After all that anger, all the sadness and disappointment and bemusement over what most people saw as a pigheaded and staggeringly misguided creative choice from Marvel, it turns out Captain America isn’t a secret Hydra agent. That’s all just brainwashing, apparently.
So that’s good, right? It’s a positive thing that one of America’s most beloved comic book creations – the brainchild of two Jewish men working during World War Two – wasn’t turned into a traitor forever, isn’t it? Of course it’s good, but I can’t get over the smug cynicism of Marvel even pulling this, particularly since they went on the offensive when the issue was released, ensuring everyone this wasn’t a cop-out.
Writer Nick Spencer was clear on the reality of the work: “This is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.” There’s no way that can be misinterpreted, so this new and totally unsurprising revelation that Steve was indeed under Hydra’s control against his will can’t help but feel painfully cruel. It stings even more because we all knew this would happen: Where it be a sudden backtracking brought upon by the anger of fans – highly unlikely given the way comics works, due to the level of planning required – or because it was planned all along, the U-turn was inevitable. Neither option is particularly appealing. Marvel lying about it can barely inspire my anger because the stench of falsehoods hangs over every statement. But it’s important to remember that just because you know you’re being lied to, that doesn’t make it acceptable.
It’s especially disappointing because the inherent story that seems to be in play in the current Captain America run – the nation’s hero, the embodiment of optimism and goodness, has his autonomy stripped from him as he is forced into a subservient, treacherous role – could have made for a compelling story. Who wouldn’t want to read a psychological thriller that’s equal parts Manchurian Candidate, The Man in the High Castle and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? History can and should be explored through a speculative lens, and has been done so effectively for generations. But doing all of that would require Marvel to trust their audience, and that doesn’t seem to be a priority for them.
Being upfront about the changes would have done a world of good for everyone involved: Executives, creators and fans. Instead, what fans got was a cheap shock trick dragged out over weeks, punctuated by apathetic insistences that they were wrong, all to be drawn over with a red pen that may as well spell out ‘sorry not sorry’. Marvel, and all creators, have the right to tell whatever stories they want, but if they’re more concerned with leading on their fans with straight up lies than informing them of their intentions, how on earth can a trusting relationship be built? Art is important but it shouldn’t come before people.
Comic books have a long, spotty history of executing gimmicks to generate headlines and higher sales. They’ve killed off countless characters, given them new powers, retconned years of storylines, and done pretty much everything else you can imagine. Sometimes it works; other times it’s just another mess to be removed from the timeline when the next reboot happens. Comic fans expect them on some level, but it’s crucial that publishers evolve as their audiences do.
Readers demand more from their pop culture now – audiences are more inclusive and hungry for work that reflects the world. They don’t just accept the same eternal cishet white maleness spoon-fed to them since birth. Marvel are clearly aware of this because their attempts at pushing beyond default boundaries have paid off well: Ms Marvel has a dedicated following, Black Panther has more buzz surrounding him than ever, and Twitter hashtags extoling the virtues of a queer Captain America spoke volumes about the desires of the paying public. Readers didn’t want Hydra Captain America, and I believe on some level Marvel knew this, but the staggering ignorance shown in regards to the socio-cultural context of the character, and the current political climate his narrative is part of suggests a willful refusal to engage with both readers and the times. It’s not just callous; it’s bad writing.
I shudder to think of how this development will be defended by the same contrarians who see this as proof of some “SJW conspiracy” or evil fan entitlement, but moving on, I believe Marvel will struggle to rebuild those crucial fan relationships that they spent so many years cultivating. Perhaps a positive step forward would be to diversify their writers’ pool and find fresh voices with visions that move beyond ‘mean equals edgy’. Short term sales may be decent for them, but there are other outlets for readers to check out and those ones will have learned from the hypocrisy of demanding trust while outright lying. Audiences deserve better.