America’s Captain Gives Birth to a Darker Disciple

Almost a year ago, someone put a bullet in the symbol of our hope.

The superheroic icon of Americana was fatally shot in early 2007 in the pages of Marvel Comics. Steve Rogers, the flag-waving, World War Two hero was put in the ground by a conspiracy involving old Nazis and Soviets, yet punctuated by sins of omission and commission falling on our government and the other super “heroes” that populate the Marvel Comics world. Cinemagogue covered that event and press (which ranged from CNN to the Colbert Report – Stephen Colbert now has Cap’s shield permanently mounted on his wall) last year. America died, and everyone had blood on their hands. It was a controversial yet powerful statement to parallel our confusing and cynical times.

Unlike other comic characters like Superman, Captain America has not experienced a colorful resurrection. His comic book has gone on for a year revolving around supporting characters, while he lay in the ground. Now, however, another person has taken up the mantle, and Captain America is back; even CNN is covering it once again. The difference is, some people might not recognize him at first… when the reality is he is far more recognizable, and a lot closer to home. Captain America has been succeeded by the man who was virtually his son, and writer Ed Brubaker’s take on the character makes him the offspring of America’s last century.

Robert “Bucky” Barnes was Captain America’s teenage sidekick during World War Two, a young orphan raised in the fatherly shadow of a patriotic titan. In the old comics, he was the “golly-gee, whoopee” kiddie connection meant to lighten up subject matter about war and death. In the twenty-first century, it has now been revealed that the young recruit was actually America’s darker complement to the Captain; to maintain Cap’s image, “Bucky” was secretly covert ops; while “Cap” Steve Rogers was shining red, white, and blue, Barnes was covered in red… as the espionage and wetworks operative of the team.

To make matters even darker, while the original Captain America literally slept on ice through the Cold War, Barnes was captured, brainwashed and exploited by the Soviets. Thawed out for special missions, he experienced the historical highlights of the latter half of the twentieth century through the lens of an assassin’s scope. Finally released from his mental and physical captivity a few years ago by his former flag-wearing mentor, the jaded, grizzled Barnes didn’t just lose faith in America – he lost faith in everything. Steve Roger’s death initially punctuated his disillusionment even further.

Robert Barnes isn’t sure America can be salvaged. When asked, he is reluctant to put on the mantle of Captain America, because he knows he doesn’t measure up. While Steve Roger’s sacrifice bears an unmistakable Christ-like parallel, this is now illustrated further by the “sonship” he has inspired and perhaps compelled Barnes to become. In issue #34, Barnes even notes “Steve isn’t leading the way up the battlefield… yet I can almost feel him here. But he’s guiding me now… instead of haunting me. I can’t be him. No one ever could.” Wrapping himself in the mantle of his idol, Barnes has become a disciple of his hero. He is compelled to follow the example of his surrogate father, his teacher, his savior, and debuts as the new Captain… with a few, notable changes that seem to reflect the new America.

The former Captain America carried his trusty shield, an image of protection. True, he would hurl the disc offensively, but the image was one of defense; enemies would often be taken out by their own devices as things bounced off the shield. Barnes’ new America carries the shield, but adds a knife… and a firearm. This is not atypical for a soldier in any way, but represents a hero ready to defend AND take the offensive when necessary. The costume is also red, white, blue… and black, as if Barnes doesn’t feel worthy to cover himself in the colors, but still hides a part of himself in darkness. In fact, the patriotic part of the costume actually forms a shield over his chest… as if the shield isn’t just for protecting his nation, but also his own heart.

As Captain America, Barnes is an honest vision of our own uncertainty as a nation. He doesn’t trust his government. He feels confused and burned by the weight of history. Even his foes are an amalgamation of Nazis, Soviets, terrorists and big business (literally – in the magazine, the spirit of the old Nazi “Red Skull” has possessed a former Soviet official, who now runs an international corporation). The tendrils of the conspiracy extend into corrupt U.S. officials and sleeper agents in society and the military. Who can the new Captain America Trust? All Barnes really has to lead him is the example set by the super-powered, seemingly incorruptible Steve Rogers. It’s like a flawed man looking to Jesus and wanting to model and mirror the perfection of the true Savior.

With no miraculous abilities and an admittedly cynical, pessimistic worldview, Barnes represents our current social and political climate. When he hears that there is a public protest demonstration, he panics: “Oh, God… I hope you don’t expect me to address protesters.” He’s not ready for that, immature in his role and even where his faith comes from. Looking at it from a spiritual perspective, he’s not unlike a new Christian: he’s ready to believe and even get to work, but not yet confident to preach.

If the old Captain America had a Christ-parallel, the new one more aptly parallels the Christian… and a discipled life. The new Captain is not America’s savior, but an image-bearer… hoping to reflect in part what the true savior represents. There is an apostolic theme here, and one that is not unlike the apostle Paul, who was a murderer of Christians and then suddenly – miraculously – a disciple of Christ. Many were wary of Paul and uncertain of his authenticity or conviction. Paul remained transparent about his wicked past, and ongoing imperfections, continually pointing not to himself, but to the true Savior. Barnes’ character is a known killer, feared and misunderstood by many. He can’t cover that up. His newfound – or rediscovered – purpose will unlikely challenge many former friends and foes. To become an inspirational figure, he will have to prove himself.

I’m curious to see Robert Barnes’ superhero travels continue, as it is clearly a spandex parallel for our own concerns. Marvel Comics has given talented writer Ed Brubaker a chance to explore our last century, our current socio-political climate, and our timeless spiritual journey as well.

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