Captain America is a 75-year-old comic book owned by Disney about a 98-year-old super soldier who was recently dead and might currently be a fascist. If that sounds like a busy schedule for a nonagenarian, then consider his third movie, Captain America: Civil War, which was released on May 16, 2016 and is already the highest-grossing film of the year, while also sporting a 90 percent rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.
Let’s acknowledge the fact that Captain America was conceived as a propaganda piece for a war that ended more than 75 years ago, but has managed to stay more relevant than most contemporary fictional characters. He recently kicked off two hashtags on Twitter which snowballed into bigger and broader conversations across the internet: #Saynotohydracap and #Givecapaboyfriend.
The first refers to the controversial twist ending of Cap’s new monthly comic, Steve Rogers: Captain America, where Steve throws his partner (Jack Flagg) out of a plane and greets a kidnapped scientist on board with, “Hail Hydra,” the secret salute shared between members of Marvel’s villainous agency, Hydra. It is unknown whether the backlash against the cliffhanger was organic or manufactured by the Disney marketing machine, but it got people talking about the meaning and representation of Captain America and his role in pop culture — a role many feel is behind the times.
#Givecapaboyfriend was started by a fan named Jess Salerno on May 10. She felt that Cap needed to be more inclusive to queer fans and an American icon in a same sex relationship would fold queer representation into popular consciousness. As she explained in her own words to Metro U.K.:
It sucks that people in the LGBT community don’t get the representation that they deserve and it would be so amazing for something like Captain America or Marvel to be able to portray that. And maybe just let people know that it’s okay to be who you are.
After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a multi-billion dollar franchise about a disparate group of people uniting to save the world, but their concept of diversity is specifically hetero-normative men and women. It’s fair to say Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is indeed lacking in queer representation, which isn’t a fair representation of the source material.
What most people don’t know about the comic books is that Captain America had a longstanding, albeit platonic, relationship with an openly gay friend since the early 1980’s. The friendship was revealed during writer J.M. DeMatteis’s run on the title. When the Reagan administration was publicly ridiculing “the gay plague,” Captain America was busy connecting with his childhood friend, protector, big brother figure, and one of Marvel’s first openly gay characters — Arnie Roth.
Steve and Arnie grew up together in Brooklyn, with Arnie being the bigger and stronger of the two and often protected the scrawny Steve from neighborhood bullies. The Roth family became a second home to Steve while his single mother worked to support him. The two were inseparable, and essentially brothers.
As time marched on, Steve’s mother died, and World War II started, and the young men drifted apart. Arnie joined the Navy and Steve undertook the experiment which would turn him into Captain America. When the two meet again in issue #270, Arnie admits he’d always suspected Captain America was Steve. Arnie also concedes that running into Steve and Bernie on the street was no accident. He sought out Steve because he needed some super-powered help. Arnie had gotten in trouble over some gambling debt and his boyfriend of 10 years, Michael, had been kidnapped by the mob and threatening to kill him if Arnie didn’t pay up.
Of course Captain America helps Arnie out, but while en route to rescue Michael, Arnie admits he was being blackmailed into leading Cap into a trap but just couldn’t sell him out. Steve forgives Arnie and jumps headfirst into the trap to rescue Michael anyway. Cap and Arnie save the day, but Michael winds up in the hospital. Meanwhile, Arnie becomes a regular character in Captain America.
Arnie turns out to be just the friend Steve needs. He is someone from the same era; they share the same values and worldview. Arnie is also Steve’s only tie to his old life. He is someone he has a bond with — a connection from before he was Cap. This connection helps him deal with being a man out of time.
It is also that connection which makes Arnie vulnerable. Being openly gay, Jewish, and one of Steve’s true friends makes Arnie the perfect target for Baron Zemo, a former Nazi, and his partner, the sadistic Mother Night. They kidnap him and Michael (again), this time leading to Michael’s death all before undertaking a bizarre plot which involves haunting Arnie’s dreams, terrorizing him at his home and eventually abducting and mind-controlling him. This leaves Cap to hunt him down yet again.
Eventually, Cap tracks the real Arnie down to a Cabaret club, where a brainwashed Arnie is forced to give a disgusting song and dance for Cap. In the song, he denigrates himself for being gay and wonders if the reason Cap actually likes him is because Cap is, as he says, “one of us.”
Cap destroys the brainwashing device as Arnie wrestles himself free of Zemo’s spell. This moment, which was supposed to break both Steve and Arnie, instead ends with Cap giving a speech about the power and beauty of Arnie’s love for Michael.
