Let’s not beat around the bush: Steve Rogers’ new Avengers: Infinity War look is pretty great. The beard, in conjunction with the whole rough-and-tumble worn-out uniform thing? It’s working — it’s working so well that Cap’s beard itself was the most talked-about part of Infinity War’s promotion according to social media analysts.
But there’s more to Infinity War’s Captain America than just aesthetics. It signals a major shift in Steve Rogers’ story that reverberates down to the core tenets of his character — a departure from his starched red-white-and-blue cleanliness. As Hannibal Buress deadpanned in Spider-Man: Homecoming, “I’m pretty sure that guy’s a war criminal now.” And all of this in conjunction with actor Chris Evans’ recent announcement that he plans on stepping back from the character in the next year — well, it’s safe to say Cap’s in a bit of a weird spot.
But here’s the thing: Steve’s comic book history is packed with this exact sort of identity-shedding, shield-dropping crossroads and disillusionment, and these moments have actually been key in defining the way we understand and relate to Captain America from the very beginning. What we’re seeing on screen now is just a small piece of a much bigger, much more complicated puzzle.
Defining a Legend
Unlike the majority of his fellow Golden Age holdovers, Captain America lacks the clear definition of a rock-solid core or easily recognizable mantra. Though he’s roughly as old as they are, Steve doesn’t have Superman’s concise motto of truth and justice or Batman’s never-ending war on criminals. His creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, set out to ensure that his primary defining characteristic was an unyielding loyalty to the “American Dream” — which is exactly as subjective and esoteric as it sounds. On top of that, he has a built-in stop gap: a mid-’60s revival, care of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Avengers #4, which first spun the “frozen in ice and resurrected by the Avengers” narrative that fans of the MCU will no doubt recognize.
These two puzzle pieces make Steve’s history a minefield of retcons, heel turns, and transformative contradictions — and, for the most part, that’s by design. Questioning his purpose and place in the bigger picture became a major narrative throughline in Captain America stories, almost immediately following his return to the spotlight. After all, the “dream” he fought for back in the ’40s had changed dramatically over the years. It didn’t make a lot of sense to a new generation; a new audience that was either too young to have experienced life in the heart of World War II or old enough to have been touched by the encroaching cynicism and conflict of Vietnam. The creative minds behind Captain America titles had to start acknowledging that dissonance early on to keep Steve’s books profitable and on the shelves.
Though as you’d probably guess, diving headlong into an existential quagmire directly wasn’t the best way to go about things — at least not right away. It took three years after the ’60s reboot for Steve’s first major crisis to make landfall with Tales of Suspense #95 by Lee and artist Gene Colan — and, honestly? It was probably a lot less climatic than you might expect.
Here’s the story: after having dated Sharon Carter — who he at the time knew only as Agent 13 — for a few months, Steve decided it was absolutely true love. He took her on a date and, in maybe the most awkward romantic turn in Captain America history, tried to pop the question.
Sharon, unsurprisingly, rejected him. Heartbroken, Steve promptly, publicly unmasked himself (a first in Cap history) and retired in a fit of pure ’60s melodrama that, unsurprisingly, didn’t last. The instant the news broke that Cap was no longer in the picture, a series of pretenders to the throne stepped forward, crafting their own Cap cosplay looks and jumping into the fray. They all wound up, at best, making a huge mess or things or, at worst, hurt pretty badly.
Feeling guilty about the carnage his absence had unintentionally wrought, Steve begrudgingly returned to action. He even engineered an extremely convoluted crackpot scheme to get everyone to forget his identity as Steve Rogers involving staged funerals, dummies, and “lifelike latex masks.”
The most obvious end result was Cap reborn yet again: Steve Rogers back in the good fight, stars and stripes and all. But the subtext of the moment, and the thing that actually moved the needle in terms of Cap’s ongoing story, was a pretty strong argument that Steve Rogers himself was as important to Captain America as the name and mantle itself. It was a thesis statement that Captain America comics would continue to stress test for years to come; a flag planted on the hill: Steve Rogers is more than just some old baby-faced grandpa in red-white-and-blue.
The next major flashpoint for Steve’s slow burning identity crisis was a bit more confident and direct in its approach. It came seven years later in 1974, when the Comics Code Authority had started loosening its chokehold on what was or wasn’t appropriate for funny books and the fear about Steve being too unrelatable for kids had (mostly) abated.
Steve had just come through the original Secret Empire by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema — a story where he was forced to confront a conspiracy that lead him all the way to a corrupt oval office (a thinly veiled response to the real world Watergate scandal.) He was suddenly confronted with the reality that the needs of the government and the needs of the people could be completely thrown out of alignment. “The Dream” was not immune to darkness and greed.
