In the 2011 Captain America movie, Steve Rogers’ first mission after getting his supersoldier powers is to go on a propaganda tour.
Rather than saving kittens from trees or battling supervillains (or fighting the Nazis, which is what he actually signed up to do), Steve ends up as a USO performer, touring with a team of chorus girls.
Each night, they perform a song called “Star Spangled Man,” during which Captain America punches a Hitler lookalike on the nose and implores the audience to buy war bonds. The whole thing is a perfect parody of 1940s sepia-toned Norman Rockwell patriotism, and Captain America—or rather Steve Rogers, behind the mask—grows to hate it. He wanted to do his duty back when he was an undernourished, asthmatic artist, but now he’s a muscle-bound Adonis, it turns out his main job is to sell comics and appear in propaganda movies.
Captain America: The First Avenger follows a pretty typical superhero storyline: an underdog character gains superpowers, battles adversity while trying to do the right thing, suffers a loss, and finally defeats the bad guy. Of course, the movie ends with Cap crashing his plane into the ocean and waking up in 21st-century New York , but the lack of a happy ending is the only major departure from the traditional superhero narrative.
The interesting part is how Captain America’s fandom chooses to interpret him not just as a character, but as a symbol.
“Star Spangled Man” is a perfect example. In the movie, it’s a cheesy musical number that’s used to illustrate Steve Rogers’ growing frustration with being a “performing monkey” rather than a real soldier, but fans remixed it to have a more nuanced meaning. Ryan Sanura recorded a haunting acoustic cover of the song, inspired by a fanfic by author and Marvel fan Sam Starbuck, in which Steve Rogers comes across a modern-day interpretation of the song. “It’s not an anthem to raise money for a war or get enlistment numbers up,” Steve realizes. “It’s a cry out for help. Who’ll rise and fall, give their all for America?” In the 21st century, the answer is no longer clear.