Captain America vs. Superman: A battle of American cultural icons

Superman versus Captain America. One has super strength, heat vision and can fly. The other carries a shield. The former bears one of the most recognizable emblems in the world. The latter wears the stars and stripes. One is a super man, while the other is just a man.

In a showdown between iconic characters, most in the mainstream would say Superman would walk away with the win while Captain America should take second place. Though this might be accurate in fisticuffs within the comic-book universes from whence these characters emerge, the opposite is true in terms of institutions of American culture.

The conversation is especially relevant now in the renewed era of superhero cinema. Although he has a history of box-office success, Superman was considered a commercial underperformer for years before 2013’s Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder. Meanwhile, the Marvel Comics character never appeared in cinemas in a feature-length film before the hit Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), The Avengers (2012), and the critically and commercially successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier, out now on DVD/Blu-ray.

The Disney-owned Marvel Studios has already announced that another installment of the “Cap” franchise will be hitting theaters May 6, 2016 –- which was almost the same weekend as the Man of Steel sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice from Warner Bros./DC Comics, before that studio moved it up to March 2016.

Even though they won't face off on the same weekend as initially expected, 2016 will still have a super-powered battle royale in the spring. Moreover, fans and pundits will undoubtedly crown a victor and a loser. But why wait that long? In fact, it is worth exploring now how Cap is more of a fundamentally American icon than Supes. And yes, this argument will most definitely stir up some nerd rage, and that's a good enough reason for me to write it as well.

Created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (and first appearing in comics in 1938), Superman is often considered the first superhero, but also an embodiment of the immigrant’s tale. Rocketed to Earth from his home planet, he landed in Middle America and assimilated. The alien Kal-El became Clark Kent; he maintained dual identities, one as an American citizen while the other was rooted in his homeland. But his adopted home made him special and provided him opportunities not possible before.

Captain America began as Steve Rogers, a sickly kid from New York City. Introduced by creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in December 1940, a year before the U.S. became involved in World War II, Rogers was desperate to sign up for the military because of the rise of Nazi Germany. He visited multiple enlistment offices despite being continuously rejected due to his poor health, but eventually was selected for Project: Rebirth. A lone recipient of the Super Soldier serum, Rogers’ body was enhanced to peak human performance.  He assumed the name Captain America and, on the cover of his first adventure, the Star-Spangled Avenger punched Adolf Hitler in the jaw.

Check out my fan video on the evolution of Cap's costumes:

Cap began as a figure of American interventionism -- and wanted to take the fight to Germany during a time when the idea was still unpopular -- and became a symbol of American propaganda. But the character evolved to become a defender of the tenets of the nation, not a tool of the government. He may have accepted the gift of his discus shield from FDR during World War II, but the war was less about fighting to protect America so much as battling for what was right. Postwar, the character didn’t succeed much as a “Commie Smasher” in the early 1950s.

Instead, he really only found his foothold again in the comic books when he became a man out of time in the 1960s and took a stand for truth, justice and the American Ideal -- not to be confused with Superman’s “American Way,” which was added to the character’s maxim in 1952.

When he first arrived on the scene, Superman fought domestic abusers, criminals and crooked politicians. He also joined the war effort in the Fleischer studios cartoons and on comic-book covers that had him walking arm in arm with service members or holding Hitler and Hirohito aloft like bad squabbling children. Superman also sold war bonds and even explained the role of the Army Air Force Technical Training Command in a propaganda comic.

For 75 years, Superman has remained an icon, and an American cultural icon at that, because he is one of the good guys. He was literally a corn-fed farmboy with a homespun morality straight out of the heart of the country. Clark Kent represents American purity, and with his near-godlike powers, he’s like the USA’s personal Jesus -- but one who also makes everyone else pretty uncomfortable.

Set aside the concerns associated with having a god as a citizen, (it’s a relief he is on our side; parallel-universe stories in the comics have shown how ugly things can get if the Last Son of Krypton landed in Soviet Russia instead) and you still have a character that possesses an unwavering code and adherence to the law.

That’s typically a good thing considering the breadth of his power. Yet Superman is so rigid with that code he seems unwilling to operate outside of it.

The result is that other heroes within his DC Comics universe often call him the “big blue boy scout.” For all reverence he receives for literally and figuratively being the primary superhero, or perhaps because of it, Superman is viewed as “too good.” His code also primed him to become a stooge/pawn of the American government -- as famously played out in Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, which has Superman taking orders personally from a future version of President Ronald Reagan. In this reality, he is a U.S. war machine and even assigned to kill Batman. But even in the 1978 movie Superman II, Christopher Reeve’s Superman pays a visit to the president in the Oval Office and promises not to let him down.

Again, Superman services the American Way, a very singular definition.  Conversely, by upholding the American Ideal, Captain America is afforded more flexibility. One sets an example and follows orders, the other leads by example and is more adept at giving orders. If Superman has at times been viewed as a bit of a “yes man” by other comic heroes, Captain America is traditionally viewed as a man of principle in his universe.

When he discovered corruption in the highest ranks of the U.S. government during the Watergate 1970s, the Captain shed his costume but continued to fight for the cause. He did it again in the ’80s when a government agency attempted to inflict its will on him. During the “Civil War” story arc of 2006-2007, Cap outright battled the authorities when a law was passed forcing super-powered individuals to reveal their identities, an act he considered an infringement on personal liberty.

In The Winter Soldier, he once more breaks with the military-industrial complex that created him and becomes an outlaw, battling an overreaching espionage community.

Both characters have been at odds with national interests, but for Captain America, the tack was to take off his uniform and continue fighting in his own way. Superman also wanted to pursue justice his way, but, to avoid political muddy waters and protect the entire world, he actually renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2011. Cap serves the globe but is loyal to his nation always (and his government when it deserves it). Can the same still be said of Supes?

Captain America represents who we can strive to become, while Superman is who we dream we could be. More so than Superman, who gained super status because he landed on Earth, the more relatable Cap earned a chance (and not guarantee) at his through tenacity. Cap’s body is breakable, vulnerable. He is a peak specimen, but he can be injured or killed. By comparison, Superman is nearly invincible, and immune to dangers others must face daily.

When he was weak, Steve Rogers answered the call to serve, and gave of himself to fight the Nazis, an enemy of freedom. Superman grew up with his power, always aware of his strength and capacity to effect change.

As such, Superman is also largely unaware of the sacrifices Captain America has made.

Whether it was volunteering for a potentially lethal Super Soldier serum in Captain America Comics #1 or leaping on a grenade in The First Avenger movie, the character routinely encounters death and offers up his own life. To be fair, Superman battles pretty big foes in his comics, and writers on those books attempt to create a believable threat to this near-deity, but it is a taller order as opposed to mortally wounding to an earthman of flesh and blood.

The showdown between Captain America and Superman will play out in 2016 in movie theaters. But the commercial victor is not necessarily the same as the cultural one. When it comes to best representing the hearts of the American populace, and serving as a better national institution, both heroes are inspiring icons, but the Captain is the superior super.

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