So, thoroughly disillusioned and unable to justify standing up for an ideal he believed to have been tainted from the inside out, Steve cast away his Captain America identity in favor of a new one: Nomad, the man without a country.
It all sounds pretty serious and poetic laid out like that. On paper, the Nomad transition seemed like a huge deal — maybe even Steve’s first real attempt at existential soul searching after the whole botched proposal thing — but in execution the story was ... well, campy. Steve proudly made his own costume by hand (yes, including the fabulous naval-length deep v-neck and dashing yellow cape) then immediately proceeded to bumble around New York City for a handful of issues making an absolute fool of himself.
Most of Nomad’s misfortune stemmed from Steve’s secret identity — the fruits of his weird, convoluted labor from back during his first go around with retirement still paying off. No one knew who Steve Rogers was, so no one knew who Nomad was. No one knew if they could trust him, where he came from, or what his intentions were. To the good people of New York, the profound, thoughtful Nomad was just another wack job in a mask.
The new identity lasted a grand total of four issues and felt more like a Three Stooges routine than a thorough rumination of America’s political climate.
It wasn’t, however, completely without merit. For all its shortcomings and goofs, Nomad’s absurdity was really the spoonful of sugar mixed into an otherwise tough to swallow message. Sure, it was hilarious out of context, but this was Steve at his most radical and most political to date, and the fruition of an idea sewn some seven years prior. Nomad was proof positive that Captain America stories were not beholden to governmental ideals — even if the execution left something to be desired.
Captain America No More
Cap’s next major tangle with disillusionment came in 1987 with Captain America #332 by Mark Gruenwald and Tom Morgan. Two years prior, Cap had set up a hotline service (no really) that would allow anyone in the country to phone in and present issues they believed warranted Cap’s attention. The idea was to make Steve a true “agent of the people” rather than an extension of any organized legal body — but eventually, following a series of military-adjacent missions, the feds began taking issue.
Things hit a boiling point when the continuation of the super soldier program was put on the table. The Pentagon and the White House did some digging and found enough paperwork to substantiate a case that everything about Steve Rogers — from his participation in the original Project: Rebirth that gave him his powers to the uniform and shield he used on a daily basis — were actually government property. He could continue to operate as Cap, but he could only do so as an official, sanctioned government agent.
Then, to really drive the issue home, they threatened him with a massive tax fraud case (no really) about the million dollars he’d been issued as back pay from his time in the army in WWII; money he’d used to set up the hotline. The ultimatum was simple: Either become a contract-signing US government super-soldier or shut down the hotline and pay back a million bucks.
After some serious qualming, Steve decided he would rather turn in the stars and stripes altogether than have to put on a leash or shut down his means of communication with the American Everyman. He handed his uniform and shield back, saying once and for all that his commitment was to the American Dream, rather than any aspect of the American government.
Here’s where you’re probably pausing to say “wait a minute …” if you’re a fan of the MCU. It’s really not hard to see the similarities between this story and the plot of Captain America: Civil War crossing over into Infinity War’s buildup — and things only get more uncanny when you learn that Steve promptly dropped off the map following his retirement, grew a beard, and started ... uh, fighting bears.
Well, okay, maybe not that last part. But the transient, shieldless, bearded Steve Rogers iconography we’re seeing in full force on the big screen started coming into play here in a major way.
Eventually, Steve suited up with a new, darker costume (this was the height of the “black costume” fad in superhero comics) and began fighting without his iconic shield under the utilitarian name “The Captain.” If Nomad was a dress rehearsal for testing out just how far he could be pushed off the reservation, The Captain was opening night. This was Steve stripped of all the hedging, hand wringing, and camp his previous attempts at rebellion had used to soften the blow — an overtly radicalized freedom fighter who openly opposed the government yet still stood for inherently patriotic values and still believed in The Dream. Sure, it all still oozed the melodrama and theatrical flair that had saturated things back in the ’60s and ’70s — but this time, Steve meant business.
The Captain eventually drew the attention of the government branch that retired Steve in the first place. The entire situation came to an explosive conclusion when they sent John Walker, acting Captain America and certified Good Old Boy, to put an end to Steve’s vigilantism. With a little manipulation from the Red Skull thrown in for good measure, John Walker ended up suffering a manic break and then handing the Captain America mantle back to Steve yet again — another testament to the pervasive and unquantifiable “it” factor of Steve Rogers.
Death And Rebirth, Redux
Two major events, both in comics and outside of them, happened before Steve’s next brush with retirement. The first were the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which, for obvious reasons, had a major upheaving effect on just about all American pop culture. The second — by absolutely no accident — came a year later, after the Captain America river had been rerouted to better suit the new post-attack landscape. Steve publically unmasked himself and this time, it stuck. It stuck so well that it’s actually pretty hard for some more recent comics converts and children of the MCU to imagine things any other way.
