Spoilers ahead for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1.
Steve Rogers – the original, and to some, the one true Captain America – just anchored his third legitimately blockbuster solo movie, and has become a cultural icon even in unlikely places like Europe, India and China. So why is the comic book version of Steve Rogers basically unrecognizable to people who know Cap from his five Marvel Studios movie appearances, or even his appearances in other media? With the character in many ways becoming their flagship film character, why does Marvel keep fixing what doesn't seem broke?
2016 is the 75th anniversary of Captain America, a milestone Marvel celebrated by putting Steve back behind the shield (or, well, a shield) after almost two years away, but even this return isn’t without its twists. Marvel giveth, and Marvel taketh away – as evidenced by the wants-to-be stunning revelation that the recently rejuvenated Steve Rogers is – and maybe always has been – a secret agent of Hydra. And that’s just the most recent in a long string of shake-ups to Steve’s status quo.
In the last decade, Steve Rogers has become the pinnacle of what Stan Lee (who didn’t create Captain America, but did bring him into the modern Marvel universe) called “the illusion of change” – the idea that creators can take a character any direction they want, even if it’s shocking, as long as they return to their core status quo. For the last ten years, Steve has been dead, replaced in his mantle, displaced in time, sent to other dimensions, re-aged, de-aged and depowered. One thing he’s rarely been, however, is just plain old Captain America – the hero that codified the Avengers, and who has been the heart and soul of Marvel’s heroes for generations.
Here's a timeline of the changes:
"Dead" (April 2007 - August 2009)/Super Soldier (June 2010 - September 2011)
In 2007, with Cap’s death (or time displacement, if you want to be specific) in the aftermath of Civil War, Steve was replaced as Captain America by his former protégé and one-time foe Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier. Bucky enjoyed an extended run as Captain America – one relatively unsullied by status quo changes, and prolonged according to Marvel's Tom Brevoort due to the surprise popularity of the change. But even when Steve returned at the end of Captain America: Reborn in 2009, he didn’t go back to being Captain America. He left Bucky in the mantle, instead becoming the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (unofficially called the 'Super Soldier') wearing the costume seen in most of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Return of the Cap (September 2011 - August 2014)
It wasn’t until 2011, when Bucky faked his death at the hands of the Serpent in the event Fear Itself that Cap took up the mantle again. And that was the last time Steve was really operating as Cap in the Marvel Universe for an extended period of time. For over a year, Steve wielded the shield, leading the Avengers once again and even taking a lead role in Avengers vs. X-Men. But in the wake of AvX, the next change to Steve Rogers happened - marooned in an alternate dimension where he lived for years outside of time.
Even while trapped in Dimension Z, the artificial world created by Arnim Zola, Steve appeared in several Avengers titles, providing some kind of bastion for fans of classic Cap action, but even there his status quo was moving towards big changes, as Marvel prepared for Secret Wars. Upon his return from Dimension Z, Steve enjoyed a few short arcs fighting the good fight – that is, until a villain called Iron Nail sucked the Super Soldier Serum from his body, aging him into an old man, and relegating him to the role of advisor and strategist while his former partner Sam Wilson, the Falcon, took over the role of Captain America.
All-New All-Different (August 2014 - March 2016)
Even Sam – who maintains his Captain America identity despite Steve’s recent return - isn’t immune to shake-ups. When Red Skull used his stolen psychic powers to nearly conquer the world, a magical “inversion” made Sam temporarily evil. Even after that, Sam has been put at odds with the government, operating independently as a more politically-charged Captain America that even at one point was at odds with Steve Rogers.
Steve's Return as Cap... Sort of (May 2016 - Present)
And Sam Wilson's tenure as the only Captain America didn't last long, as in the recent Avengers Standoff! event Steve Rogers was rejuvenated with Super Soldier Serum and returned to active duty. In the heat of the battle he didn't take up his old mantle, but this week's Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 was heavily promoted as Roger's return as Cap - albiet with a new costume and a different shield.
But of course, that led to the latest twist – the aforementioned Hydra revelation that calls into question everything Steve Rogers has ever said, done, or stated in first-person narration in the Marvel Universe.
Here’s the thing – we all know how this works.
Again, it’s the “illusion of change." Regardless of what happens in the current story, at some point, Steve Rogers will be the same flag-waving, two-fisted sentinel of liberty that the Marvel Universe – and its fans – have come to count on. But why is Steve so easy to change, to see cast out of his role, his ideals twisted, or his identity called into question? It’s not even a new phenomenon. Throughout Cap’s history, he’s had brief sojourns as Nomad, a man without a country, the Captain, and more. But the last ten years have seemingly been a long string of status quo shake-ups, as if there’s nothing else left to be said with the man who was once the best example of American idealism, a non-partisan beacon of the values we can all agree on.
That Captain America is still the core of Marvel’s unimpeachable cinematic universe – so when will he come back to comic books?