Recently I talked about how the Superman movie “Man of Steel” had totally blown the the character by having Superman kill his fellow Kryptonian, Zod. (Sorry if that was a spoiler.) The main thrust is that the only thing keeping Superman from taking over the Earth (and maybe a good chunk of the universe) is his Midwestern-raised, strict moral code. Really, the only thing stopping a guy that powerful is himself. And now that he’s crossed that bridge, there isn’t any coming back to the other side.
But there is never so great an affront to a famous fictional character so great that someone cannot make it bigger. They screwed up Atticus Finch, but at least that was written by the author (if never meant to be released). They messed up Superman, but you can argue the morality of what he did, and how it was an extreme measure that he will not be forced to repeat, and that, while a betrayal of the character, it would only affect him going forward; it does not touch his past. He is still the man he was.
Alas, as I said, there is always a way to make things worse. And this latest travesty comes from a surprising source. Marvel has managed to achieve a goal that would have been unthinkable ten years ago: It has made Captain America arguably more popular than Superman. And then it made a misstep that would have been unthinkable ten days ago: It announced that everything you think you know, everything you have ever read, everything you have ever believed about Captain America (morally speaking the Superman of the Marvel universe), is wrong. Not only is Captain America not the fine, upstanding, patriotic symbol of freedom we were always told he was, he’s actually a villain.
It is common for long-running fictional franchises to throw in a major curveball every few years to try to keep things fresh. Usually, you “kill” the hero, or give him (or her) a new love interest, move him to a new city, etc. And it has become all-too-popular in recent years to re-boot characters or even entire universes to shake up storylines and give new fans an entry point. DC has done it so many times they’re now re-booting their re-boots.
But to take a once-second tier character, pump up his popularity by orders of magnitude through a series of blockbuster movies, and then tell the world that he was never the guy they thought he was, but was actually working for the other side all the time? Are you nuts? Captain America has beaten the Red Skull so many times you wonder why the Skull even bothers to show up for work. And I’m supposed to believe that they’re on the same side?
That’s like saying Superman has secretly been on Lex Luthor’s payroll since 1939. Or that Bruce Wayne has been playing Batman and the Joker for fifty years. It is more than a complete misunderstanding of the character, it is a punch in the gut to every kid who ever shelled out 10 cents or 25 cents or $1.25 to read one of his adventures–not to mention the millions who shelled out $12 or more to see his movies. This isn’t a joke; it’s a sick joke.
Now, I am more familiar than most with the idea that nothing in comics is permanent. If they can come up with a way to explain how Krypton never exploded, they will. So this, too, will pass. It may not even be real. But it could have serious long-term effects. First, if this is not some kind of undercover deal Cap is on, all of his established fans are going to leave. This isn’t what they signed on for. Second, the new fans–well, why would anyone start buying Captain America now? He’s a bad guy. And how long can they maintain that storyline? How long will people watch him not fight the Red Skull, or lie to the Avengers?
People change. Characters change. But “change” is not the same as, “Ha ha. Fooled you. Uncle Ben faked his death for the insurance money. And Aunt May was in on it.”
You can fool all of the people some of the time. That’s why mysteries are so popular. But in the end you have to play fair, not change the rules to suit your conclusion. Rewriting a 70-year-old character’s entire life to wipe out the reason why people have bought into it for so long? It’s not fair. It’s not right. All it’s going to do is make your fans say, “You know, now that I think about it, ‘Man of Steel’ wasn’t so bad…”