Shortly thereafter, things started getting dicy. In 2006, the Civil War event came crashing into the Marvel Universe like a thunderstorm. In theory, it all kind of seemed like a riff on a lot of Steve’s issues from the ’80s — he didn’t want to kowtow to the government, he didn’t believe in the Superhero Registration Act, and so on — but that’s where the similarities ended. This time around, Steve kept the mantle, even as a fugitive — something that would have been unthinkable two decades prior. The new zeitgeist fueling Cap stories was more interested in seeing Steve’s sticktoitness than his willingness to toss everything aside for what he believed in.
Civil War ended bleakly, with Steve being executed by a sniper as he was led up the steps to a courthouse where he would have faced criminal charges. His recently resurrected ex-kid sidekick, Bucky Barnes, took up the job in his place — so not an official resignation, but the effect of one all the same.
Of course, we’re talking about a superhero comic here, so Steve didn’t stay dead forever — and that’s where things started to really remix the formula. Rather than taking his mantle back off Bucky’s hands right away, Steve saw his revival as a chance to redefine himself yet again — but with a twist. Not only did Steve’s public identity insure there was no room for Nomad-era camp, but the new direction of the cultural wind meant there was no room for the Captain’s overt anti-government stance.
In the post-9/11 world, idea of what it meant to be Captain America had shifted dramatically yet again. There was less pressure for a stick-it-to-the-man, freedom fighting, system dismantling superhero; and more hunger for a tried-and-true patriot who was consistent rather than revolutionary. Readers wanted a Cap who represented reliability and security; who could really “get the job done,” even if the job itself was messy and multifaceted. For the first time, Steve stepping down from his duties was not an implicitly anti-establishment statement — it was largely the exact opposite.
Steve took on a new uniform — blue and white, no red, a suit similar to the one seen in the begining of Captain America: The Winter Soldier — and began working as the leader of the Secret Avengers under the on-the-nose name “Captain Rogers” while Bucky continued to work as Captain America. As you could probably guess just by the name, the Secret Avengers were a covert ops team, keeping Steve squarely out of the limelight while also allowing him to demonstrate his ruthless effectiveness. Here, Steve repeatedly tested the limits of his moral center and proved his versatility as a one-man national-security protecting machine while he functioned more as a spy than a soldier.
He stuck with the Secret Avengers for a little over two years until Bucky was “killed” (read: made to fake his own death) and taken off the board. With no active, public Captain America, Steve picked up the shield and uniform once again.
Though, ostensibly, this was a reset to the traditional status quo, the changes laid down through the early 2000s proved to have already solidified. From this moment forward, the gaps between Steve’s exits from the central Captain America role got smaller — but the reasons for his departures got less and less poignant and mission defining and more and more pulp inspired.
In 2012, Steve was transported to the alternate reality of “Dimension Z” where he lived for what he experienced as twelve years but, to the outside world, had only been weeks. Then, to really salt the wound, immediately upon his escape he was sapped of the super soldier serum in his blood, rendering him as old and frail as he would have been had he actually aged naturally since the ’40s.
The elderly Steve retired, handing the mantle over to Sam Wilson who served as Captain America from 2015 to 2017 — even through Steve being made young once more and returning to his role in 2016. They served as Cap simultaneously in two seperate ongoing comics until Sam returned to his role as The Falcon in 2017. Since then, despite being put through a series of major cosmically-fueled, sometimes controversial existential ringers, Steve has yet to officially drop the mantle again.
However, with Infinity War looming and Marvel Cinematic Universe charging full steam ahead into yet another phase, things aren’t likely to remain calm for long. Considering Chris Evans’ candidness about his plans to step down from the role, there’s a very real chance that the next Cap retirement story will actually happen on the big screen — and coming off of Captain America: Civil War’s decidedly “Captain America No More” leanings, that might mean some very real trail blazing. It could give us a chance to see what would have happened had Steve continued down the other side of his mid-’80s fork in the road. A chance to see an incarnation of Cap that maintains some new version that unfiltered anti-establishment energy.
But that’s a hypothetical as daunting as it is profound. No matter what direction Steve goes in on the screen and what source material serves to inspire his final chapters, they’re going to send shockwaves out through every other version of Captain America. Steve’s live action persona has the opportunity to do what his two dimensional counterpart can never and will never be able to do: He has the chance to have an ending that sticks, a permanent retirement for the very first time. But just how that permanence will manifest over the years, and how it’ll disseminate into the future Captain America stories in all mediums, is really anyone’s guess.
Meg Downey is a freelance pop culture journalist based out of Los Angeles who specializes in comics history and superheroes. You can find her on twitter @rustypolished, where’s she’s probably having a very public meltdown about something extremely embarrassing.