Captain America #321-322
Issue(s): Captain America #321, Captain America #322
Before that, though, some awesomeness. First, awesomeness of the truly awesome kind, with a bunch of dudes in ski jets (note: different than jet skis) hijacking an airplane.
The hijackers are part of ULTIMATUM (Underground Liberated Totally Integrated Mobile Army To Unite Mankind)(it's a good thing they are totally integrated because ULMATUM just wouldn't have worked), a group run by Flag-Smasher. The "man without a country" explains his philosophy and declares that the purpose of the hijacking is to force an exchange of the hostages with Captain America so that he can kill the "champion of separatism and national vanity".
A different kind of awesome is Captain America accidentally seducing his nerd sidekick Ram's mother.
Cap pulling his mask off isn't out of character. He's always been pretty loose about his secret identity. However, you'd think he'd be more careful about socializing with civilians while in his Cap identity for the same reason most super-heroes are careful with their secret identities.
Anyway, Cap is pulled away from that situation thanks to Flag-Smasher. SHIELD has identified four possible places where the hijackers have taken the plane, and they check out the other three while Cap heads to a former Hydra base in the Swiss Alps.
We start to see Cap's code of ethics coming into play. He starts by subduing some guards at a forward station, and he's unable to interrogate them because they know he won't really hurt them.
A lot of heroes run into that sort of problem, but it's a nice distinction between Cap and, say, the Punisher or Wolverine or even Daredevil.
Cap at least knocks the guards out and takes one of their uniforms. He also takes along a gun as a "prop".
He worries that the bulk of his shield will be noticed from under the coat...
...but he needn't have worried. Earlier, we saw how the ULTIMATUM uniform somehow contained Flag-Smasher's massive chest...
...so they clearly have some sort of compression power.
In the ULTIMATUM uniform, he manages to infiltrate the base, but as he's doing so, he thinks to himself, "I'm glad Holly and Ram aren't here to see this. I'm not particularly proud of having to use these terrorists' guerrilla tactics."
We're getting into something slightly weird with this. Cap is opposed to sneaking into an enemy base? Only a full frontal assault is honorable? At least he's just expressing a preference; it's not like he's refusing to sneak into the base to rescue hostages. But he's really angsting over it.
To get to the hostages, Cap has to acquire a pair of ski jets.
Wait a minute... "Tongue controls"?! In a borrowed suit? Those ski jets just got a lot less awesome.
When Cap gets to the place where the hostages are held, with the deadline for him to turn himself in to Flag-Smasher quickly approaching, he starts moving faster and attacking the guards more directly. He even launches the ski jets across the crowd of hostages at one of the guards.
And that prompts the guards to start mowing down the hostages.
After throwing his shield away to stop one guard, Cap is forced to use the gun he was carrying to stop the other.
So far so good. Cap is obviously upset about killing the guard, and ensures that the body is treated with respect as he's helping the other hostages get away. And he says that when he's done helping the hostages, he's going to "avenge" the terrorist and his own honor. And that's how issue #321 ends. I don't think anyone has a problem with Captain America in the present day doing everything he can to avoid killing and to deeply regret it when he does. But issue #322, which begins a few hours later after SHIELD has joined Cap in the fight against ULTIMATUM, has Cap thinking to himself that he has never taken another person's life until now.
This actually isn't a new idea. Avengers #169 and Captain America #241 have Cap expressing the same sentiment. In both those cases there were modifiers that you could hang onto, in Avengers #169 he's talking in the context of "my own survival", and in Cap #241 he says "willingly". Surely not the intent of the writers to use those phrases as weasel words, but if you couldn't believe that Captain America has never killed anyone, those words were an out. The phrasing here leaves no other interpretation.
The problem, of course, was that Captain America was a soldier in World War II. And he surely therefore must have killed enemy soldiers. If not, he was a liability to those around him. And what did he think about all the troops on his side shooting people? Did he silently condemn them?
