Ruby Nation

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Captain America " Fighting Chance ": A Really Uncomfortable Masterpiece

I recently read the two trades collecting " Fighting Chance ", the Captain America mega-arc by the late writer/editor Mark Gruenwald. My thoughts on the story are extremely conflicted, because while it's a surprisingly deep and poignant examination of the character and his legacy, it also has an unfortunate implication that doesn't seem fully addressed by the text.

The story begins with Steve Rogers talking to a doctor, who'd examined him regarding cramps and fatigue. The news he receives is much more dire than he expected; the Super-Soldier Serum that made him into Captain America is breaking down, and his body can't handle the level of activity that being a superhero entails. He receives this ultimatum; retire from crimefighting and live a full civilian life, or stay as Cap and risk total muscular paralysis within a year. Guess which one he chooses? Spoiler alert; it's not the one that would suggest he could have a meaningful life without punching Nazis in the jaw.

I became interested in this story because of its similarities to Metal Gear Solid 4, which has super-soldier Solid Snake aging rapidly and having trouble being an action hero. While Cap doesn't wrinkle up or start growing a dapper grey mustache, his experience is similar, failed by the physical strength that defined him and going into action despite increased risk. Both characters also start to require assistive technology to keep fighting, Snake wearing his Octocamo muscle suit while Cap starts wearing a belt-and-pocket-laden gadget suit, and later dons a Starktech exoskeleton once he completely paralyzes himself. There's even a thematic link between the two stories when both characters start thinking about their legacies, and what they'll leave behind for the next generation. For Snake it's being treated as a burden by former comrades, while for Cap it's meeting a new generation of vigilantes with different-- and often perverted-- interpretations of the American dream.

However, the place where they diverge is the place where Fighting Chance makes me uncomfortable. For Snake, death is the inevitable outcome of his aging, and he's desperate to finish his mission in the little time he has left. But for Cap, THE TERMINAL PROGNOSIS IS HIS OWN DAMN FAULT. The doctor tells Cap that he can live out a normal life if he retires from the battlefield. Cap doesn't like this news, but he does very little to try and take it easy-- instead, he keeps putting himself into combat situations. In doing so, he aggravates his cellular degeneration and eats away what strength he has left. Other than then-girlfriend Diamondback, he keeps his illness secret from his comrades, even his super-genius friends like Hank Pym and Tony Stark*. There are plenty of instances where the muscle spasms render Cap less effective or even outright useless, but he keeps fighting.

This is even more troublesome when you consider the fact that not only is Captain America capable of living a normal lifespan, but that his intervention isn't absolutely necessary for the world's security. Snake has the " advantage " of being the designated hero of his world, capable of feats no other soldier could match. In the world of Metal Gear Solid, being able to take down a ten-story robot with nothing but a rocket launcher is a skill that's very rare, especially amongst people who don't want to destroy civilization. But there are plenty of other superheroes in the Marvel Universe, and while they might not have Cap's legendary skills or reputation, they could certainly do the job. Even before the Marvel Universe became professionalized with an omnipresent SHIELD and a 50-State Initiative, there were Avengers teams on both coasts, the Fantastic Four and their network of fantasy nation friends ( T'Challa, the Inhumans, Namor on a good day, etc. ), dozens of urban vigilantes in the Big Apple, and way more mutants than anybody cares to remember. To Cap's credit he does start training Free Spirit ( the one new flag-suited vigilante in the story who isn't off their rocker ), but his pride keeps him from asking for help from people who can do the job without risking paralysis.

Of course, Cap eventually gets better**, but he didn't know that he'd make a full recovery... what Cap knew was that he could have lived out the rest of his life as a civilian, but instead chose to kill himself with a blaze of glory. This was explicit with Snake, who's always been presented as a death drive hero. But Cap is the great boy scout, the guy who sets the moral standard for the rest of the hero community. When he's killing himself to pretend that he can still be a superhero in spite of his disability, he's saying that he has no worth outside of his physical abilities. He doesn't even try to consider what he could do besides being Captain America.

