In my opinion, this is the one the most important issues of Captain America—which is appropriate, given that this is the 300th post at this blog! This is one of the issues I discuss the most in my book, because Cap’s moral code is pushed to its limits at almost every step, with a jawdropping conclusion that reverberates in the title for months. But first, he has to survive an unexpected romantic encounter, his first since the end of his relationship with Bernie Rosenthal in issue #317. (I’m not counting Diamondback’s sloppy attempts at flirtation in issue #319.)
After a few pages showing an impending disaster we’ll hear about soon enough, we join Cap at the home of Hiram “Ram” Riddley, his junior information broker, and his mother Holly, both of whom we first met in issue #313.
“There had better be apple pie!”
“Oh Cap, you’re such a card!”
“Ha ha… no, I’m serious, Cap needs some apple pie.”
(Give me a break—I have to get a few laughs in before the story gets really heavy.)
Ram proves his loyalty to Cap, which Cap returns by removing his cowl, much to Ram and Holly’s surprise.
Cap admits to not being concerned about his secret identity—which makes sense, given that he has few personal friends or family to protect, at least now that he’s no longer engaged—as well as being fairly ordinary looking, a judgment with which Holly distinctly disagrees, as her mission this evening is set.
(More like “a thousand other blond guys named Chris,” right?)
Holly shows sitcom-level subtlety in getting Ram to leave the room… and Cap finally gets his apple pie. (Holly knows what she’s doing.)
The candlelight was a good move too, arousing certain thoughts in her dinner companion. (“Once upon a time,” come on—it was four issues ago, not 1942.)
Cap and Holly bond over how much they care for America’s youth, signing a few bars of “The Greatest Love of All,” released just a few months earlier, before Holly offers Cap food, lodging, and companionship, plus her hand…
…and receiving what must have been a chilling “ma’am” in return.
Our Hallmark Movie ends here as Ram rescues Cap from his mom and her “adult matters,” and shows him the news about the disaster I mentioned earlier (about which Cap may almost as relieved to hear as he is horrified).
As shown in the first four pages of the issue, Flag-Smasher (from issue #312) now leads a terrorist organization called ULTIMATUM, and will apparently stop at nothing to attract Cap’s attention, including hijacking a plane about to land in London.
For all of Holly’s efforts, her next and final appearance will be in a pictorial in issue #350 titled “The Women in Captain America’s Life.” (The bar for inclusion must have been very, very low.)
During a news conference, Flag-Smasher explains what ULTIMATUM stands for as well as their goal, which is the same as his own from his initial appearance: one world with no borders (as is now well-known from the version portrayed in the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
Cap is already on his way overseas as Flag-Smasher makes his threat, and reveals a much more critical opinion of his enemy’s views than he had in issue #313, when his main issue was with the means Flag-Smasher used to further them.
Cap also has the first of many crises of judgment this issue as he weighs whether or not to surrender, considering that Flag-Smasher may not stick to his promise.
I would have expected Cap to get some Captain America pencils done while he makes his way across the Atlantic, as he did while waiting for the Scourge in the last issue, but instead he calls SHIELD for info. (I don’t know what he means by SHIELD being secretive these days—they haven’t even appeared much in this title or Avengers for a while.)
Sherlock Holmes deduces where ULTIMATUM is hiding the hijacked plane…
…with the help of Dr. Watson (aka SHIELD).
When Cap finds a lookout, he doesn’t need to introduce himself (although the Santa coat might have confused the ULTIMATUM agents for a second).
In fact, it seems they know him too well for him to effectively threaten bodily harm that borders on torture, given his legendary sense of honor—which does not preclude socking the guy for his duds.
While he puts on a horrifically colorless uniform—no red or blue at all, sigh—Cap ponders the difficulties of threatening torture or death to someone willing to endure either, even if he were willing to follow through on it. He reaffirms the importance of his code of ethics before acknowledging that he will have to use subterfuge, which he’s not comfortable with either.
(Note the final thought above about remembering to carry a gun “as a prop”—a clever bit of foreshadowing courtesy of this issue’s Chekhov, Mr. Gruenwald.)
I include the panel below only because it’s an all-too-rare acknowledgment by Cap that his shield should not fit under his clothing.
After he learns that the passengers from the plane are being held in a local monastery, Cap once again tries to bluff an ULTIMATUM agent into telling him where it is. Even though the guy doesn’t know it’s the Sentinel of Liberty asking, it doesn’t work, and Cap reluctantly has to knock him out anyway.
Cap gets eyes on Flag-Smasher, but makes the tough decision not to engage, putting the safety of the hostages first. (But he does nab some sweet flying skis.)
I’m sure Holly would be touched to know that Cap’s thinking of her, if only out of shame regarding the dishonorable actions he’s been forced to engage in, even though they’re justified by the tremendous stakes.
This is an excellent example of the threshold deontology we’ve seen Cap apply lately (see Secret Wars II #9 and The Incredible Hulk #320-323), which allows for the temporary suspension of treasured moral principles in the face of catastrophic negative consequences from maintaining them (that is, when those consequences exceed a certain threshold amount).
Unfortunately for Cap, fair play is not the only principle he’ll have to suspend in the interest of saving the hostages before this issue is over.
When Cap finds the monastery, he scopes it out for ULTIMATUM agents…
…and stealthily takes them out, one by one (including very cleverly using his shield as a distraction).
When there are two left, Cap sees them both aiming their guns at the crowd, and Cap can only hit one with his shield before the other opens fire…
…and Cap reacts with lightning speed, using the gun he has carried as part of his disguise to shoot the ULTIMATUM agent before he can kill more hostages. And just as quickly, he feels remorse over his actions, no matter how well justified they were.
This stands as one of the starkest examples of a tragic dilemma, a problem in which no option seems morally acceptable, that Cap has faced to date, and below we see only a hint of how much this event will shake him to the core in the issues to come.
In the next issue, Cap begins to process what he did… and comes face-to-face with Flag-Smasher, who does not help, not even a little bit. (Frankly, he’s quite insensitive. It’s like he doesn’t care at all!)
Captain America (vol. 1) #321, September 1986: Mark Gruenwald (writer), Paul Neary (pencils), Dennis Janke (inks), Ken Feduniewicz (colors), Diana Albers (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Justice Is Served
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #320 (August 1986)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Captain America Annual #8, The Incredible Hulk #323, and Avengers #271, Eternals #12, and Power Man and Iron Fist #125 (September 1986)
NEXT ISSUE: Captain America #322 (October 1986)
>For all of Holly’s efforts, her next and final appearance will be in a pictorial in issue #350 titled “The Women in Captain America’s Life.”
Not counting her behind-the-scenes appearance in Gruenwald’s final issue, of course.
>(The bar for inclusion must have been very, very low.)
Frankly, there just aren’t a lot of women in his life at this point. It’s not ’til the 21st century that his black book really starts getting filled in.
>(I don’t know what he means by SHIELD being secretive these days—they haven’t even appeared much in this title or Avengers for a while.)
Bear in mind that Gruenwald was editor of Nick Fury vs. SHIELD (drawn by Neary) which was surely in the planning stages at this point.
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Ah, wasn’t aware of the last point — thanks!