Superheroes are coming out. In the universes of comic books it seems a fairly conventional device, difference in sexuality is easily accepted, prejudice against mutation, against enhancement, against alien superiority, against flamboyant individuality is by far the greater oppression.
In the vast and diverse comic book universe it tends to be a trope applied to secondary characters. the Marvel wikia alone lists dozens of gay characters in the tangled and often operatic interconnected drama that forms the modern comic story.
The central characters, those from TV and film that most of us are familiar with, the progressive developments are somewhat more recalcitrant. Marvel’s Iceman and DC’s Green Lantern (despite previously contradictory storylines) are probably the only two characters known by most people that have come out. Some may argue it is merely a clever marketing ploy rather than a genuine move to reflect a peculiarly insular form of muscle-bound diversity. Perhaps it is comic books finally owning their barely repressed origins in female fetishization and homoerotica?
The traditional comic book narrative tended to be juvenalia; fantasies of personal power, heroes and villains, crime fighters and criminals, defenders and megalomaniacs. The narrative through the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers, The Guardians Of the Galaxy – the current crop, are narratives of Fortress America, a post 9/11 world where both US imperialism and internal oppression are justified as a response to a for the most part imaginary threat. Of course, this is nothing new. Fortress America has previously used the exaggerated threat of foreign races and ideologies to enact both restriction within and devastation without. In the comic book story it is couched in terms of an ideological battle between the right to freedom, and the necessities of security, the propagandist myth rather than the actual base economic motivation. The hawkish fascists, successors of the Nazis, have of course used the security apparatus, the military-industrial base to supplant democracy. While aliens, robots, machines make a perfect foil that allows an occasional regretful nod to higher ideals, without ever having to deal with the actual consequences, the mass indiscriminate death of other human beings.
Enter Steve Rogers, not a perfect soldier, but a good man. To quote an unabashedly heart-on-sleeve (or bicep) gay icon, “A weakling weighing 98 pounds got sand in his face, when kicked to the ground…In just 7 days I can make you a man.” (Charles Atlas Song – Rocky Horror Picture Show). While it references Charles Atlas’s body building program, and the ads and slogans and narrative of the 97 pound weakling, who gets sand kicked in his face by a bully, is laughed at by his girl, and after completing Atlas’s exercises, comes back, defeating the bully, winning back the girl, ads which appeared in countless comic books throughout the 20th century, it also parallels Captain America’s story. Frankenstein made a man to be God, America made a man for war, Frank-N-Furter made a man for love. In each case the creator wants power, presumes the power of a God, while the monster only wants to be a man. The lesson has always been you cannot control the monster you make.
Even after becoming the monster, the muscle-man, the ubermensch, Cap’s narrative icontinues with gay icons and mythology. Sidelined as a freak, not a soldier, bedecked in a mask and outrageous costume, Steve Rogers is the star of Busby Berkeley style musicals. Selling war bonds, selling the dream of America, promoting war as a stockmarket enterprise. Each bond is a bullet to defeat Hitler, and while the goal is admirable, the technique borders on the ridiculous; glitz, glamour, make-up, fancy dress and pantomime. A Comic book hero in the original sense; paper-thin, hyperbolic, a fantasy, a fake.
Before he becomes the ubermensch he shows only a token interest in women, and they show almost no interest in him. While still a 98 pound weakling, he picks a fight with a loudmouth, a much bigger man, and is rescued by his friend Bucky Barnes, who has enlisted without being rejected. “Sometimes I think you like getting punched,” says Bucky. It’s a clear reference to a familiar trope, a familiar syndrome, of homoerotic masochism.
His first actual romantic interest, as a confused young man, is with the strong, you could even say domineering, MI6 Agent Peggy Carter. Aloof, she seems more likely to lend an ear to his troubles, secrets and confidences, to give him motherly advice, as to return any romantic interest. When not motherly, as a superior officer she is severe, stern, her dark hair and pancake make-up and the way she beats down an unruly soldier bring to mind another icon, Joan Crawford.
When he finally appears on the battlefield, it is in his Star Spangled uniform in his Busby Berkeley USO show. He offers the audience of soldiers hope, encouragement, respect. The real army guys, the real men, only want him to bring the dancing girls back. “You do that sweetheart,” they yell, “Nice boots, Tinkerbell.”
“We’re on the same team here,” he tells them. They pelt him with rotten fruit. (Let’s put aside that Tinkerbell didn’t enter the lexicon of derogatory slang terms until after the 1953 Disney version of Peter Pan popularized the fairy character Tinkerbell.) Why do soldiers, their unit just destroyed by Nazi forces, on the edge of a battle zone near the Alps have rotten fruit to hand? It’s theatrical tradition, a purely symbolic fruit.
Cap finds out that the men who turned on him were just defeated by fascist forces, and their compatriots are still captive, held for forced labour and experiments by the Nazi research division Hydra, he proposes a rescue mission. Grizzled Colonel Phillips tells him some of the realities of war. The risk is too great. “I don’t expect you to understand that because you’re a chorus girl,” Phillips tells him.
Cap risks the mission anyway, by himself. Destroys the Hydra base, rescues the men, returns a hero. Earns respect, earns loyalty. Finally as a soldier, a warrior, a hero, he gathers a small group of those rescued men around him. A ragtag group of partisans in leather jackets and theatrical military helmets, one or two possibly sporting handle-bar moustaches. Not exactly The Village People, but perhaps Cap is now Peter Pan, with his own crew of unruly and disreputable Lost Boys. He earns admiration and a kiss from Private Trollope (that must have been her name – Natalie Dormer typecast to perfection), inspires some jealous affection and a kiss from Agent Carter. He spends the rest of his time on mission with his men, until he has to sacrifice himself to take a bomber full of weapons and the alien tesseract – the energy source for Hydra’s weapons, into the frozen depths. When Cap wakes up some 70 years later, Rip Van Winkle, Sleeping Beauty, kissed only twice in his life, a 90 year old virgin, the world has completely changed.