We actually have specific examples of Cap killing, and we can find many more of him certainly not expressing any regret over enemies being killed. The first example of the latter is in Captain America Comics #1, where the first Red Skull rolls over his poison needle and dies while Cap just looks on. For an example of him actually killing someone, see here in Captain America Comics #3, where he impales a developmentally challenged man with a dinosaur bone (and that's not even in the context of the War; he was on the trail of a jewel thief).
For more Golden Age examples, i've compiled a post on my main blog. By the time of the Silver Age and Cap's adventures with the Invaders, the Comics Code Authority would have prevented any explicit depictions of killings (I think even Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos never actually killed anyone on panel), but we do have the scene from his origin retelling in Tales of Suspense #63 that ends with him sending a raft full of explosives to a German submarine off the American shore. So even if you don't count the Golden Age stuff as canon, we have Captain America killing German soldiers in a Lee/Kirby Silver Age comic. Unless you think all the German sailors parachuted off of that submarine in the style of a GI Joe cartoon, in which case Cap left a unit of German troops loose on the eastern shore of the US.
This shouldn't even be controversial, and we don't have to point out specific examples in order to logically state that as an active participant in World War II, Captain America must have killed people.
Now, i understand where Mark Gruenwald is coming from here. First of all, i wonder if he really had World War II in mind when he wrote this. But outside the context of a war, i completely agree that Captain America would never willingly kill, and that since World War II up until this point, Cap had never killed (the death of the the original Baron Zemo was an accident - even if that was also a requirement of the CCA - and beheading the vampire Baron Blood doesn't count). And even in World War II, Captain America probably didn't kill much. A lot of his original activity was busting up spy rings, and his time with the Invaders was largely doing the same kind of super-hero stuff that he does in the modern age. And by design he was much less of a killer than his Golden Age companions. The Human Torch flash fried villains without a thought; the real challenge considering his powers is believing that the modern Torch has never killed or seriously maimed anyone. And the Sub-Mariner killed humans in his first appearance, and while that was a misunderstanding, he was patted on the head for it, and he had several bouts as a villain, nearly drowning the world on one occasion. Captain America, on the other hand, had a shield as a superpower, which is a pretty good way to symbolize the difference between the three.
So i'm perfectly willing to sign on to the idea that Cap is no killer by nature. But to say that he never killed during World War II goes too far and really neuters the character, and it also threatens to do a disservice to real world soldiers by suggesting that if they have killed then they've done something morally wrong.
Marvel doubles down on the idea that Cap has never killed, even during World War II, in the lettercol for issue #327:
Neither Cap nor the Invaders ever carried guns behind enemy lines during the War. They were never actively engaged in combat with the Axis militia, but concentrated their efforts against Nazi super-agents and their leaders. All this is to say that Captain America never sought to kill anoyone on the battlefield. It probably happened that soldiers who shot at Cap were hit by their own ricocheting bullets, but that's not the same as Cap shooting someone. We can't deny that Cap was at the center of a lot of bloodshed during the Big One, but he himself never intentionally shed another man's blood. The Ultimatum incident in CAP #321 was the first time Cap intentionally took someone's life.
As i wrote in my main blog post, Marvel has more or less backed away from the idea that Cap never killed, so perhaps we write Cap's thoughts off here as him being in shock or just not thinking about his World War II experience.
To assuage his anger at himself over being forced to kill here, Cap hunts down Flag-Smasher with a vengeance.
The fight leaves them stranded in the Alps with no transportation. Cap does everything he can to keep the injured Flag-Smasher alive.
After Flag-Smasher regains consciousness, Cap clears up a common misconception, something we also saw from Daredevil in Daredevil #233 (which, by the way, has Cap as much less of a boy scout. He knocks out innocent US army guards to get at information about Nuke and then fights more soldiers to prevent them from covering up the government's involvement with Nuke.). Cap doesn't work for the US government, and he doesn't represent its policies. He represents America's ideal.
Flag-Smasher is somewhat moved by this, but not to the point where he orders his men to stop attacking Cap when they arrive. And he swears that he'll prove to Cap that saving him was a mistake, and that he'll put a bullet in Cap's back when he has the opportunity.
