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.