With the Captain America: The First Avenger movie in theaters soon, I have the perfect opportunity to talk about a question that I hear all the time: Is Captain America's moral code outdated, a throwback to an earlier time that just isn't relevant in 2011?
As comics fans know, Steve Rogers is often referred to as a "man out of time": born in the 1920s, fought in World War II in the 1940s, and trapped in a block of ice until he was thawed out in the "modern day" (which changes depending on when his origin is retold). At the same time that he is puzzled by modern technology and social mores, he is heartened by progress made on issues of race and gender. For example, in the Man Out of Time miniseries, he has a chance to go back to 1945 after the war is over to look for his sidekick Bucky Barnes (who had apparently died). While he enjoys the 1940s fashions and music—who wouldn't, I say—he is disgusted by the more overt racism and sexism he had forgotten. This reminds him (a la Woody Allen's new movie Midnight in Paris) that the time one remembers or envisions as a "Golden Age" was never really that golden, but just seemed like it due to a difference in perspective.
But while his old-fashioned charm and chivalry is usually appreciated, Steve Rogers' code of ethics is just as often seen as outdated. In the Marvel Universe as well as the real world, he is criticized for clinging to a "black-and-white" morality, better suited to fighting Nazis in World War II than facing modern problems like terrorism originating abroad as well as at home. When Cap was killed (also, as with Bucky, only apparently) in 2007 following the "Civil War" storyline—a not-too-sublte homage to post-9/11 debates over balancing liberty and security—his death was widely interpreted in the real world as a statement that Cap's moral vision was no longer fit for the modern world. But after the villain Norman Osborn (formerly Spider-Man's foe, the Green Goblin) was anointed head of global security following an alien invasion (don't ask), the Marvel Universe entered an unprecedented period of despotic disorder, the "Dark Reign," which only ended once Steve Rogers returned from the dead to reassert a moral center in the Marvel Universe, ushering in "The Heroic Age."
Captain America, with his "outmoded" moral code based on virtues like honor, integrity, and courage—or, if you prefer, following duty despite all costs—ended up being just what the Marvel Universe needed all along, and this is just as true in the real world of 2011. The importance of virtue and duty never changed, though the world itself changed around them. Moral questions may seem more difficult and the answers less clear, but that makes a firm sense of ethics more important, not less. New technology and opportunities to harm each other may develop, but the bedrock of right and wrong do not change, regardless of how one chooses to define them—they simply have to be applied to a changing world and new circumstances.
What's more, it's not really accurate to say that Cap's ethics are black-and-white with no shades of grey; like anybody, he struggles with moral decisions, as is often shown in the comics. Ethics is never a matter of mechanistically applying simple rules to life: judgment is always necessary to find the rules that fit any given situation and to know how to apply them (especially when two or more rules conflict). What gives his ethics the appearance of being cut-and-dried is his conviction: once Cap decides on the right course of action, he does not waver from it. Moral conviction should be not be confused with moral stubbornness; Cap will change his mind if you convince him he's wrong, but until then, he will do what he feels is right. As I explain in Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character, judgment must be coupled with will; determining the right thing to do is meaningless unless you also have the conviction to go through with it, which Captain America exemplifies.
The idea that Captain America's moral compass is pointed to the past rather than the present or future is simply mistaken. Steve Rogers may indeed be a "man out of time," but his morals—and his conviction—are timeless.
If you're interested, here are some other things I've written recently on Captain America:
1. A chapter on Captain America and modesty (based on my series of posts on modesty here at PT) in the free Wiley ebook Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture.
3. A personal article on how Captain America inspires me, at The Good Men Project.
4. Several posts about Cap at The Comics Professor.
5. Finally, I compare Cap's ethics with Iron Man's in "Did Iron Man Kill Captain America?", a chapter I wrote for Iron Man and Philosophy: Facing the Stark Reality.
By the way, the teaser image for this post is by the incomparable George Pérez, a legend in comics and a beautiful human being to boot.