It was nice to see Captain America explaining himself, but what i'm really interested in is Flag-Smasher and ULTIMATUM's side of the story. I understand the basic idea, but it's hard to understand how they expect to achieve their goals. Smashing symbols of nationalism/separatism is hardly going to get people to give up on the concept (if anything, it would probably counter-productively strengthen it). And how does Flag-Smasher find people so fanatically devoted to the No Borders concept that they are willing to "throw their life away" for it, as Cap puts it in one of the scans above. Or, for that matter, to kill innocent hostages for it. It's such a peaceful, hippie type of goal (i'm for it! At least in the abstract.) that i find it hard to believe that ULTIMATUM can recruit troops willing to die and kill for it.
This is why i don't like Flag-Smasher as a villain. Well first of all, his name is Flag-Smasher. But he's really not a good opposite for Captain America, because it forces Captain America into the role of defending nationalism. And the only way Cap can do that without being offensive is to water what he represents down to the point where Flag-Smasher is right and he should genericize his name to Captain Justice or something. Which, maybe he should. Or he should really own the name Captain America, and defend it by taking an American exceptionalism point of view, explaining why America uniquely symbolizes the values of truth and justice that Cap believes in. That would be an approach that not all readers - certainly not non-US readers - would agree with, but it would be a strong characterization. But that's not the way Captain America has ever been depicted and it's not what the Captain America book has ever been about. So whenever Flag-Smasher appears, i get ready for an interesting political debate but it always ends up being unsatisfying. As i've said before, i know i'm not reading Mother Jones here. But to tease the political ideas and then not go anywhere with it is worse, for me, than not bringing them up at all. And it makes Flag-Smasher and his group come off like generic and frankly crazy terrorists with ill conceived motives, and that's not interesting.
As for the rest of this issue, even if we append the "Except during World War II" asterisk to Cap's statement about never killing, i still think Gruenwald lays it on a little thick with the boyscout routine. One thing i really hate is the "i never hit a lady" trope that ends with the hero hitting the woman and telling her "you're no lady".
I never hit a lady unless that lady is a bad guy and then it's ok to hit the lady because she's not a lady.
But ignoring the heavy handed characterization AND the "never killed" line AND the inherent problems with Flag-Smasher, this wasn't terrible. The situation that Cap found himself in where he had to shoot, in and of itself, was a good scene, and it was handled well. Cap didn't fall into a quivering bowl of sorrow afterward. He picked himself up and hunted down Flag-Smasher. And the scenes with him keeping Flag-Smasher alive and trying to talk to him have merit. And it's a fun action story with ski jets and a battle in the snowy Swiss Alps, all depicted well by Paul Neary and team.
Hey! Who's that? Spider-Woman's old boyfriend, Jerry Hunt, now working for SHIELD's European division!
Good. Stay out there, Jerry. No one liked you.
Statement of Ownership Total Paid Circulation: Average of Past 12 months = 169,964. Single issue closest to filing date = 154,589.
Quality Rating: C
Chronological Placement Considerations: The MCP places this and next issue between Avengers #272-273, the same gap as the Avengers annuals. Three hours pass between issues #321 and #322 but it's part of the same story and i've kept it in the same entry. Issue #323 begin with Cap having just returned to the US, so he shouldn't appear elsewhere in between.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (7): show
These issues reflect the good and the bad of Gruenwald. He is very good at plotting a compelling action/adventure story. He is good at least thinking about interesting issues (in this case, ultra nationalism). He is good at logically using continuity--bringing in Jerry Hunt, for example.
However, he tends to be too sledgehammer in his points. I get what he's doing here by having Cap start to doubt his actions (this bleeds into the excellent Super Patriot plot), but I think as you correctly point out, if he had just settled for Cap thinking about how he hadn't killed lately or something (or more interestingly, wondering about that in conjunction with Flag-Smasher's nationalist points), instead of settling for milquetoast Cap. Furthermore, a lot of the interesting points he explored in Captain America were not explored to any real level of seriousness--ULTIMATUM just turns out to be a Red Skull funded group anyway.
