don’t get to ask for a fairy godmother to save us; in America, we save ourselves.
This side of MAGA-history, Independence Day rings a little less awesome than it used to. It’s still one of the great science fiction action films of the nineties, but I feel like I can see the message of the movie so much clearer now—and not just because I’m older and more mature. The world is in crisis! Who will save us? America will! What will other countries do? Wait for America! I can’t help but wonder what role stories like Independence Day had in shaping the ethos of a culture already predetermined to believe America was the greatest country on Earth. Or how much these movies merely reflected and reinforced that perspective for a ready, eager, and willing audience.
There is a big difference between Independence Day and the Captain America movies. I think the difference lies with this: The Captain America stories are, by nature and with intentionality, aspirational. If Captain America is understood to be the quintessential American hero, then the virtues he embodies are supposed to be quintessential American virtues. But are they? In Captain America and Avengers films Steve Rogers’s strength comes from his servant heart. At the beginning of Steve’s story, he’s not the greatest, the strongest, the biggest, the best—he gets chosen for the super serum because of his willingness to lay down his life for others. In his own time, he’s the strongest Avenger (he’s the only Avenger), but he ends up leading a team that is stronger, bigger, and smarter than he is, and he does so with humility and deference.
Do any of those things sound like 21st century American values to you?
That’s because they’re not. They are values we should aspire to have, and what we should aspire to be—as individuals, families, and communities, and thus a nation. Our strength should come from humility, deference for others, self-sacrifice, and love. This is what America should be, but sadly I think we find these virtues sorely lacking today, especially in the political arena. But these are cornerstone themes of the Captain America movies, and it is important to note that none of them are uniquely American. In this way, the Captain America stories avoid the trap of becoming propagandistic.
Independence Day, however, has a different set of virtues to promote, all of which are distinctly American. A movie about America’s response to an alien invasion, when the story presents a global threat and then provides only one nation smart enough and capable enough to meet it—the message to the audience is clear:
Get in, losers. America’s kicking some alien butt and you’re invited along for the ride. Yee-haw.
What came first? The crisis—or America’s greatness as she responds to it? Well, it doesn’t really matter, because all the other vaguely mentioned nations in the film sit on their thumbs waiting for America to just do something about these aliens already, because clearly America is the only nation on Earth equipped, capable, and brave enough to try. And in case we need reinforcement of this ideal, there are several dramatic shots of flags and the Statue of Liberty just for good measure.
Independence Day is a modern American tall tale, and we love tall tales in America where we have can-do-ism. Hard-baked into the anatomy of American storytelling is self-reliance, individualism, and a perception of heroism that is larger than life. We can do it; what’s more, the world needs us to do it: to have the biggest army, the best scientists, the greatest ingenuity in the face of doom and death. If not America, then who?
We don’t do “once upon a time,” and we don’t get to ask for a fairy godmother to save us; in America, we save ourselves.
This can-do-ism is absolutely present in the Captain America stories, as well, because remember, Cap is an American character through and through. And for an American audience, maybe—just maybe—it’s why we love that of all the Avengers, it’s Steve Rogers who stands up to Thanos alone on that battlefield in Endgame, with a broken shield. A servant leader, ready and willing to die for the sake of the world, yes, but also in his heart just a little guy from Brooklyn who is still ready to face the bullies again and again and again. It isn’t nationalism to admire someone like Captain America, and it is okay to tell distinctly American stories of heroism where there is goodness to truthfully acknowledge.
And what is the endgame of the famous portals scene in Avengers: Endgame? What is the point and purpose of Cap’s final stand? What does it mean that his shield is broken, but he gets up anyway? When we answer these questions, I think we find that the scene isn’t about Cap’s greatness as an American hero going it alone, or America saving the day to the exclusion of everyone else.
By contrast, in the well-known Independence Day speech delivered by President Whitmore to rally the troops for their last-ditch attack against the aliens, Whitmore tells them that if they succeed, July 4 will be known as Independence Day not just for Americans, but for all mankind. It’s a great cinematic moment, and arguably one of the most famous on-screen rally speeches of all time—but it’s also saturated with American exceptionalism and pro-America propaganda. Imagine the same scene, but instead of Americans, it’s Russians who figured out how to take down the aliens and save the world. And imagine the movie takes place on June 12, Russia Day, and it’s a Russian president delivering the same speech saying that all nations on Earth will now celebrate June 12 as their Independence Day. I think most Americans watching the scene would feel a sense of discomfort—a sense, maybe, that their national identity was being rewritten to serve a Russian patriotic agenda.
