Well, that’s a seemingly bleak opening. I wish this was a question that could be asked neutrally, explored academically – scientifically even – in a lab, with thick gloves on, carrying the dangerous material at arm’s length. However, meaning is messy. It overspills its container; after all, everything means more than one thing. If you ask a certain type of philosopher or artist, everything can mean almost anything, depending on context. So what does it mean that Captain America is Hydra?
First question, what does Hydra mean?
In the comics, Hydra is a fascist organisation with a long history, that is steered by its leadership in various different directions depending on the era of the comic and the pressing concerns of the writers. The most notable affiliations however are with the Japanese Ninja organisation, the Hand (currently appearing in a Daredevil near you), and Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Von Strucker is an ex-Nazi, and his major motivations appear to be world domination and genocide. On film, Hydra is very obviously and deliberately allied with the Nazis in the MCU – through the foregrounding of the character Red Skull in the first Captain America film, set during the Second World War (2011).
So, the question might be more effectively asked, what is a Nazi?
The Nazi party was real. The damage they did in the world was real. Their mass murders and other atrocities were real. It is still illegal in parts of Europe to publish material denying their war crimes and supporting their ideology. The Nazis managed to go from a small political party of ideological racists, to controlling a country’s army and putting into practice genocide and mass murder on a scale previously unseen. So what does it mean when we fictionalise them and their counterparts?
In a 2010 collection of essays about representations of Nazism in post-war popular culture, Sara Buttsworth and Maartje Abbenhuis suggested that the symbols of Nazism are increasingly used unthinkingly and uncritically as representative of evil, removed from any historical context. Thus, ‘Nazi’ is becoming what they call a ‘free-floating signifier’; because it has no specific meaning, they argue, it will come to have no meaning at all.[i] This is a very real concern, that I think ties right into the heart of this recent HydraCap consternation.
What does Captain America mean?
Steve Rogers is good. He might not always be right, but he is always good. And his name ties goodness to nationalistic identity. Buttsworth and Abbenhuis note that when Nazism is used as a symbol of all evil it reinforces an idea of the democratic, Western state as simplistically ‘good’ in an oppositional stance.[ii] However, comics are not simplistic, and they are not written by, or read by, idiots. This overt linkage between individual moral choice and a national identity has been challenged and explored on the page. The embarrassment of the McCarthy-era witchhunts was retconned, and learning from this during the Watergate scandal, Steve Rogers became ‘Nomad’ – refusing to represent a corrupt America. Rogers returns to the role of Cap to be a symbol of American ideals, not realities. Captain America is the USA’s best version of itself.
And he was created by two young Jewish men. He was created to counter the dangerous ideology that Nazism was just another political movement; a legitimate form of rule, because that was a disturbingly popular notion in Western countries at the time. Press and people alike were turning a blind eye to the reports of massacres, ghettos and murders. America wasn’t drawn into the war until after the Pearl Harbour bombing. Captain America was always about a vision of what America could do and represent, not necessarily what it was already ready to be.
So what does HydraCap mean?
Various media outlets, including Vox, have been quite blasé about the financial incentive to create ‘buzz’ around a media product. Considering this artistic and creative decision as solely influenced by marketing requirements is a bleak perspective indeed – suggesting that good and evil have no meaning beyond the story on the page, the shock of the reveal.
However, as recent campaigns for diverse books have argued, representation matters. Steve Rogers matters because he is a good man. Captain America matters, whether he is Steve Rogers or Sam Wilson – or anyone else who dons the symbolic suit – because he is a symbol that America wants to be a force for good. It’s been suggested by The Mary Sue that this move is to remove the old white guy from the frame to help us focus on Sam Wilson as the ‘real’ Captain America, ready to take up the mantle. If they really wanted to do this, they’d just let the old guy stay in retirement, and actually focus on a black Cap. But could they possibly really think that they way to promote a black hero is to make his previous partner and role model a Nazi? Nazis matter because they were real, representing the worst that Western bureaucratic states have done to their own citizens based solely on bigotry. Nazis matter because they put ideology into deadly practice – they made institutionalised racism visible, in its most horrific logical extreme. They are white supremacy made an acceptable target for ire and scorn.
Steve Rogers can pose as a Hydra agent for infiltration. He can be brainwashed into believing he’s on the other side. He’s only human. But the writers have said, categorically, that this is not the story they are telling. And this is why I say, if Steve Rogers has ever actually followed Nazi ideology, been a member of the fascist Hydra organisation, that nothing means anything anymore.
What does it mean to be a good white guy in this world if the man who always stands his ground for the underdog, doesn’t? I don’t care if Captain America goes darkside, that could be a great story. However, when he did just that during McCarthy, they retconned him rather than reveal Steve Rogers to be a man who can’t see past such a poisonous ideology. Why? Because Steve Roger’s can’t be the portion of white America who gets fooled. He can’t be the portion of the white American public who supported Hitler. He can’t be the moral dupe. This is whole point of Steve Rogers, he is white America’s better self. If he’s Hydra, America just admitted defeat. It has capitulated to meaninglessness. It admitted to a pessimistic world view that no one can withstand good propaganda. It just elected Trump.
[i] Sara Buttsworth and Maartje M. Abbenhuis, Monsters in the Mirror: representations of Nazism in post-war popular culture, (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p.xvi.
[ii] Buttsworth and Abbenhuis, p.xix.