For my money, he's the fifth great archetypal character in the comics medium. First there's Superman, that all-powerful benevolent cosmic immigrant. Then there's Batman, the brooding self-made vengeance seeker. Third, there's Wonder Woman, the clay statue who becomes an inspiration to women everywhere (don't ask me how or why, I didn't make it up). Fourth, there's the original Captain Marvel, the big-muscled fantasy/wish fulfillment stand-in for every boy who's ever been picked on by somebody bigger.
And finally there's Captain America. Some people dismiss him as merely the quintessential patriotic hero, a symbol of that collective abstraction we call America. Others say he's just a guy who lucked into a sweetheart deal: a perfect male body, a glamorous lifestyle, and terrific reflexes and a shield to make his dangerous line of work reasonably safe. I say some of these characterizations are short-sighted, others miss the point altogether.
To me Captain America is the ultimate self-made hero. The Super-Soldier Serum didn't make him what he is, the Super-Soldier Serum was just a tool he used to make himself all he could be. Even without it, I believe Steve Rogers could have made himself great- perhaps not in such an overtly physical way, but great nonetheless, the way a humanitarian or activist for human rights is great. Before he ever even heard of Project: Rebirth, Steve Rogers possessed the qualities and attitudes that he would later be in a position to publicly expouse once he had the physique that commanded attention. He was brave, had a great reverence for life, and a passion for freedom. I think freedom- free will- plays a bigger part in Captain America's conception than any of the four aforementioned archetypal heroes. Steve Rogers chose to be Captain America, and worked hard at defining just what a Captain America was.
Let's compare Cap with the four previous archetypes, shall we? Superman didn't have a choice to become super; he was born that way. He didn't have a choice what planet he'd crash-land on- his father made that choice for him. Chance delivered him into the auspices of the kindly Kents, who taught him American and Christian values. Upon growing up, it seems only logical that he would become a hero, a champion of his adopted world. His upbringing taught him it's the job of heavenly visitors to save the world and help mankind. It was no big decision for him to make, it was just something that superior beings naturally do. When you've got more power than anybody else, it doesn't take a lot of courage or determination to be a hero. I'm not denying Superman's value as a mythic character. But I am saying it's hard for me to identify with a guy who was born so special that greatness just naturally came to him. Superman is not a viable fantasy figure for those of us aware that we are native to Earth. Captain America, on the other hand is one of our own. There nothing in his birth or his upbringing that demanded he choose a hero's path. But he did so anyway because he wanted to.
Let's compare Cap with Batman. In some ways Cap has more in common with Batman than Superman: both Cap and Batman are self-motivated orphans with great athletic abilities. Batman and Cap both chose to become heroes: no one forced them to. Both were single-minded in their dedication to transforming themselves into perfect physical specimens: Cap had the advantage of the physique-enhancing serum, but nature had dealt him a physically frail unathletic body that had to be compensated for. (Do you think an 18-year old Bruce Wayne, even if he hadn't been in physical training for the past six years, would have been classified 4-F by the Army as Steve Rogers had? I don't. I think Bruce Wayne was gifted with a naturally athletic body.) Batman and Cap are extremely motivated, some might say obsessive types. Batman is obsessed with vengeance upon the criminal element that took his parents from him; Captain America is obsessed with freedom, justice, and the American dream. Batman's obsession derives from the traumatic slaying of his parents. Cap's obsession...where does it come from? Cap's parents are incidential players in his legend. I'm not even sure they were even mentioned in the Forties canon of stories. Though his parents were later asserted to have died before he became Captain America, neither their lives nor their deaths seem to have had the profound influence that Batman's and Superman's parents had on them. The fact that external molders of internal values cannot be found in no way weakens Cap's mythic value. To the contrary, it enhances Cap's symbolism as a self-made man: it was he who defined the abstract values by which he would live. In final contrast, Batman's obsession is dark and death-affirming while Cap's is light and life-affirming.
Let's compare Cap with Wonder Woman. Despite her jumbled origins, Wonder Woman is supposed to be the ultimate female encompassing all feminine virtues: she is a role model for women. Cap, on the other hand, is not gender-specific: he is not supposed to symbolize the ultimate male. He has an ideal male form, but his inner virtues are not uniquely what our culture defines as masculine. Bravery is not a male trait, nor is intelligence, determination, or compassion. Cap and Wonder Woman have these attributes in common, they both stand for freedom and justice and compassion in their own way. But while Wonder Woman comes from a pacifistic society (in the comics's original twisting on the Amazon myth), Cap comes from a society thrust into world war. Each of them becomes a contradiction of terms: a compassionate warrior. I am not saying Wonder Woman is a lesser character because she is more of a woman's hero while Cap is more of a people's hero. Our male-dominated culture being what it is, women may well need a hero all their own. The problem I have with Wonder Woman is akin to the problem I have with Superman: her specialness at birth virtually predetermines she will become a hero. While Superman was born an alien from an advanced civilization, Wonder Woman was not born a woman at all but a clay statue which was granted life and magical attributes by the Greek gods (according to the original accounts). This to me it not something a lot of young girls can relate to, and consequently detracts from Wonder Woman's value as a role model.
Finally let's compare Captain America with Captain Marvel. Both Captains have the same point of depature: young physically average or below average boys who become something far greater and more capable than themselves. The difference between the two is that while Steve Rogers chose to become Captain America and worked hard to make the concept of Cap work, Billy Batson stumbled upon the wizard Shazam who granted him the powers and altered form of Captain Marvel. (A case could be made that Billy was destined to find Shazam, which would simply throw him into the category of those born special.) Either way it was not something Billy chose or had to work for. But to a kid, it seems equally probable you'll meet a magic wizard as it is you'll be offered the chance to become a super-soldier. The difference is that Captain Marvel is a wish fulfillment figure for the kid who wants magic to do all the work, Captain America for the kid who doesn't mind doing a lot of the work himself. The Super-Soldier Serum may have enhanced Cap's body to its peak physical condition, but it didn't givge him any fighting skills. Cap had to work out every day to maintain his physique and hone his battle techniques- Captain Marvel was powerful enough he never had to work out.
My point in this comparison of archetypes is not to convince anyone that Captain America is a better character or purer mythic figure than any of the other four discussed. My point is simply that Captain America is indeed a great archetype, distinct from all the others, and for an average American kid like I once was, the most relatable fantasy figure of the bunch. You had to be born on another world to be Superman. You had to have your folks killed to be Batman. You had to have been turned into a person by the Greek gods to be Wonder Woman. You had to find a wizard to be Captain Marvel. But Captain America...ah, all you to do was be a very good person on the inside and work very hard every day at building up your body, and you too could become Captain America. What an equal opportunity fantasy. I guess it's no wonder I love the character so much. Fact is I wouldn't mind chronicling his adventures till he reaches his hundreth anniversary. Thank you, Joe and Jack, for this most marvelous hero.
-- Mark Gruenwald