“No, You Move”: Captain America’s Ethics

Anticipating discussion in the Christian blogosphere over the relevance of Captain America to the church’s political witness, I thought I would point out two posts by philosopher Mark D. White on Cap that should give us pause before we jump on the anti-Cap bandwagon:

Are Captain America’s Ethics Too Old Fashioned for the 21st Century?

In the Marvel Universe as well as the real world, he is criticized for clinging to a “black-and-white” morality, better suited to fighting Nazis in World War II than facing modern problems like terrorism originating abroad as well as at home. When Cap was killed (also, as with Bucky, only apparently) in 2007 following the “Civil War” storyline—a not-too-sublte homage to post-9/11 debates over balancing liberty and security—his death was widely interpreted in the real world as a statement that Cap’s moral vision was no longer fit for the modern world. But after the villain Norman Osborn (formerly Spider-Man’s foe, the Green Goblin) was anointed head of global security following an alien invasion (don’t ask), the Marvel Universe entered an unprecedented period of despotic disorder, the “Dark Reign,” which only ended once Steve Rogers returned from the dead to reassert a moral center in the Marvel Universe, ushering in “The Heroic Age.”

Captain America, with his “outmoded” moral code based on virtues like honor, integrity, and courage—or, if you prefer, following duty despite all costs—ended up being just what the Marvel Universe needed all along, and this is just as true in the real world of 2011. The importance of virtue and duty never changed, though the world itself changed around them. Moral questions may seem more difficult and the answers less clear, but that makes a firm sense of ethics more important, not less. …

What’s more, it’s not really accurate to say that Cap’s ethics are black-and-white with no shades of grey; like anybody, he struggles with moral decisions, as is often shown in the comics. Ethics is never a matter of mechanistically applying simple rules to life: judgment is always necessary to find the rules that fit any given situation and to know how to apply them (especially when two or more rules conflict). What gives his ethics the appearance of being cut-and-dried is his conviction: once Cap decides on the right course of action, he does not waver from it.

Captain America Is the Best Man

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)