As a teenager, I loved movies like Independence Day. As an adult, I can’t help but wonder how the rest of the world interprets the message of the stories—and how such stories formed us into the people we are today. It’s not wrong to admire American heroism and to tell and enjoy stories where Americans are exceptional. Neither can all stories be all things to all audiences. But what damage do we do to ourselves when we present America as the only great nation on earth? When we disenfranchise the Other from participation in hero narratives? When we disenfranchise members of our own society?
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wrestles with this disenfranchisement, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Picking up the Captain America story where it left off with Sam Wilson/The Falcon in possession of Steve Rogers’s shield, Sam donates the shield to the Smithsonian rather than taking up Cap’s mantle. Sam feels it would be best to retire Captain America and preserve his friend’s legacy. Furthermore, as Sam well knows, you can’t just hand Captain America’s shield over to a Black man in America and expect him to wield it without also carrying the complicated weight of what it means to represent America’s past, present, and future as a Black man. Sam isn’t interested in propaganda; he’s interested in the truth, and he has a lot to work through before he can decide if he’s going to put on the stars and stripes.
But America loves having a national hero, so the government appoints a man named Johnny Walker to be the next Captain America. A decorated war hero, Walker has everything on the outside appearance that should make him a qualified Cap, but he is no Steve Rogers (or Sam Wilson), and as the series progresses, there is a darkness in Walker’s heart that eventually corrupts everything Captain America is supposed to stand for.
The show tells a story that challenges us to see past the propaganda of America’s greatness; it begs us to understand why Steve Rogers’s Captain America was always an aspirational figure rather than a figure representing who we actually are. And as we move toward having our first Black man become Captain America, it asks us to reckon with our diverse identity, to wrestle with the sins of our past and present, and to look to the future with hope.
By acknowledging the sins of the stars and stripes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t the anti-Independence Day or anti-aspirational hero story—but it is a necessary corrective to decades of narratives that have told only half-truths about who we are. It’s asking us to see the “complicated legacy” of that shield: What was used as a tool of liberation and defense by Captain America/Steve Rogers bears the emblem of a nation too often comfortable with oppression. Steve is gone, but his shield is still here. Does it represent him, the higher virtues he stood for, America, or some combination of the three? And what will it mean for a Black man—Sam Wilson—to take up Steve’s mantle and his shield?
When the writers of the show had Johnny Walker murder someone in cold blood using Cap’s shield, the act—the spray of unjust blood up the side of a shield that has only ever stood for justice—made me want to vomit. It was like watching a fictionalized reenactment of the insurrectionists who beat capitol police officers with American flags. Symbols are powerful, in stories and in real life. Sam tries to wipe the blood of the murder off the shield, but he can’t get it off. The legacy of the shield is complicated.
Acknowledging that something is complicated, though, can be an important step toward growth. I don’t want to live in a pretend country filled with propaganda—I want to participate in, watch, and listen to the complicated narratives so I can learn who we really are. Steve Rogers was very much an American character, but his heroism transcended what is unique to America. As the former Captain America, he—and Sam after him—can remain an aspirational character and a symbol of not only what is good about America but also all the things America should strive to be. The thing about striving to be better, though, is that you have to first acknowledge that you have a problem. And that’s what makes the legacy of Cap’s shield “complicated,” as Sam says in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I’m looking forward to Sam taking up the shield; it’s time for a new legacy to begin.
Hi K.B. I have always loved the films and how Chris Evans has made Steve Rogers his own throughout the journey. This is a very insightful and thought – provoking article! I wrote about Captain America for my undergrad thesis. What I had tried to do was analyze the first ten original comics for their content and parallels between the America we know from history during WWII and the United States as pictured and described in the comics. It was a challenging project and I’m not sure I was completely successful but I learned more about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby after everything.
What’s crazy is that the United States in the comics is continuously infiltrated and/or overrun by domestic terrorists (i.e. Hitler, Japanese generals, war-minded magicians, etc.) . The U.S. in the forties was trying to fight from their shores, public ad campaigns targeted at a larger community involvement and awareness of America’s presence in foreign countries. FDR stimulated the economy, provided jobs, and kept a nation’s productivity up at a time of fear and bloodshed. However, in 1940’s Captain America storylines – there’s little mention or detail overall of the impact the war has had on America’s economy or people. The violence and domestic terrorism revolves around Cap and Bucky’s world, their government, and their allies. Cap’s character was also depicted more black and white – fighting wrongs and cementing rights. Astonishingly enough, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor an entire year before it occurred.
Captain America has come a long way since then and so has his character development which is why I love the depiction the films have established. They gave him more clarity, justification, and self-relatable traits, that identified him more human than super-human. Thank you for talking about the issues surrounding Cap America – the symbolism of his shield – and the legacy his responsibilities hold.
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