Marvel Comics’ Captain America is a bastion of strength and courage, especially in the face of fear and death. He stands firm in the things he believes and never relents, making him a hero for the ages. But the life of Captain Steve Rogers is far from perfect, even for a superhero.
In his 80-year history, Captain America has endured his fair share of trials and tribulations. From becoming lost in time to losing close friends, he has been put through countless crucibles, always emerging as a better man for it. Yet there are some tragedies in his life that are difficult to forget.
Updated on October 20th, 2022 by Jordan Iacobucci:
Captain America continues to be a major character in the cultural zeitgeist of the modern day, with Captain America: New World Order set to explore Sam Wilson’s tenure as the iconic superhero. Though Steve Rogers has sacrificed greatly as Captain America in the comics, certain successors like Sam Wilson have also poured their heart and soul into the mantle as well.
The “Secret Wars” storyline is widely considered to be one of the best Captain America stories from the 1970s. Having nothing to do with the Secret Wars of recent years, this story saw Captain America uncover a vast conspiracy behind the government of the United States that went up so high that it is implied that even the U.S. President (a parallel to Nixon, who was wrapped in scandals at the time of publishing) was a member of this shadow organization.
A man who is almost synonymous with the country he fights for, Captain America is naturally distraught by these revelations, deducing that everything he fought for under his superhero mantle was a sham from the beginning. As a result, Rogers shockingly renounces the title of Captain America and leaves the Avengers.
As a result of the Super Soldier Serum coursing through his veins, Captain America doesn’t feel the effects of aging as a regular human would. However, after a battle with the Iron Nail, the serum is drained from Steve’s body, causing his years to catch up with him, with his body rapidly aging into an old man.
With years seemingly robbed from him forever, Rogers became unable to be the hero he once was, passing on the title of Captain America to Sam Wilson. However, Steve proved that he was more than just a super soldier, going on to save lives through a position at SHIELD for a period of time.
Losing The Avengers
Many comic book fans know about the (usually) friendly rivalry between Captain America and Iron Man, two of the Avengers’ core members. However, this amicable feud turned sour rather quickly in Mark Millar’s “Civil War” storyline in 2006, which saw the Avengers torn apart over the issue of superhero registration, with Cap and Iron Man leading the opposing sides.
This storyline saw Captain America labeled a rebel and a fugitive, forcing him into hiding. America’s Captain saw the only family he had left torn apart, and worse, was the one to receive most of the blame. Readers can see Rogers beginning to hurt throughout the Civil War, allowing his emotions to drive his decisions until it is almost too late to put a stop to the madness.
Castaway In Dimension Z
In a heartfelt but strange Captain America comics storyline, the Star-Spangled Man is trapped in a pocket reality by his enemy Arnim Zola for over a decade, where he finds himself caring for a young boy whom he calls “Ian.” Rogers cares for the boy as his own while trapped, but things come to a tragic end just before the hero is rescued from the upside-down dimension.
Castaway in Dimension Z is a thrilling and unique piece of Captain America lore, with gut-wrenching twists and turns regarding the character’s isolation, as well as the ultimate parentage of Ian. A story rife with emotion, this series of events very nearly broke America’s Captain.
The Winter Soldier
James Buchanan Barnes, also known as “Bucky,” was Captain America’s closest friend during World War II, fighting alongside him as a sidekick before his untimely death nearing the end of the war. Bucky’s death was undone decades later, with the shocking revelation that he had taken on the mantle of the Winter Soldier.
When the Winter Soldier finally emerged in 2005, Captain America took the discovery hard. Under normal circumstances, he would have been overjoyed to have his friend back. However, it is revealed that Bucky’s Winter Soldier was not on the side of the angels, forcing Cap and his former friend into battle for some time before the latter’s redemption.
Losing His Possessions
After being frozen in ice for several decades, Captain America has few remaining ties to his previous life. With many of his closest confidants from the 1940s gone, it was only in pictures and trinkets that he could truly remember them. All this was destroyed when Baron Zemo attacked the Avengers in the “Avengers Under Siege” storyline, wreaking havoc on the mansion and destroying whatever souvenirs Cap had left.
The destruction of Captain America’s possessions is initially framed as a minor loss–until the battle is ended. Once the threat is neutralized, Cap confides in Monica Rambeau just how much it affected him. This serves to remind the audience of the hero’s humanity. Even despite the bright costume and superpowers, Steve Rogers is a man who has suffered more than most in his life.
Going Into The Ice
Captain America first appeared in Marvel Comics (then known as Timely Comics) in 1941 as a super soldier fighting for the Allies during the Second World War. However, the character’s ongoing comic book was canceled in the 1950s, with America’s favorite hero seemingly losing his life while trying to stop an attack by Baron Zemo.
