This issue serves as the aftermath of the last one, which ended with Captain America shooting a terrorist ULTIMATUM agent to stop him from massacring hostages in a monastery in the Swiss Alps. Like the last issue, Captain America #322 is one of the most cited comics in my book, due largely to the fact that most of its panels highlight Cap’s internal monologue as he reflects on the last issue’s events—and fights more ULTIMATUM agents and their leader, Karl Morgenthau a.k.a. Flag-Smasher. As such, it gives us a lot to talk about, especially how Cap sees himself, how others see him, and how he feels about the things he sometimes has to do when he has no other choice.
We start with our hero making sure we know who he is, as if there weren’t a huge banner on the top of the page announcing him. (He’s a comics artist; he knows how these things work.)
Note he refers to himself as “a solider in the war against oppression, injustice, and crime.” Normally, when he or the narrator states his mission or calling (as will be done below), it’s in terms of what he fights for, such as liberty, justice, or the American dream. But here, he focuses on what he fights against, starting with oppression—which would not be a surprise to longtime fans, but might be to those with a more casual understanding of what Captain America stands for. (On the other hand, it’s odd to mention “crime”; after all, he ain’t Batman.)
Below, Cap reiterates his opposition to war in general, which he seems to conflate here with fighting at all, although he acknowledges when it’s a necessary evil (resulting from using his judgment to balance conflicting principles).
While he fights, he starts to recap the events of the last issue, while acknowledging that SHIELD has joined in on the fun. (They’re the ones in the goofy red helmets.)
He reminds us of the goal of ULTIMATUM (and their leader, Flag-Smasher), and contrasts it with his own…
…which he states in the more traditional positive way, before addressing those casual fans who don’t appreciate his relationship with the American government. He also asserts (once again) that he serves the American dream, as he did so well in Daredevil #233, but adds a personal note that emphasizes his choice and sense of responsibility.
Next, he makes an excellent point about freedom of speech and the freedom not to listen…
…before making another Batman-ish point, this time about guns and killing, but in a different way: The Caped Crusader is even more opposed to killing, based on a firm belief in the sanctity of life learned at the feet of his surgeon father, but his opposition to guns is more sentimental, given that his parents’ were murdered with one. (See chapter 6 in my book Batman and Ethics for more.) Cap couches his opposition to killing in the language of rights rather than sanctity, and sees guns as an instrument to that wrongful act.
But it’s the final statement above that strikes many as implausible, given his experience as a soldier during World War II, and it set off a flurry of disagreement in the letters pages for months to come. This same topic came up in a recent podcast of the Captain America Comic Book Fans that I was honored to participate in, and there I gave a twofold interpretation of Cap’s statement. First, when he said he had never taken a life before now, he may have referring only to his “new” life as a superhero and role model since being defrosted in Avengers #4, which he might consider very separate from his “old” life as a soldier in WWII. Second, at this point in 1986, his war experiences had not been well chronicled, as they would be later in Paul Jenkins’ Theater of War series as well as Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, in which he explicitly addressed the unrealistic nature of serving in war without taking a life. (Even Cap’s 1940s adventures in the original Golden Age comics and the Invaders series were squarely within the genre of superhero comics rather than war comics.) At the time, then, we could imagine his role in WWII as a figurehead, leading men into battle but not engaging in it, he could have escaped the war without taking a life himself.
Next, he recounts the incident in question, as if rehearsing the justification to himself—as we can imagine he’ll do countless times over—with the pained look on his face speaking volumes.
Below he makes an important point about tragic dilemmas, choices in which no option is morally acceptable and from which one cannot escape with clean hands: Even if he comes to terms with the decision he made in the tragic dilemma, he can still regret having been in that situation in the first place, and blame himself for not anticipating and avoiding it altogether. (This may reflect an unreasonably high standard of responsibility, of course, but we know that this is one of Cap’s least virtuous traits.)
While he continues to blame himself, Cap also reveals that his goal in battling through the ULTIMATUM forces is to find Flag-Smasher…
…which he does, just as the terrorist leaders tries to escape in a helicopter. After leaping on the copter, Cap fights Flag-Smasher until they all crash into the side of a mountain, the helicopter exploding and the two men falling into the snow below.
Once they both come to, they talk out their differences rationally… or not so rationally… while they continue to fight, with Flag-Smasher calling Cap an anachronism. (Real original, Karl.)
After characterizing Flag-Smasher as an idealistic fanatic fighting for impossible ends, Cap admirably considers that people may see him the same way—which some people undoubtedly do, albeit in pursuit of a different cause and using more noble means—before he realizes he’s fighting for his life and had better pay attention.
Losing sight of Morgenthau in the snow, Cap turns his attention to finding shelter from the storm, and ponders his current foe’s fate as he envisions the faces of those who have passed before.
After the storm breaks, Cap looks for Flag-Smasher while he wonders why he’s risking his life to save him, wondering if vengeance might justify leaving him for dead… and his abandonment of the debate to continue his search provides his answer, which is no surprise, given his distaste for vengeance in general. (Don’t mention the name of his team… now’s not the time.)
Cap’s internal monologue makes clear the physical sacrifice he endures as he finds Flag-Smasher, fashions a splint for his leg, and carves a new shelter for them out of the snow.
After lying atop his enemy to conserve warmth during the night, Cap carries him into the morning daylight, only to have Flag-Smasher wake up and immediately become upset that this self-righteous relic of a forgotten era is actually helping him survive.
Flag-Smasher accepts Cap’s help—and a ride on his shield, wheeee!—but still makes clear he hates him just as much as before, while Cap sounds more like Batman than before as he tries to explain his motivation to Flag-Smasher. (Incidentally, this part of the story closely resembles 1991’s Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #1, in which Batman drags an injured Joker across a snowy mountaintop while explaining why he doesn’t simply let him die.)
Having a captive audience, Cap explains himself to Morgenthau, almost using him as a proxy for readers who misunderstand what Captain America is about, especially regarding his belief in principle over politics and his support of America as an ideal, whether or not its government at any given time lives up to it.
Flag-Smasher asks a good question—and one that foreshadows upcoming events in the title—but Cap is saved by the
…although its passengers are definitely not a welcome sight.
I trust that Cap will never make that mistake again!
Morgenthau contemplates an act of decency, gratitude, and reciprocity… and declines. Cap has to snatch the shield from under Flag-Smasher’s bottom and redirects it toward its regulation purpose.
Cap acknowledges his own depleted physical state but fights on, using just a slight bit of subterfuge (the slightest of moral compromises).
Cap next goes for the pilot in the helicopter, and even after realizing her gender, decides that his old-fashioned chivalry doesn’t apply.
Jokes aside, he makes a good point about exercising control and restraining himself, which must be especially difficult in his current condition (which makes it all the more admirable).
But it’s not over, as Flag-Smasher show just how petty, resentful, and jealous he is…
…but still gives up (perhaps for the best).
Never the best with timing (or eyesight, apparently), SHIELD finally shows up, and Flag-Smasher gets the final word—which Cap summarily rejects.
Flag-Smasher will return in a couple dozen issues to face Captain America, but in the next issue, we meet a fella named John Walker. Are these two statements related? I’m not saying any more…
Collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Justice Is Served
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #321 (September 1986)