In 2014, it’s easy to think of Captain America as a bit of a tough sell. He’s a figure of an earlier time, and bringing him into the modern age has always meant a dance between sly retcons and outright hokeyness. He’s also a pain in the ass, sticking up for abstract ideas of justice and liberty when a lot of other heroes are content to just blow up the bad guy and move on. And then there’s that name: When the first Cap movie debuted in South Korea, it bore the unassuming title The First Avenger. After 60 years of military bases, having “America” in your hero’s name had become a marketing liability.
So far, Marvel’s solution has been to bring the conflict front and center, drawing on deep questions about American power that have become newly relevant in the wake of the Snowden leaks. The Winter Soldier was bleak, betraying a real pessimism about US intelligence operations, and if the third movie follows the Civil War plotline as Marvel has suggested, we’ll see things get even bleaker. (Major spoilers ahead, so be warned.)
The bulk of the series is about the fight between Iron Man and Captain America over the Superhero Registration Act, which becomes a stand-in for broader issues of civil liberties and government control. At the peak of the series, Cap is killed by agents of Red Skull after surrendering to the government, a symbol of the ultimate failure of the registration project. When the Civil War comics came out in 2006, it was a statement on the Iraq war, how the rush to fight had left behind certain fundamental American values. Eight years later, the ideas seem even bigger.