When he's not too busy being one, Captain America fights Nazis. It's kind of his shtick. But, at times, comic book writers need to shake things up with new villains -- ostensibly to show new shades of a character's personality and ability. So, in the early 90s, Cap scribe Mark Gruenwald was faced with an unenviable question: what other sociopolitical group was comparably insidious enough to literally the worst creatures in human history to make reasonable foes for the Sentinel of Liberty?
The answer was, apparently, women... Because if anyone's wielded a dangerous amount of power in America for too long, it's people who weren't even allowed to vote until the 1920s.
The pearl-clutching story about the dangers of unchecked feminism kicked off in Captain America #387, with the appearance of super-villainous Superia. The "misandrist" mastermind roped a veritable army of female super-criminals into her squad: The Femizons.
Which, we might add, is uncomfortably close to a certain epithet screeched into existence by a certain red-faced jowl-haver just a few years before Superia's debut.
Among Superia's cohorts was Dr. Nightshade -- who (despite once having the absolute worst costume of all-time) is actually a genetic genius. With her help, the Femizons planned to A) kill or enslave all men on Earth, B) sterilize most of the world's population, and C) transform Captain America into a woman.
The whole story is worth a read, if only to see how bonkers and reactionary it was to the growing visibility of feminism at the time. Like a lot of comics, it's also wild, totally-not-obvious-at-all fetish fuel. To that end, keep an eye out for Cap and then-sidekick Paladin getting slapped around by buff ladies at a pool party. It's right before they get hogtied, stripped, and dipped in preparation for their "feminization treatment."
Mercifully, Captain A. gets in a few lines chastising Paladin for mocking their female foes. So -- despite the crux of the story being that "feminism goes too far, actually" -- we can presume Steve at least doesn't look down on these enemies as less-than-real threats. Which is good, because one of our later entries paints Captain Rogers as... less than appropriate when interacting with women, at times.
Circa the early-to-mid 2000s, Marvel's opinion of British writer Mark Millar could not have been higher. He had just wrapped up spearheading the company's successful "Ultimates" line, which reimagined Marvel heroes for the modern day (we'll get to that soon).
Much of what made Millar's take on heroes "work," so to speak, was that it embraced the impact politics would naturally have on modern superheroes. It was a sort of thing that needed to happen in a post-9/11 world. "Politics," generally, were suddenly everywhere in the United States.
The problem was that "because politics" was about the breadth of Millar's understanding on the matter. Things like "nuance," "history," and "causality" were pretty much lost on him -- at least when it came to the changing face of American policy. Which is how we wound up with the immensely confused Civil War event in 2006.
The story, in case you've been living on Pluto and watching ice crystals form for entertainment over the past decade, revolves around Captain America and Tony Stark duking it out over the Superhuman Registration Act. Basically, the superpowered heavy-hitters go to war over whether or not people that can explode brains or buildings with their minds should register themselves and their abilities. Steve Rogers, Captain America, says no. Tony "Iron Man" Stark says yes. Punching ensues.
The problem is that neither character's political motivations make any damn sense. Tony goes from wanting to ease back the act from inside the political machine, to "accidentally" creating a Nordic murder-bot that kills a prominent black hero. Cap doesn't really... care. Like, at all. But he decides to fight "the system" when it preemptively betrays him anyway.
What's wrong with this picture is that Cap volunteered to serve in WWII: a war between two fundamentally good and evil ideologies. He's undeniably a man of beliefs, if nothing else, and is no stranger to the fact that people die fighting for them. So, of course, he surrenders just seconds before winning the superhero Civil War after suddenly -- after months of all-out warfare -- realizing that people have died.
It was jarring, nonsensical, and most of all: not something Captain America would likely do. Then again, this is the same guy that ditched his classic outfit to wear a blue and yellow monstrosity with a neckline that plunged down to his crotch.
We've written on this site before about the time that Captain America fought Richard Nixon. Oh, don't worry about that part. He also fought Ronald Reagan, once. Who was also a snake or something? What we're getting at is that this is a pretty normal occurrence for our boy in red, white, and blue.
We've written a bit less about what happened after the Evil Nixon... uh, Evil-er Nixon confrontation. Specifically: Steve Rogers' "Nomad" phase.
Nomad, among other things, was the identity Steve assumed after the whole Tricky Dick debacle (Dick-bacle?). Disillusioned with the U.S. government, he decides to hang up the shield and scale mail. It's tough to wear the colors of a government you recently learned was being controlled by a literal reptilian, we suppose.