Captain America hasn’t changed at all, despite his re-creation as a super-soldier. As Dr Erskine, his creator said, the super-soldier program, “Makes a good man better, a bad man worse.” Can a serum really have a moral dimension? Steve Rogers was chosen not because he was a perfect soldier, but because he was a good man. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, “I just don’t like bullies,” he says, “I don’t care where they’re from.” Having been the underdog, Captain America has understanding, feels empathy. Empathy is perhaps the greatest enemy of war.
After a battle with Hydra forces, in which the enhanced twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, Quicksilver and The Red Witch fight the Avengers to a standstill, former Deputy Director of SHIELD, now working for Tony Stark, discussing the pair says, “He’s fast and she’s weird,” and she thinks it’s nuts that anyone would volunteer for Strucker’s experiements.
“What kind of monster would let a German scientist experiment on them to protect their country?” Cap poses, rhetorically.
“We’re not at war,” Hill replies.
“They are.” Cap says. Empathy, even for his enemies.
The perception has always been that gay people are outsiders, liberals and leftist by necessity of being opposed by the conservative majority. That is a generalization, but as a rule those who are oppressed feel empathy for others who are also oppressed. However when an essentially conservative imperialist narratives are suddenly championed by gay heroes, is that an attempt at drawing the queer, the alien, the outsider into an all consuming conservative ideology?
“Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts innocent people die.” Captain America as a man opposes the crypto-fascist ideology of pre-emption on moral and ethical grounds, but conflicted, as a symbol and a soldier continues to both represent and fight for the military-industrial base that enacts pre-emptive strike policy. Is it hypocrisy, is it the ultimate double-think?
Take Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch’s story. Powerful, enhanced mutants, he has physics-defying speed, she has telekinetic powers and psychic abilities that summon up in her enemies the deepest and most disorienting fears. From a former Eastern Bloc country, now controlled by crypto-fascists, Hydra. Their parents killed and their nation destroyed by Stark weapons in a US and SHIELD sponsored pre-emptive imperialist war. Motivated by vengeance, nevertheless when the robotic forces inadvertently unleashed by Stark use Hydra weapons to wreak further havoc on their homeland, they join forces with Stark with barely a second thought. When her brother is killed in the battle against another Frankenstein’s monster, the android Ultron, Scarlet Witch not only redoubles her efforts against the common enemy, but after the battle is won she shows not the slightest hesitation in joining Stark and SHIELD protégés The New Avengers. The very people that destroyed her world. The outsider, the alien is brought not only under the power of the imperialist force, but serves them.
However, the real quandary is not this subjugation of the outsider. It is perhaps that the ultimate myth of US supremacy, the symbol of empire, Captain America, Mr Stars and Stripes, the embodiment of war propaganda, has become himself the ultimate outsider.
Not only has he expressed regret at the uses of violence, expressed sympathy, empathy, much more than the usual glib lip service to peace that we have come to expect in narratives of war, but he has come out.
After his rescue from the ice, Steve sat by Peggy Carter’s bedside as she succumbed to old age. Under the influence of the Red Witch’s power, he finally comes to understand the futility of his old life, his lost love. In the dream, the hallucination he’s in a dance hall, people are celebrating the end of WWII. Peggy approaches him, “The war’s over, Steve. We can go home. Imagine it.” Steve turns, everyone has disappeared. Alone, he imagines her dancing, twirling toward him. They almost kiss. For him, war never ends.
In reality, some 70 years later, the battle over, outside the New Avengers base, as they are about to go their separate ways, he says to Stark, “I will miss you, Tony.”
“Yeah, well it’s time for me to tap out. Maybe I should take a page out of Barton’s book. Build Pepper a farm, hope nobody blows it up.”
“The simple life.”
“You could go with that.”
“I don’t know,” says Cap. “Family, stability, the guy who wanted all that went into the ice seventy-five years ago. I think someone else came out.”
“You all right?”
Of course it’s all been said before. Homoerotic symbolism in comic books, sexual fetishization, comic books as a space for subverting the mainstream, and a space for subverting the subversives. There have been codes and laws made about it, cults and subcultures. What is perhaps surprising is that it has been brought so far from the underground into the mainstream – Captain America came out, to the tune of several billion dollars, and no one seems to have noticed.
Captain America is gay. His psychology, his attitudes, his narrative, dialogue and symbols make it ineluctably clear. Politics, superheroes, crypto-fascists, aliens, robots and monsters aside, his is a simple gay young man’s coming of age story. A story of painful experiences, self-discovery and transformation. Not to mock (well maybe just a little) but you might as well watch his dream sequence with Peggy, or the departing scene with Stark, with the sound turned down and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive playing.
Whether his outsider status is in the service of bringing the marginalized into the ideology of the military-industrial base is dependent on how, not the conflict, but the the conflicted, can be reconciled. Do we share the views of heroes and icons, do we sympathize with their expressions, but then accept their actions, actions on behalf of an entity they represent, even when the views and actions are diametrically opposed? Can mainstream Hollywood be a space in which American mythologies of the outsider are both subverted and extolled? Can a narrative of war champion peace and destruction in equal measure? Or is this version of Captain America the exception? Questions left to be answered in the sequel, Civil War.