It's not insightful to observe that Captain America is not just a super-hero but also a symbol of everything good that America stands (or stood) for. He premiered in 1941 fighting Nazis, and has since then tackled every one of America's threats and enemies both foreign and domestic. He is upright, fearless, indomitable - but he is also deeply compassionate and kind. Captain America isn't just what's best about America - he also brings out the best in every American. And now he's dead; gut-shot and bled out his last on the steps of the courthouse where he was to be tried for treason.
What does it say that the symbol of both American decency and American strength died as a traitor- without ever himself changing his values or behavior? Captain America didn't betray his country - his country betrayed him. In the "Civil War" story arc, a disastrous accident brought about by over-anxious and under-trained heroes trying to apprehend a group of villains for the sake of ratings on a reality tv show precipitated a national crisis. In the wake of the tragedy, Congress passed the National Registration Act, requiring all super-powered people to register their actual identities and become employees of the Federal Government - or at least S.H.I.E.L.D. which is a thinly disguised puppet of American hegemony.
Tony Stark, aka Iron Man is the chief champion of the Registration Act. His long-time teammate and leader, Steve Rodgers, Captain America, is against the act. In fact, even before it passes, Cap gets briefed by S.H.I.E.L.D. on their heli-carrier that they're training up to go arrest a bunch of super-heroes and they want Cap in on the action. Cap doesn't hesitate. He doens't hesitate because he is the moral compass of the Marvel Universe, he doesn't hesitate because he is the premiere tactical and strategic mind in the world - he doesn't hesitate because Cap always does what's right, even if it's hard, crazy, or ridiculously dangerous. Without hesitation he just dives right out of a window of the helicarrier while being shot at by his own countrymen and alleged allies. Free-falling from 60,000 feet, he guides himself onto a passing F-15, and smashes a handhold in the cockpit with his shield. The pilot utters a balsphemous profanity in startlement (like you would) and Cap, not in the least ruffled by his predicament, takes the time to remind the pilot that as an officer in the United States armed forces, he ought to have higher standards of decency. Because that's how Cap rolls - hurtling out of a helicarrier without a parachute and onto the canopy of a jet-fighter - the important thing is to uphold the honor of the U.S. military.
What follows is the titular Civil War. Iron Man marshalls the pro-registration forces and wages war on his long-time friends who oppose him. Captain America leads the underground movement for resistance. The anti-registration crew won't compromise their decency - they continue to fight crime, and don't make convenient alliances or bend their "good guy" code. The pro-registration forces, on the other hand, immediately recruit super-villains to assist them, and do other odious things like cloning Thor (who kills Goliath when his programming turns out not to be quite as air-tight as Reed Richards thought.) Marvel's writers want us to know who the good guys are here. If Captain America is an allegory for American values, Spider-Man is likewise an allegory for Marvel's fans themselves. Spider-Man is at first pro-registration, and even unmasks himself. But when Tony Stark and Reed Richards take him on a tour of the prison facility they've built in the hellish N-Space, he has a crisis of conscience. After conferring with Captain America, who makes no attempt to persuade him on what his choice must be - but rather reminds him that American liberty and the validity of our democracy depends entirely on the moral conscience of each individual voter and citizen - he recants his pro-registration alliance, and sides with Cap and his rebels.
There are some glorious fights. There are some ignominious defeats. There are the kind of smack-downs that make fanboys like me remember why we ever loved comics in the first place. There are surprise reveals, unexpected allies, last-minute rescues, hair-raising escapes. Everyone gets their moment to shine, and they surely do shine. The badass factor of every super-hero in the Marvel universe goes way up as a result of Civil War, and even if there are a few clunky bits - there are more hits than misses. The writers fail to capitalize on some of the more intriguing allegories - like the courtroom drama (or rather, lack thereof) that await "unregistered combatants" that so closely mirror Guantanamo. Still, as a whole, the series is good.
But the thing about comics is - the good guys win, in the end. They get beat up. They suffer losses. They're tried and tested and hammered down by enemies and fortune - sure; but in the end, they win.
Not so here. Iron Man wins, Captain America surrenders, and the American public hails the pro-registration people as entirely in the right, and their draconian measures as entirely justified. Abominable and permanent detainment in another dimension for people who risked their lives in defense of the people? Hurray, three cheers for fascism!
I do not use that word lightly. Fascism is hard to define, but a good place to start is an authoritarian government with strong ties to a capitalist military-industrial complexand few allowances for civil rights. With Tony Stark as director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the permanent suspension of Habeas Corpus, and all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s technology replaced by Stark-tech, I submit that Marvel's America has become a fascist state. What galls is not that it happened - trials and tribulations of superheroes before their eventual victory is to be expected - but rather that it's hailed as a happy and just ending to the whole affair.
