What if the good guys were the bad guys all along? Betrayal is an irresistible plot twist for any action narrative, and Marvel hasn’t even tried to resist it. In Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) the top-secret good guy U.S. spy network S.H.I.E.L.D. is revealed to be under the control of quasi-Nazi bad guy spy network Hydra. The fascists have taken over America, just like the lefties always warned they would. And now in the comics Marvel has pushed it further: The already infamous Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 by writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Salz features Captain America himself going over to the dark side. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Cap, or Steve Rogers, has been a Hydra agent since his childhood. The last image is of our hero declaring “Hail Hydra.”
Because people are terrible and also the internet, this retcon pulp action plot twist has prompted some morally challenged dopes to send Nick Spencer death threats. There have been some more thoughtful criticisms, too. Captain America was originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby—two Jewish men who showed precisely what they thought of fascist anti-Semitism by having their hero punching Hitler on their first cover. Turning a character who represented Jewish solidarity into a sort-of Nazi is, many have argued, gross. Blogger Jessica Plummer accuses Marvel of participating in an “erasure of [Captain America’s] coded Jewish history.” In the name of a nifty plot twist and some free press, the company effectively spit on Jack Kirby’s grave.
Like Plummer, I’m Jewish. But unlike her, I don’t really see Hydra Cap as a desecration. Yes, Simon and Kirby were Jews making a bombastic anti-fascist statement. But the fact remains: Steve Rogers isn’t Jewish. America in 1941 was quite anti-Semitic in its own right, which is part of why Jacob Kurtberg became Jack Kirby. A superhero couldn’t be a Jew, so Cap, deliberately and even emphatically, did not have a marginal ethnic identity.
You can see this still in the film origin retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Steve Rogers initially is weak and skinny: robust actor Chris Evans CGI’d into an emasculated wimpy Jewish stereotype. Then Rogers is given the super-soldier formula, and—ta-da! Suddenly he’s transformed into this perfect blonde-haired specimen of Aryan manhood.
Cap’s creators may have been Jewish, but the society they lived in demanded that their hero be assimilated and white. To fight Hitler, they had to bow to anti-Semitism and make their creation acceptable to people who shared some of Hitler’s prejudices. Hydra had a part in making Cap to begin with.
This argument is made even more pointedly in probably the best Cap story of this century: the mostly forgotten mini-series Truth: Red, White & Black by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker. The narrative is set during World War II. After the death of the scientist who gave Steve Rogers his powers, the U.S. government attempts to reproduce the super-soldier formula. As test subjects, it forces black soldiers to participate virtually at gunpoint—because those black soldiers are seen as disposable. As in the racist and entirely too real Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the results are horrific. Most of the supersoldier test subjects die horribly. Almost all the rest are hideously deformed.
Following a disastrous and bloody engagement with Nazi troops, only one soldier, Isaiah Bradley, survives. He’s sent on a secret suicide mission into Nazi territory to disrupt Hitler’s own supersoldier experiments. The enemy is performing tests on Jews for the same racist reasons that the U.S. performed tests on black people.
Americans and Germans, Truth suggests, aren’t as different as we’d like to believe. In fact, they sometimes work together. In this version of the origin, eugenic scientists from both countries worked together to create the supersoldier formula before the war. The Captain America project, in Truth, was originally an effort to achieve racial perfection. “We sterilized the mentally handicapped well before the Germans—they modeled their program after ours,” one American general muses: a history lesson that quite accurately portrays the United States’ leading role in race science. Simon and Kirby’s physically perfect, blonde, clean, honorable Cap embodied an American eugenic dream that ended up turning into the Nazi eugenic dream.
Morales and Baker’s presentation of anti-black racism in Truth is so unflinching, and so bitter, that it’s hard to believe a mainstream comics company printed it. Isaiah, going to what he believes will be a fatal mission, surreptitiously takes a spare Captain America costume and goes into German territory to destroy the supersoldier program. He is successful and even escapes the Nazis—but not the Americans.
When he gets back to his own lines, he is arrested for stealing the uniform and thrown into jail for life. He serves 17 years in solitary confinement—a painful nod to the millions of black men held in America’s own prison camps. Because the supersoldier project is top secret, the government will not provide Isaiah with healthcare for its aftereffects, and his brain deteriorates. He is finally pardoned, but by then he has been mentally reduced to the state of a child. This, the comic suggests, is how America treats its black heroes. Hydra, or for that matter Hitler, would approve.
Truth was originally meant to be out of continuity: Isaiah Bradley was to be, in this alternate universe, the first, and the only, Captain America. But then Marvel decided to make it official canon, which means Steve Rogers shows up at the end to chastise various bad guys and assure the audience that good white people exist. Presumably the new Hydra Cap storyline will also take a more conventional turn. Cap will turn out to be a double agent, or he’ll have an epiphany and realize that Hydraism is bad, or the whole thing will be retconned away, poof. In the new storyline, Spencer presents the Red Skull as a Trump-like figure, but the exploration of American racism comes across as mostly pro forma. Fascism is a scam which misleads the poor and needy, including the young Steve Rogers. Eventually, everyone’s eyes will be opened, and evil will be defeated as easily as Cap thumped Hitler on the jaw in that first Jack Kirby drawing.
Having the good guys turn out to be bad guys is fun as a plot device. But, as Truth shows, the actual implications aren’t fun at all. When Captain America beats up Hitler, it’s a blow against white supremacy. But given the twisted origin and development of the protagonist, it can also be seen as a blow for white supremacy, Jim Crow, segregation, racism and the eugenic fantasies that helped inspire Hitler to begin with. Hate’s a big part of what made Captain America into Captain America, with his blonde hair and perfect muscles. “Hail Hydra” is as American as apple pie, or superheroes.