Mark D. White’s personal hero, Captain America, may be the best example of a good man.
Many of us have personal heroes, whether they’re parents or grandparents, teachers or coaches, historical figures, political leaders, athletes, or artists. While our heroes inspire us in many different ways and for many different reasons, our admiration of them usually boils down to certain virtues, particular traits that provide examples toward which we can aspire. In short, we admire our heroes for their character. And for some of us, our heroes embody “character” in a different way: they are fictional characters rather than real people, creations of writers, artists, or actors who fill them with inspiring qualities.
As a longtime comics fan, I find inspiration in many of the superheroes whose adventures I read every month, but none inspire me as much as Captain America. Simply put, to me, Cap stands as an example of the best we can be. He embodies all of the classical virtues that are just as important now as they were in the days of the ancient Greeks, including honesty, courage, loyalty, perseverance, and, perhaps most importantly, honor (in particular, military honor). While I can’t be as strong or fast as Cap, I can hope to be as honest, courageous, and honorable.
Rather than go into a lengthy philosophical diatribe—my students pay a lot of money for that, you know—I’ll just give some examples from the comics to show you what I mean.
During Marvel’s “Civil War” storyline which started in 2006, Captain America led the resistance against the U.S. government’s demand that all superheroes register with them and reveal their true identities (even though Cap’s identity was public already). Half of the heroes stood with Cap, who based his opposition to registration on liberty, and the other half sided with Iron Man, who supported registration based on security considerations. (Yes, “Civil War” was a thinly-disguised homage to similar debates in post 9/11 America.)
Spider-Man was presented in “Civil War” as the point-of-view character, siding at first with Iron Man but then lured to the opposition, largely by the following words from Cap:
Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and the tell the whole world—“no, you move.” (Amazing Spider-Man #537, December 2006, written by J. Michael Straczynski)
This is not to say that Cap’s ethics are simplistic, outdated, or “black and white.” It merely means that once he arrives at what he feels is the right thing to do, perhaps after much deliberation, he stands by it—that’s conviction. (More on that here.)
As I discussed in this op-ed, Captain America has always stood for principle over politics, representing the ideals America stands for and the best it can be, rather than the policies of any one administration at any particular time. After his death following the Civil War, he appeared to Thor as a ghost. Rejecting his old friend’s offer to avenge his death, Cap expresses regret for the pain his death caused others, and especially the way it had been politicized:
All my life, I fought to become a symbol. A symbol of all the things that were right about this country, all the things I loved. And now, they’re trying to turn that symbol into what’s most convenient, whatever will best serve the political agenda of one side or another. I can hear them talking nonstop… the media, the press… They don’t understand. It was never about politics. It was never about me. It was about the country. It was always about the country. But they can’t hear that truth above their own voices. (Thor #11, November 2008, also written by J. Michael Straczynski)
Perhaps the character trait that stands out the most to me with respect to Captain America is his incredible humility or modesty (which I discuss at more length in my chapter on Cap here). He is consistently shown downplaying his own abilities and strengths and going out of his way to praise those of others. He is particularly eager to recognize the heroism of military personnel, men and women who risk their lives without the advantages Cap has by virtue of the Super-Soldier serum he was injected with in the 1940s. Whenever he meets veterans (or their widows) who remember him from World War II, Cap always tells them that they were the true heroes, not he; for example, upon meeting Peter Parker’s Aunt May for the first time, he asked to see pictures of her late husband Ben from his service days (Amazing Spider-Man #519, June 2005).
In one recent story, Captain America went to Normandy to retrieve the body of Bobby Shaw, an eager but scrawny World War II private who reminded Cap of himself before the serum and who sacrificed his life during the war to save his unit. Cap gave his eulogy at a public funeral in front of the Statue of Liberty:
Bobby Shaw of Texas did what so many young men and women did then, and continue to do to this day: he gave his life three thousand miles from home so that others might live free. I have been to the end of the skies and back. I have been in the company of heroes. Of all those heroes, he was the bravest I ever known. (Captain America Theater of War: America the Beautiful, March 2009, written by Paul Jenkins)
(By the way, four of Paul Jenkins’ war-themed Cap stories, including the one excerpted above, are collected in the Captain America Theater of War trade paperback—a great gift for any veteran, in my opinion.)
Even after his recent “return from the dead” (the actual explanation is much more complicated), Cap resisted taking back the mantle from his once-teen sidekick Bucky Barnes, and only after Barnes’ recent death did Cap reclaim it. But he went through a great deal of soul-searching first, maintaining to the end, “I never wanted to be Captain America. I was just supposed to be a soldier… I just wanted to serve” (Captain America #616, May 2011). The rest of the world may see him as a symbol, a leader, and a hero, but Cap just sees himself as a man trying to do right—as good a definition of humility as any.
These virtues also grant Captain America tremendous authority and gravitas. As reporter Ben Urich said in Daredevil #233 (August 1986), after seeing Cap gives orders to Thor during an Avengers battle, he has “a voice that could command a god.” During a U.S.-Russian military conflict engineered by the villainous Doctor Doom, Cap is even able to command over-anxious U.S. Army personnel to defy direct orders from the president to engage the Russians, with the simple words: “Stand your ground, soldiers. Stand. Your. Ground” (Avengers #63, March 2003, written by Geoff Johns). His fellow superheroes walk into the flames of hell time and time again on his command; even during the Civil War, Iron Man (no paragon of humility or deference) repeatedly expressed the internal conflict he felt over opposing his longtime mentor, leader, and friend.
Even though he is fictional character, a superhero in a world filled with aliens and gods, Captain America can still inspire us in the real world. The various writers who have told his stories over the years have done a marvelous job maintaining a consistent character and tone with very few exceptions (compared to some other characters), which helps make him “real” enough for readers to connect with. Personally, the adventures of Captain America, as both superhero and soldier, inspire me to be better by emulating the character traits and virtues that he is written as possessing himself.
At his core, Captain America is a normal guy, blessed with extraordinary abilities, who tries to do the right thing whenever he can. And that’s an example we can all try to live up to.
—Photo JD Hancock/Flickr