Captain America is a pretty popular guy these days — but that wasn’t always the case. Of course, he’s never exactly been an unknown. But there was a time not long ago that saying you were a fan of Captain America would earn you barely concealed eye rolls, quizzical looks, and “uh, really?” stares from just about anyone outside your local comic book shop — and it’s not hard to see why.
His origin story makes him sound like your curmudgeonly grandfather wrapped up with an eternally youthful face. He’s all the “boyscout” parts of Superman without the cool alien origin story. Simply put: there was a time when convincing people that Captain America was worth your while, much less that he was cool, was a herculean effort. Obviously, this is not so true anymore — but maybe not entirely for the reasons you might think.
Sure, one part of Steve’s newfound popularity can be traced back to the global saturation of the MCU into just about every corner of the world, and another can be attributed to the hunkiness of actor Chris Evans. But the truth is that something else has radically shifted his fanbase.
Over the last seven years, Steve Rogers has become shippable as hell.
Shipping Captain America has become so commonplace, so widely accepted and so immediately accessible, it’s created a brand new way to talk about and relate to him both on and off the big screen. It’s sparked new communities built by new fans, and reframed the ideas of old ones. It’s been an earthquake that’s reverberated through superhero pop culture from top to bottom.
That isn’t to say that the MCU invented the idea of shipping Captain America, or that people have only been investing time and energy into Steve’s love life in the last decade. Although romance has never been a huge part of any Captain America story, Steve has been gone through the perfunctory cape-and-cowl comic relationship spirals — as well as slews of fan-imagined torrid affairs — since day one. But before the MCU, the text and the subtext of Steve’s stories were viewed through all together different lenses.
Peggy and Sharon
Take a look at Steve’s two best known (and, depending on who you ask, most awkward) girlfriends from the comics. Peggy and Sharon Carter were an aunt and niece duo who Steve, for a time, dated simultaneously. Peggy fought alongside Steve in WW2 but was “given amnesia” because a shell exploded too close to her and, following Cap’s post-war return, fell back in love with him (read: Captain America) without knowing he was Steve Rogers. Sharon, at the same time, was actively dating Steve as Steve all while knowing he was also dating Peggy, providing no shortage of sitcom-style mistaken identity quandaries where Steve just couldn’t seem to decide which beautiful woman deserved his attention most.
Things went from slapstick to tragic when both women were offloaded from the series almost entirely. Sharon herself was brutally written out in a plot that saw her brainwashed by a cult and forced into committing suicide in front of Steve. Decades later, Sharon would be brainwashed yet again, when she was forced to assassinate Steve during the events of Civil War. Then she was trapped in a pocket dimension and — you get the idea. Not exactly something you’d use to convince someone to become invested in any character involved, especially if you’re trying to convince someone of the depth and nuance of Steve’s interpersonal life.
Now, however, with three movies and a spinoff TV show between the two of them, the on-screen history of Peggy and Sharon Carter has been significantly overhauled from its comic book source. The unfortunate brainwashing subplots have been skipped, the amnesia is foregone, the simultaneous dating and brutal deaths are circumvented. What we’re left with is maybe not the world’s most thoroughly drawn on-screen romance, but that’s okay.
It’s still a serviceable story to sell to moviegoers in two hour chunks — and a touchstone that’s prompted a quick and easy shorthand for some key emotional themes that reach beyond the flag. The improved dynamics work wonders in highlighting the real magnitude of what Steve lost in his time on ice.
Author and editor Lindsay Smith, who curated the Not Without You fanthology, credits the way the MCU handled Steve and Peggy’s relationship as a major building block in the scaffolding that would carry Steve’s romantic life through the franchise.
”I think the sense of ‘missed connections’ is so acute for Steve in the MCU largely because of the way The First Avenger ended.” Smith told me. “The scene where he and Peggy say farewell over the radio is so emotional and perfect [...] that we’re left with such a strong ache for him to find a connection with someone.”
From Stony to Stucky
But that’s all in Steve’s canonical romances. On the subtextual side, things have undergone an even more dramatic renaissance.
Prior to the MCU, Steve’s most popular subtext-based ship was between him and Tony Stark, typically abbreviated as “Stony,” or less commonly as “Superhusbands.” In the days before their movie debuts, Stony fans relied on pre-social-media-boom platforms like LiveJournal, where they painstakingly curated and shared lists of hard won scans of back issues, fanart, and fanfiction away from the prying eyes of the mainstream comics community. It was a niche endeavor inside an already niche hobby — certainly not one that could be talked about, or even understood, publicly.
Sydney Jones, an artist and graphic designer, recalled her experiences in the pre-MCU Stony community. “It was really inspiring, the length people went to make masterposts of moments and resources for where to start reading, what issues to look up,” Jones said. “[..] although it felt very secretive.”
Fans who became invested in Steve via their interest in his dynamic with Tony did so quietly, and typically only after months of concentrated effort to work through back issues and learn story arcs. But despite the effort, it was often more than worth it. Author and fan Magen Cubed explains that the benefit of shipping Stony works on multiple levels.
”Steve is this outwardly perfect moral yardstick that Tony measures himself and all others against in this purely loving, idealistic, and yet self-destructive sort of way,” Cubed said. “Through Steve’s mutual love and respect for Tony, flaws and all, we see a much more humanized version of Steve than I think even the writers intend sometimes.”
These days, the concept of Stony has seeped so far into the mainstream that even actor Robert Downey Jr himself regularly makes winking jokes to his fans about his chemistry with his co-star. Even outside of the strictly romantic fan communities, the Steve-and-Tony relationship has been distilled in a way that provides new inroads to chipping away to Steve’s emotional core — roads that would have taken weeks of work and a helping of luck in the mines of a now defunct LiveJournal community to find before.
Even more explosive has been the phenomena surrounding the subtextual relationship between Steve and Bucky Barnes, now eponymously known as “Stucky.” If the MCU helped course correct Steve/Peggy and Steve/Sharon, and then helped draw fans to the world of Stony; then Stucky was a signal flare straight to a trail of gasoline. It has sparked a bonfire that became a Captain America-shaped beacon for new fans. New fans who may otherwise have gone their whole lives only passively interested in Steve Rogers at all.
The Stucky phenomena owes its momentum to the MCU’s reinvention of Bucky Barnes, which transformed him from child sidekick to Steve’s childhood best friend, providing a wide foundation for fan interpretations of Steve’s life before he was empowered with the super serum, with Bucky as a point of reference. The lens of Bucky and Steve’s on-screen relationship is a shortcut to one of the most easily forgotten pillars of Captain America’s character — that at the end of the day, beyond the jawline and the uniform, there’s just a scrappy kid who doesn’t like bullies. And it did it all by way of providing a really emotionally resonant ship.
It sounds simple, maybe even too obvious in retrospect, but before this incarnation of Bucky was on the table, those years of Steve’s story — his life before the serum, his identity prior to his patriotic twist — existed in a fog of vaguely defined and constantly resummerized Golden Age history. It’s an antidote to Steve’s more weighty conceits: Scrappy kids who don’t like bullies are as far as you can get from government stooges or boring baby-faced grandpas.
In the last seven years, the practice of shipping Steve Rogers has been refined into a sort of lexicon. In record time, it’s given prospective fans access to a hero who may have previously only alienated them. His character hasn’t actually changed — the guy Chris Evans plays on screen is, at his core, the same guy who has been showing up in comics for almost a hundred years. But the barriers between fans and his, well, heart, have been strategically dismantled. Captain America’s relationships have evolved to become a major part of his appeal.
Meg Downey is a freelance pop culture journalist based out of Los Angeles, California 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.