That said, I always liked how Gruenwald scripted Cap in action--wile sometimes it didn't sound natural (like when he's talking to Holly), but a lot of times it felt like Cap was a more intelligent, thinking hero (to me anyway).
Posted by: MikeCheyne | January 5, 2014 3:21 PM
Regarding Ultimatum- I don't think that it's that far-fetched that Flag Smasher can find volunteers that are willing to kill and throw their lives away for his cause. Is it really any more implausible than, for example, Stalin being able to find tens of thousands of American supporters? As for Ultimatum not seeing how violence against civilian targets will be counterproductive to their cause, that's no uncommon in paramilitary organizations. You're right that there's no good way to handle Flag Smasher without watering down Cap's ideology.
Posted by: Michael | January 5, 2014 3:28 PM
I haven't reached this period but from what I've read sounds like Flag Smasher is going the way of Iron Man villain Firebrand from the 70s. Started out interesting, much a little twisted but had actual motives until fading into black and white thought processes.
Posted by: David Banes | January 5, 2014 3:43 PM
Flag-Smasher played a big part later on when the new "Captain America" met him. He even knew that it wasn't the same person. At least he stayed true to his own warped values throughout his run.
Posted by: CLYDE | January 5, 2014 4:33 PM
I still like Flag-smasher and ultimatum, more for their potential. I still think he's a good challenge for Cap's ideals, much like the Ghost challenged Iron man or a pro-democracy villain would challenge the Black Panther.(This should have happened) The problem is he has to be over-the-top or he wouldn't really be a villain.
I can also imagine Flag-smasher recruiting members who were a bit more unsure about his core idealism.
The idea of Cap dating a single mother is an interesting one.
I wish Cap had been able to answer the Smasher's question about a more general name, I hope the answer wasn't just Captain America sounds better than Captain Justice. Personally, I think Captain America is not a great identity for Steve Rogers, I prefered him as the Nomad.
As Mikechenyne says, both grunwalds strengths and weaknesses are on display, He wanted to be a polical writer but didnt have the chops. he was better with straight up adventure (eg the bloodstone hunt)
Posted by: kveto from prague | January 5, 2014 4:40 PM
The thing is that Ghost was presented as somewhat sympathetic very early. Iron Man teamed up with Justin Hammer against the Ghost. There was a lot more nuance and shades of grey with the Ghost and that story.
Posted by: ChrisKafka | January 5, 2014 5:24 PM
How was the Ghost considered sympathetic? He murdered an innocent security guard, and cared nothing about the people that lost their jobs as a result of his actions. The Ghost only became sympathetic in Dark Reign.
Posted by: Michael | January 5, 2014 5:32 PM
Flag-Smasher was a superb concept, far better than Cap himself. But he was always written as a caricature, albeit less so here in his first appearance.
Posted by: Luis Dantas | January 6, 2014 4:51 PM
Oh, and fnord, you are going to get your wish about Captain America owning the concept of American exceptionalism in future issues. It just won't be Steve Rogers who does it.
Posted by: kveto from prague | January 8, 2014 3:19 PM
When this issue was previewed, Flag-Smasher's group was called M.A.C.E.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | January 10, 2014 6:23 PM
I agree with the general tenure of the comments here. Stating Cap never killed - given his role in WWII - was a misstep. Even if we acknowledge he never killed in the comics we saw, the fact is that a lot of WWII took place off page. If Cap impacted the war for the better, then he indirectly contributed to a lot of enemy deaths. He also probably lead to a lot of direct enemy deaths as well.
The ban on Cap killing is even more absurd when we remember that Steve Rogers volunteered to join the regular Army, not to enroll in Operation: Rebirth that he knew nothing about. He was very aware he might be called upon to kill Nazis, and he was fine with that. Someone needed to stop Hitler.
What would be far better is to state that even though he had killed, he was so sickened by the waste and destruction of even "the Good War" that he never wanted to kill again, and after his revival committed himself to do everything he could to solve problems by not killing.