Thankfully, you just can't keep a good Cap down. Despite not wanting to be Captain America anymore, our hero picks up a new costume and identity -- that of the caped crusader, Nomad. It was a bit on the nose, what with "nomad" literally meaning "man without a country," but we'll buy it. Or at least we did, for about four issues, before Cap got sick of tripping over his own cape and became, well, Cap again.
So what's the problem with this short-lived experiment? Oh, geez! The first is that, once again, we have a Captain America who doesn't believe in himself. Granted, Marvel has always been more willing to give its heroes human flaws than, say, DC's impeccable Superman or implacable Batman. But it's still rough to think the character whose "superpower" is basically getting people to look up to and believe in him might just... throw in the towel.
The greater problem, however, is that "political scandal" is what finally pushed the hero's image of America too far. Segregation? Homosexuality being classified as a mental disorder? Japanese-American internment? Each of these are things that Cap should have at least been aware of before getting put on ice in WWII. And, granted, he has subsequently come out against some of them in further stories. Yet, by setting the Nomad precedent, Marvel implied that none of these were quite bad enough to make Captain Rogers question that whole "America is perfect" thing.
Hey, remember that Mark Millar fella? Before he wrote a story about Captain America giving up on his beliefs (after first asserting that he probably didn't have any to begin with) he wrote a little book called The Ultimates.
Despite the name, The Ultimates was basically an Avengers book. The Wasp, Ant-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury, and so on all come together over the shared discovery of Steve Rogers' frozen tushie in Antarctica. Being set outside of the main Marvel continuity, however, these "Ultimates" could play a little bit faster and a lotta bit looser with "heroism."
Put another way: it was a fairly edgy book for the time. And we don't just mean "blood and swears," although there was some of that. More than that, though, we mean that the series dealt with its "heroes" acting like giant dicks. One such asshole moment is the now-famous "France" scene from issue #12 of the series. In it, Cap does battle with an old Nazi enemy of his, Herr Kleiser, who is... also an alien. And a shapeshifter.
Klesier appears to have the upper hand, until he condescendingly -- and mistakenly, apparently -- asks Steve to surrender. This infuriates the Captain, who replies "You think this letter on my head stands for France!?"
There are two problems with this. The first is that Cap (at least in most incarnations) fought with the French Resistance during WWII. In point of fact, that's where his first love, Peggy Carter, got her start blowing away Nazis. You'd think he'd have a little respect for the nation, rather than falling prey to jingoistic, xenophobic loglines that flared up in the U.S. after 9/11.
The second issue was that Millar was pretty clearly mocking popular, ra-ra! U.S. sentiment of the day. Which is fine on its own, but a little awkward when you realize Marvel almost certainly didn't "get" the joke. It's pretty unlikely they'd let their iconic character get used for a cheap gag in that way, after all. It might not be surprising, however, given that this is the company that gave us a tearful Doctor Doom looking out over the World Trade Center...
If you've seen the Captain America movies, you know the hero has had at least two great loves in his life: Agents Peggy and Sharon Carter. That's... kinda weird, given that the pair are related. Peggy is Sharon's great-aunt in the films and regular-ass aunt in the comics. That Steve, who was physical the same age when courting them, paints him as something of a cradle-robber.
It used to be so, so much worse. See, comics like to do this thing called "retconning" when the ageless nature of superhero means certain stories no longer work. That's why The Punisher went from being a Vietnam vet to a soldier in Desert Storm. Or how Tony Stark gets the wound that pushes him to be Iron Man from a different war every couple of years.
The aunt-niece relationship between Peggy and Sharon is one such retcon -- and probably not the last we'll see for the sisters.
Yup. Sisters. The Carter women were originally born just about 20 years apart, with the same parents and everything. Meaning Cap literally dumped Peggy for her younger sister like a sleazy stepdad in an 80s teen rom-com. Which, hey, we're willing to cut him some slack for. Crucially, Steve didn't know Sharon and Peggy were related when he met the younger of the two. He didn't even know Peggy was still alive, her real name, or whether she had moved on with her life after the very public announcement that her WWII beau was "killed" in action.
Where things actually get creepy is in Captain America #161. We discover Peggy isn't just alive, she's been suffering from amnesia since the 40s. She regains her sense of mind thanks to the hypnotic villain Dr. Faustus. Hooray! Except... she now has no memory of the past two decades, putting her in a similar position as Cap when he was first thawed. Boo!
Sharon and Steve's solution is, of course, to lie to Peggy about their newfound relationship. As Cap tries to ease his one-time love into their brave new world, he basically dates both sisters at the same time -- right down to smooching. The fact that he was doing it to "protect" Peggy from the consequences of her traumatic brain injury doesn't help. In fact, it just makes it feel that much ickier to know he's basically taking advantage of her amnesia to not feel bad about the messed up case of cradle-robbing.