Captain America stands for Liberty. Not the small "l" liberty that is so often thrown about by the current administration as a cheap rhetorical sop to cover otherwise indefensible acts abroad, but big "L" Liberty such as that which is invoked in "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Liberty like the pursuit of which was the proximate cause for the birth of this great nation - Liberty like so many patriots and heroes have fought for, sacrificed for, and guarded with their lives and sacred honor. Conversely, Iron Man stands for security - the ever-vigilant militant readiness which is always prepared to use force to guard the interests of the nation - not necessarily those of the people, mind you - but the nation and largely its government.
There has always been a tension between Liberty and security - ever since the very birth of the nation, at which time Ben Franklin said "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." We can see which the founding fathers favored - and towards that end, they wrote the Bill of Rights, a Constitutional guarantee of the inalienable Liberty of every American citizen. Still, this tension has persisted throughout American history - and from time to time been strained nearly to the breaking point with any number of Constitutional crises; the Nullifcation Crisis of 1832, the secession of the Southern states, the 1876 presidential election, Watergate, the current occupant's bid for limitless executive authority. But the system's checks and balances have served in the past - sometimes at the cost of lives and treasure - but America has never wholly surrendered either security or Liberty.
Civil War as a story altogether, then - is a fine allegory for that tension. Certainly no better embodiment for Liberty exists than Captain America, unless perhaps the Statue of Liberty were to suddenly stroll into Manhatten and proceed to stomp supervillains.
How does the story end? Captain America is dead. In truth he died the moment he surrendered, something he has never done. Captain America has been an unerring guide to what is right - who has taken a principled stand, always, and never backed down. True, there are times when the waters were so muddied that he couldn't extricate his patriotism from his ideallism and he simply chose not to choose a side - such as during the Watergate scandal, when he resigned his position and became "Nomad" - still fighting for right, but no longer as a symbol of the American government. When the government corrected itself, he returned to duty, displacing the two-bit replacement the government had ginned up. He's been defeated, but he's never surrendered, never backed down from a fight - not even in the face of certain death or defeat. For instance, when Thanos wielded the godlike power of the Infinity Gauntlet, he killed or simply erased every hero in the world in 24 hours, leaving Captain America for last. Does Cap back down? Does he even admit that he's beaten? Unthinkable! In fact, he insists that as long as one man remains alive, Thanos hasn't won. Thanos: "Brave sentiments from a man who's about to die." Captain America: "I've lived my life by those sentiments."
And that's exactly it - Captain America IS those sentiments - that he will never retreat, never surrender, he exists to do what's right, to fight for it, to sacrifice for it. Inherent in this is that he knows what's right. And he does - and when, at the very moment of his triumph over the fascist future that Iron Man is creating for America, he meekly submits to 9/11 police and firemen and allows himself to be arrested as a traitor - he is dead. That which he existed to do, he has failed to do. That which sustained him in the face of insurmountable odds, the courage and strength that not only keeps him going, but also inspires all his allies and friends, and awestruck so many of his enemies - it's gone. Captain America is dead the second he admits to himself and the world that he's a traitor. Because his surrender is at the hands of police and firemen who are clearly meant to be the heroes of 9/11, he is by implication, also a terrorist. Cap is never wrong, after all - if he says he's a traitor, what better arbiter of American ideals exists to refute him?
Shooting him was just an afterthought, an end to the physical shell. He's already dead.
This ought to be a tragedy. Judging by the public reaction, it sure is - but that's not how Brubaker and Millar have writtenhis end. They write it as a triumph - that Captain America really was wrong, that Iron Man really was right, and Captain America's death was something the public, even if they didn't outright clamor for, certainly did not regret. In short - America in the Marvel Universe died with Captain America. Liberty is a forgotten thing, a dream once championed by a man who was a hero writ large in the American psyche, brought to life whole-cloth from our best instincts for freedom, for courage, for patirotism, for indefatigable defense of Liberty.
That champion is dead. He is replaced with a callow, self-serving alcoholic who paints the world in black-and-white, who even while advancing the corporate interests of his own company at government expense - sees the world as allies or enemies. He believes that no abridgement of liberty or privacy isn't justified in the quest for security. Security for whom? First and foremost his own good - Tony Stark doesn't know anything about self-sacrifice. He doesn't know anything about compassion, about leadership, and most of all, he doesn't know anything about not just being his own personal best, but inspiring the personal best of everyone around him.
Captain America is dead. America is dead.