It's a shame that one panel caused so much controversy because otherwise Gruenwald handled the issue very well. He showed that Cap would kill to save innocent lives - but only when there was no other choice - and he didn't excuse the killing as a "good" thing even if it was justifiable. He considered it a failing. He didn't fall into genre trope trap by handwaving the situation away. He confronted it. It's a very mature way to handle things and shows Gruenwald gave a lot of thought to it.
Posted by: Chris | January 23, 2014 1:37 AM
I also admit I did not like Gruenwald's boy scout portrayal of Captain America. Steve Rogers has never been portrayed very well outside a few select good arcs (Roger Stern nailed it perfectly like he usually does).
In my imagination, Cap's model was always Gregory Peck. Here is a scene from Navarone which I think shows him well handling a bad spot. It's ten minutes long so the best keys are at 4:48, 6:22, 7:10, and 9:54.
I see Cap as being like Peck's portrayal of Keith Mallory during war, and like Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch at peace. (Plus Steve McQueen while on a motorcycle).
I think that hits all the notes people expect out of Cap while avoiding portraying him like Beaver Cleaver as a superhero.
Posted by: Chris | January 23, 2014 1:54 AM
I really like movie Steve Rogers too...the Chris Evans ones not that crappy 90s movie. He's a nice guy, doesn't want to kill anyone but he will do something about empires rising up.
So he's not afraid to throw you into an airplane propeller if he has no choice.
Posted by: David Banes | January 23, 2014 3:36 AM
Amazing Heroes #115 joke listing for #322:"Captain America gains a new sidekick, who doubles as a political commentator. Captain America and Buckley."---Gruenwald/Neary/Beatty
Posted by: Mark Drummond | June 13, 2014 5:04 PM
I am Mexican, but I really like Captain America and would find it very difficult not to listen to him if he asked me something (if he existed in real life or if I lived in a comic book, that is).
I guess he could defend his name of "America" (not that I am a fan of using that name for the country, instead of the continent) by saying he got all of these ideals while he was a boy, when living in the USA was not easy. There was no money, his own mother had a lot of problems, too, and not everyone rushed to help. Still, seeing this, he thought those values were worth fighting for.
There could then be meaning in keeping the name, and in insisting he is not blindly defending the politics of the country at any given time, but the "ideals" and what the country could be if it reached them. He is trying to inspire a whole country (and world) into becoming something better. Better than the place he had to grow up in. Of course, he will not whine about it so we may not hear him complaining about his youth that much.
About the no-killing, I agree it would be better to have him "stop killing" others instead of never having done it. Now he has to set higher standards for himself.
Going with this "higher standards" thing, he may not look down at soldiers killing during a war. But since he has a physical advantage over all of them (ally and enemy), he thinks he has no right to abuse power (there can be no "might makes right" for him).
I remember a couple of years ago when I read the first issues of Avengers. I was surprised Cap was so blood-thristy for "revenge" (his words) against Baron Zemo.
I also agree Chris Evans's Cap is very good at displaying all of these aspects of the character (man, I loved his relationship with Sam Wilson in the movie). While I know it will most likely not happen (then again, they have surprised me a few times already), I would like to see Cap's reaction to Diamondback flirting with him in the movies.
Posted by: Cesar Hernandez-Meraz | August 18, 2014 1:38 PM
I must also say I love the ULTIMATUM uniforms.
With soldier-type (well built and athletic) guys and girls wearing them, you know they will look really good!
Posted by: Cesar Hernandez-Meraz | August 18, 2014 1:40 PM
An interesting -- and very thoughtful and thorough -- criticism of portrayal of Cap, as well as the ethics, legal issues, and politics of Cap's killing the terrorist, appears in the letter column of Captain Aamerica #329.
The letter writer is Carmela Merlo, from Ithaca, New York, which suggests that she might well be the same Carmela Merlo who is married to writer Roger Stern, who lives in Ithaca. In the letter, she is politely critical of Gruenwald's portrayal of Cap's having never killed before, and of how legal distinctions about manslaughter, murder, and killing in defense are being glossed over in the story.