The story and character of Arnie Roth appeared more than 30 years ago, yet there is still no contemporary representation of queer characters in the Captain America comics or movies. The drought is noticeable in 2016, especially when you’re dealing with a company who has recently prided itself on its progressive characters. The lack of representation might be why a subsection of fandom known as “shippers” have been demanding a relationship between Cap and Bucky in the movies and why a hashtag like #givecapaboyfriend was trending at all. When fans don’t see themselves or their peers properly represented in the media they love, they make their own via slash fiction or become shippers who demand seemingly obvious story lines.
Cap and Bucky getting together in the films could make more sense. In the comics, Bucky was a plucky kid who idolized Captain America before becoming his partner and eventually dying on a mission with him. The age difference was stressed, with Bucky being known as Cap’s teenage sidekick. That aspect of his character was integral to their father-son relationship. A sexual relationship between the two in the books might be a tough sell even though Bucky is now Cap’s age (thanks to the wonders of Cryo sleep) because there are still the politics of power, authority, and grooming in their early relationship to think about.
Meanwhile, the movie versions of Cap and Bucky don’t have that problem. The cinematic Bucky swaps out him as a teenage sidekick and instead replaces it wholesale with the origin of Arnie Roth. In the movies, Bucky is Steve’s childhood best friend, the bigger, stronger of the two who protects him from bullies and whose family is a second home to Steve — exactly like Arnie. This isn’t just speculation either as the creator of Arnie Roth confirmed it on Twitter:
And Arnie’s back story was used for Bucky in the Cap movies. https://t.co/PHnCiagm3F
— J.M. DeMatteis (@JMDeMatteis) May 24, 2016
Part of what Bucky and Cap shippers have said for years is that a romantic relationship in the films has been hinted at since the beginning. They offer up moments and lines of dialogue from the movie that could be interpreted to represent a romantic subtext. This is usually the kind of fan speculation people balk at, but now we know that the origin of the cinematic Bucky borrows from a character who was gay, possibly showed feelings for Cap, and questioned him about his own sexuality. It doesn’t seem out of the question to imagine maybe the shippers were actually picking up on a subtext that was meant to be there all along.
Officially, Chris Evans stated he plays the character as heterosexual and with unresolved feelings for Peggy Carter. With this in mind, all of Cap’s actions seem reasonable, especially the ones where he refuses to ask out women who are clearly into him or the fact that he only kissed Black Widow as a tactical maneuver. Both are considered evidence by shippers as proof of his romantic feelings for Bucky.
Also, Steve’s a man out of time. He dissatisfied with being a fish out of water in our era since Nicky Fury defrosted him. With Peggy gone, Bucky is his only link to the world he knows. Not to mention that Cap’s history of healthy, platonic bromances with everyone from Falcon to Demolition Man and Jack Monroe. Part of what Cap does is act as a father figure to a lot of down and out men and women on the fringes. We actually see a bit of this in Civil War when in mid-fight he tells Spider-Man he has heart and asks where he’s from. Turning any one of those relationships into a sexual one might be as inappropriate as Wolverine hooking up with Jubilee or Kitty Pryde (once they’re legal.) Still, the idea of a boyfriend in general isn’t any more unreasonable than the rest of Cap’s life.
Steve Rogers became Captain America through a mixture of Vita-Rays and a dose of Dr. Erskine’s Super Soldier Serum. Since then, he’s punched out Hitler, been a werewolf, traveled into space, died and been reborn, regressed into childhood and aged into the body of a powerless 95-year-old man. Stasis, crisis, resolution, month after month, for 75 years. The only constant in Steve’s life is life-altering change. Coming out of the closet or discovering his feelings for the first time would be right up there with the kind of drastic changes he has dealt with for 75 years.
While it doesn’t look like Marvel intends to portray Captain America as queer now or in the foreseeable future, that isn’t to say we should dismiss that it could ever happen. Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors of Winter Soldier, Civil War and the upcoming Infinity War, are on record saying the chances of a LGBQT character in the Marvel cinematic universe are “strong.” That most likely will not be Captain America, even with more of Marvel’s audience demanding Cap upgrade his red, white, and blue with some more rainbow hues. But the future is wide open to experimentation and growth. As the Arnie Roth character highlighted, Cap has always embodied progressive, inclusive values, not just those currently tolerated or politically safe.