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Re-reading Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Part III: Civil War & the Death of Captain America!

September 24th, 2014
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After having so thoroughly enjoyed the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier (click here for my review), I have been re-reading Ed Brubaker’s lengthy run on the Captain America comic-book series that inspired the film.  Click here for part I of my re-read, and click here for part 2.

Civil War (Captain America #22-24) — Captain America #22 represents a dramatic change for the Captain America series as, between the last page of issue #21 and the first page of issue #22, Steve Rogers/Captain America ceased to be the main character in his own comic book series.  Instead, Cap’s main story was being told in the big Marvel universe cross-over mini-series Civil War, written by Mark Millar and pencilled by Steve McNiven.  In that series, a battle between super-heroes and super-villains winds up killing over 600 civilians, resulting in the passage of the Superhero Registration Act, requiring all super-heroes to reveal their identities and be licensed by the government.  Tony Stark leads these efforts, but Captain America opposes them, feeling the law curtains important American freedoms.  The super-hero community splits down the middle.  S.H.I.E.L.D. and Tony Stark begin hunting down and imprisoning any super-heroes who refuse to register, resulting in Cap and his allies going into hiding.  Civil War is a terrific mini-series that would have repercussions for years to come.

In the main Cap title, the story focused on Sharon Carter, who as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent suddenly finds herself on the opposing side of Steve Rogers, the man she loves.  This is a great twist in the story, and it’s great to see Mr. Brubaker take the time to explore these ripple effects of the main story being told in Civil War.  (Anyone not reading Civil War would find themselves terribly confused, though.)  These cross-over issues have a lot of additional goodies as well. In addition to the focus on Sharon, Bucky also steps back into center stage.  Bucky is on the run from both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the other super-heroes, but with a powerful ally: Nick Fury, who is also on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the world.  Nick was a major player in Mr. Brubaker’s early Captain America issues, but he dropped away between issues as the result of goings-on in other Marvel Universe titles.  I love seeing Nick back in play here, and the pairing of him and Bucky/the Winter Soldier is inspired.

In these issues we also spend a lot of time with the bad guys, as we see Lukin/the Red Skull recruit a number of allies, classic Captain America villain characters Dr. Faustus and Arnim Zola.  When reading these issues originally I remember thinking that these subplots of Lukin/Skull plotting went on endlessly, but when re-reading these issues now I love that the villains are a constant presence in these issues, building the suspense as our heroes remain entirely ignorant of their plotting.

Winter Soldier: Winter Kills — This one-shot, illustrated by Lee Weeks, Stefano Gaudiano, and Rick Hoberg, is a great spotlight on Bucky/the Winter Soldier.  As usual for Mr. Brubaker, we follow parallel action between a dreary present-day Christmas Eve and one back in 1944.  This story is a great pause to focus in on Bucky and where his head is at, now that his memory has been returned to him.  It’s also a tale filled with wonderful connections.  We see Steve and the other Invaders back in ’44, and Namor pops up in present-day at the end.  We see Bucky at the grave of Jack Monroe, the man who he, as the Winter Soldier, murdered at the very beginning of Mr. Brubaker’s run.  We see Bucky cross paths with the Young Avengers, a new super-team that had a burst of popularity around that time.  This is a solid yarn and a great story to tell before heading into the next huge Captain America epic

The Death of Captain America (Captain America #25) — I remember thinking the end of Civil War was a little anti-climactic, with Cap deciding to surrender and be taken into custody by S.H.I.E.L.D. & Tony Stark’s forces.  That’s because Marvel wisely decided to hold the real end of the story to be told in Cap’s own title.  In this issue, while being taken in handcuffs to the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan, Steve Rogers is shot and killed on the courthouse steps.  After a brutal chase through the rooftops of the city, The Falcon and Bucky apprehend Crossbones, who they believe to be the sniper who killed Cap.  But on the last page of the issue, in a brutal twisting-of-the-knife, we learn that Cap’s murder was none other than his lover Sharon Carter, under the mental control of Dr. Faustus and the Skull.

Generally I hate mind-control stories, but this one works for several reasons.  First, it’s just deliciously twisted for Sharon to be the one to kill Cap.  Second, all of the subplots for so many issues previously have carefully, step-by-step, showed the Skull’s plot falling into place, so this twist doesn’t wind up feeling out-of-the-blue, but rather the perfect falling-into-place of the story we’ve been following.  Lastly, as opposed to a story in which characters do bad things but are oblivious to what they’re doing (thus being annoyingly way behind the audience, who know exactly what is going on), at the end of this issue Sharon wakes up from her trance, so she realizes immediately what she’s done, thus being left with the horror and anguish of the truth.  That’s fodder for great story-telling.

I don’t ever believe that, when a major super-hero character is killed off, it will be permanent.  I know it won’t be, and I don’t get too worked up about “oh my goodness, how could they possibly kill off so-and-so!!”  I know whoever it is, he/she’ll be back eventually.  Such was obviously the case with Steve Rogers/Captain America.  The major questions should be, first, is the story in which the character is killed off a good one?  And second, does the death of that character lead to great follow-up stories?  Captain America #25 is a terrific issue, gripping from the first-to-last-page, so a definite yes to the former.  And, more importantly, this “death” of Cap would kick off YEARS of great stories, so that’s a definite yes to the latter as well.

At the time this issue was published, the only off-note for me was the sense that Mr. Brubaker had been spending two years to craft a Captain America epic, only to have that story derailed by the events of Civil War.  But in re-reading the story now, I wonder if it wasn’t always Mr. Brubaker’s plan to kill off Steve Rogers somehow, so that the resurrected Bucky would have to find his way back into the light and eventually assume the Captain America mantle from his now-dead mentor and friend.  Whatever is the case, the death of Cap, while serving as a powerful ending to the Civil War story, was also a thrilling beginning to the lengthy “Death of the Dream” saga that would follow in Captain America.

I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on those issues!

The issues discussed in this post are collected in Captain America: Civil War and The Death of Captain America.

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