You can find a copy of the letter here: http://readingcaptainamerica.blogspot.com/2011/03/captain-america-321-322-caps-delicate.html
Posted by: Aaron Malchow | June 28, 2015 1:50 AM
"Cap never killed" is a mistake and dilution of character on a par with George Lucas' "Greedo shot first."
Posted by: Oliver_C | March 22, 2016 7:03 PM
Mark Gruenwald either forgot or was flat-out ignoring issue #113 by Stan Lee & Jim Steranko, which features one of the most blatant examples of Captain America utilizing lethal force in a story set in the modern era. During the battle with Hydra in the graveyard, Cap crashes him motorcycle which is "filled with a special explosive fuel" and then maneuvers a bunch of Hydra agents into standing near it. Cap then orders Rick Jones to grab a pistol and shoot the motorcycle, causing those Hydra goons to get blown to bits.
Yes, not only did Cap kill a bunch of Hydra agents, he made Rick Jones, a teenage civilian, an accomplice in the act.
I realize that Gruenwald very much wanted to draw a line in the sand between Cap and such hyper-violent anti-heroes as Wolverine and the Punisher who were starting to become very popular, and I do appreciate his intentions. The problem is that Grunewald did so in a very unbelievable manner that relied on readers ignoring the fact that Cap served in the US armed forces during World War II and that there were actual prior on-panel depictions of him killing bad guys.
Posted by: Ben Herman | April 2, 2016 8:43 PM
Well, the Steranko story was problematic AT THE TIME, since previously, in Avengers 37,it was established that Cap took an oath not to kill when he joined the Avengers. Still, Cap not killing during World War II was ridiculous.
Posted by: Michael | April 2, 2016 11:14 PM
Honestly, I've always thought people over-analyse and overreact on the whole "Cap has never killed anyone" statements. I always read it as "I have never wanted or sought to end life".
It's a bit like Daredevil's claims to be the "man without fear" despite his inner monologues being filled with fears and doubts.
And at the end of the day, I prefer my Cap not to indiscriminately kill terrorists if he doesn't have to. Anyone who wants to read a Captain America book like that deserves to not be catered to.
Posted by: AF | April 3, 2016 5:39 AM
@Michael - I was not aware that the Steranko story was considered problematic when it was first published. I've only ever read the issues that immediately followed it in the black & white Essential volume, so I've never seen any of the lettercols from those issues which responded to Steranko's brief stint. Were there any letters regarding Cap blowing up those Hydra agents?
@AF - I agree with you, I definitely do not want Cap as an indiscriminate killer, either. Because of the Super Soldier Serum and his incredibly extensive skills, 99.9% of the time Cap should be able to find ways to defeat his opponents in a non-lethal manner. And he is obviously a very moral person who hates the idea of killing.
Personally, I see Cap as someone who will do everything in his power to find a non-lethal solution to a crisis, to stop his enemies and save innocent lives without resorting to killing. There will be that 00.1% of the time where that is just not possible, and Cap realizes that he will have to use lethal force to stop a bad guy. Afterwards he will obviously wish that there could have been another way, and he's not going to feel good about it, but he's not going to spend months beating himself up over it.
Of course, other people have their own interpretations of the character that are somewhat different than that.
Posted by: Ben Herman | April 3, 2016 9:31 AM
Another example that was blatantly forgotten or ignored is Cap helping to kill some of the High Evolutionary's servants in Avengers Annual #17. Yes, they weren't human, but the "death doesn't count if the victim isn't human" trope is such a cliche to me that I decided to count non-human deaths just like human deaths. However, it was probably one of those situations where he had to act, much like these issues. (after all, the Evolutionary War had to end at any cost)
Posted by: Nate Wolf | March 27, 2017 2:31 PM
Sorry, got the chronology mixed up in my head. Obviously this was published after those issues. Still shows how easily the idea that Cap never killed is contradicted, and how quick Marvel is to make him kill more and more people after this line.
Posted by: Nate Wolf | March 27, 2017 2:34 PM
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