In an origin story made well-known by Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is revealed to have survived his brush with death, becoming entombed in ice until he was discovered by the Avengers in the 1960s. Though the superhero survived, the world was different from the one he left, with those he was closest with dead and gone by the time he awoke. This series of events earned Captain Rogers the tragically true title: “Man Out of Time.”
Though Marvel’s Civil War crossover was a highly controversial event among fans, many agree that the ensuing Death of Captain America and Fallen Son arcs are some of the best Captain America stories of the 2000s. Captain America must answer for his actions during the Civil War, oblivious to the fact that forces are in play to cut his life short.
This back-to-back comic book event sees Agent 13, the partner and sometime lover of Steve Rogers, murder him after being hypnotized to do so by Dr. Faustus and the Red Skull. Emotions are high after the hero’s death, with the reactions of differing superheroes being captured in each issue of the five-part Fallen Son storyline, culminating in a tearful funeral for the fallen hero.
Witnessing The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks
As the name implies, Captain America stands for the American way, becoming a symbol for the country’s ideals. He is shown to deeply care for the country whose name he bears, and to be deeply forlorn when that country is harmed. Such was the case after the horrific events of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, where, as the country was reeling, certain comic writers took it upon themselves to address the issue.
Captain America makes a powerful cameo in J. Michael Straczynski’s post-9/11 tribute issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man watches Rogers, whose face is grim and cold, and comments that the WWII veteran had witnessed such atrocities twice in his life, referring also to the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.
Losing Bucky Barnes
Though Steve Rogers survived the mission to stop an attack by Baron Zemo, his friend Bucky Barnes was not so lucky. A bomb was planted along the way, which exploded when Bucky got too close. Despite his cries of warning, Rogers could do nothing but watch as his friend died before his very eyes.
The death of Bucky Barnes was a unique case in comic history, as it became one of the few deaths to remain permanent for decades. It wasn’t until 2005, nearly sixty years after the character’s original “death,” that he was reintroduced as the Winter Soldier. As a result of Barnes’s delayed return, Rogers was left to mourn the passing of his friend for decades.
Receiving Fake Memories From Red Skull
After Steve Rogers passed the mantle of Captain America down to Sam Wilson, the Red Skull tricks Rogers’s successor into believing that he had a secret past as a drug dealer. Developing an entirely new persona known as “Snap” Wilson, Sam had fake memories implanted into his brain by the supervillain, making this fake past seem all the more real.
While Sam would eventually learn of the Red Skull’s treachery, the damage was already done. Much of the life he had believed to be true all this time was false, and his reputation had been tarnished by this lie. Ultimately, the Red Skull’s scheme did enough lasting damage to Wilson to be remembered for years to come.
Though Sam Wilson was handpicked by Steve Rogers as his successor, the new Captain America was not immediately embraced by the public. Many civilians criticized Wilson for his actions as Captain America, including during the battle of Pleasant Hill.
Sam Wilson has always had a greater struggle in maintaining the mantle of Captain America than his predecessor did. Many civilians are simply unwilling to accept his ascension to the iconic role, which comes into play in the MCU as well, as seen in the Disney+ series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Betrayed By Steve Rogers
In the infamous storyline wherein Steve Rogers is brainwashed into believing that he is a Hydra sleeper agent, Sam reaps the perils of his friend’s misguided beliefs. Already facing pressure to give up the mantle of Captain America, Sam is set up by the brainwashed Rogers to fail in the rescue of a U.S. Senator, causing public outcry for Rogers to be reinstated as the sole Captain America.
Though he wasn’t in his right mind when this happened, Steve Rogers was one of Sam Wilson’s closest friends, making this betrayal utterly heartbreaking for Wilson. Ultimately, Sam’s public image issues only became worse as a result of the actions of the Hydra-aligned Rogers.
Betrayed By His Country
In the 2003 limited series, Truth: Red, White, and Black, it is revealed that the U.S. government had created a new Captain America in the wake of Steve Rogers’s apparent death during World War II. After callously and illegally experimenting on Black soldiers, the project eventually reaped a single successful super-soldier in Isaiah Bradley, who became the new Captain America.
Though Bradley would operate on his country’s behalf for some time, the United States government routinely mistreated and subjugated him during the war. Bradley was thrown in prison after the war, where he incurred brain damage that left him in a child-like state. Despite everything he did for his nation, the United States utterly betrayed its second Captain America.
Put On Trial
After Steve Rogers’s apparent death, his former sidekick and best friend, Bucky Barnes, is instated as the new Captain America. However, after a brief period as the Star-Spangled Man, Barnes is put on trial for his various crimes under his former alter-ego, the Winter Soldier.
While Barnes could not be held accountable for his crimes due to the fact that he was brainwashed, it became clear that the public would never fully trust him after all he had done as the Winter Soldier. The public outcry that followed his exoneration left Barnes unwilling to continue as Captain America, giving up the mantle.
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