Unfortunately it's an occupational hazard of the narrative for heroes to completely disregard any handicaps that would interfere with them doing their job. Metal Gear Solid 4 at least pulled no punches in showing how Snake's final mission was motivated by a mixture of necessity and self-loathing. But then again, Metal Gear Solid 4 was the last Sold Snake game, and subsequent games have starred other characters. Steve Rogers came back, so not only was he willing to disregard his health out of idiotic pride, but he didn't suffer any permanent consequences for it.

I mean, one of Cap's contemporaries was FDR, and he led us against the Nazis from a wheelchair...

* In an issue by Len Kaminski, Steve Rogers confides in Tony the degeneration of his Super-Soldier powers, but conveniently omits the fact that being Cap is killing him.
** And I admit I haven't read the stories in which he recovers, but since these stories were published in the 90's, I was fairly certain that he wouldn't stay down.


  1. The stories in which Cap recovers are the widely-praised first Mark Waid run on the title with Ron Garney.

    They're probably best remembered today as 1) the last time before Brubaker the book was done well and b) the stories that resurrected Sharon Carter, who remains a significant part of any Steve Rogers title to this day.

  2. I love your straightforward voice. While this topic isn't one that I would normally explore, I find myself considering your discussions with a fair amount of attention. Thanks for that. For expanding my thinking. Of course, there are parallels between things you write about and things I write about. Your point of view may sneak it's way into some of the things I do. Hope you don't mind!

  3. I found your blog when I was looking for Tony Star/ Iron Man disability stories. I'm glad I found you! I love comics and I see disability storylines a lot in our hero-adventures. It fascinates me how some disabilities are considered sad and others are superpowers :)

    I've linked back to you and I'm sure I'll be finding more to share with everyone :)

    Peace! Lenka

  4. oh, yeah, here's the page with the link:

    I'm developing a page of characters/real people who belong to the Disability Community.

    I'm going to put Xavier, Daredevil, etc. too. I'd love more ideas :)

    I will be including everyone from childhood characters (Nemo, Rudolph) to unexpected (Freddy Kruger). It's a work-in-progress.

    Love any ideas :) Thanks! Lenka

  5. Thanks, Lenka! Always good to meet another person interested in disability activism. Will help out with your page as much as possible.

  6. The question that immediately comes to my mind, Nitz, is what *can* Captain America do besides...well, being Captain America?

    Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, and Tony Stark are all very different in many ways, but one thing they all share is well-developed personal lives they could fall back on. Whether being a forensic scientist, a lawyer, or an industrial tycoon, they could use their civilian talents in their true identities. This is in fact what Peter Parker did after he lost his leg in Tom DeFalco's MC2 universe, namely hang up his costume and instead turn to using his science smarts as a crime scene analyst. He might not be able to kick ass as Spider-Man anymore, but he can still help put bad guys behind bars.

    I'm not as familiar with Cap, but how much of a developed civilian life does he actually have? The other guys I've mentioned all have dual identities that they can embrace full time by giving up their costumed roles, but doesn't everyone pretty much know who Cap is? Wherever he goes, people know him as the Living Legend, rather than Steve Rogers. Could/would he be involved in national security in the same way has Henry Gyrich? Could he take over SHIELD? Whatever it is, as a high-profile person you'd think Cap would be given a high-profile position.

    Incidentally, how did Cap actually get the Super Soldier serum stabilized, anyway? Did Reed Richards or Hank Pym fix the problem for him?

    Again, it's interesting to see how someone like Reed could have intervened in other situations but he wasn't able to. When the Gray Hulk needed help with the cancerous poison that was killing him, Reed probably could have devised an antidote, but it would have taken more time than the Hulk could have spared. And with MC2 Spider-Man, Reed had in fact devised an artifical limb that could have helped Peter continue to fight as Spider-Man, but Peter simply decided to refuse the offer and quit the superhero business for good.