The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Captain America got me thinking about superhero legacies, how some superheroes can have multiple incarnations while others work primarily or only as their original incarnation.
And since this is the internet, let me get this out of the way: I am NOT the slightest bit outraged about Sam Wilson becoming Captain America. You will not find any inflamed hot takes here, just a sober look at the situation.
But we’ll get to the captains later. Let’s start with the kids.
No offense to the youth, but sidekicks are the most replaceable category of superheroes. Naturally, they should grow up and move on at some point, like how the original Robin became Nightwing.
Sidekick roles are like apprenticeships—training, not a permanent identity. A kid can assist until he or she grows up into their own identity, and then a new kid comes along and becomes the new Robin or whoever.
Green Lantern is built for multiple incarnations. There’s an entire corps of Green Lanterns, after all, so numerous Green Lanterns already existed from the get-go.
It is weird that there’s now a disproportionate number of Green Lanterns from Earth, but there are harder pills to swallow in the realm of superhero comics.
As far as popular culture is concerned, Hal Jordan has the advantage of being Earth’s first Green Lantern (of the intergalactic space cop variety, that is), but John Stewart is just as valid (especially thanks to the excellent Justice League cartoon), as are the newer ones like Jessica Cruz.
Establishing a non-Peter Parker Spider-Man was something I didn’t think possible, but Marvel pulled it off with Miles Morales.
Part of why this works is because Miles never fully replaced Peter. As far as I can recall, at no point was Miles Morales the only available Spider-Man appearing in Marvel Comics. Readers could choose one or the other or both.
The difference between Peter Parker and Miles Morales is essentially the difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The latter keeps the spirit and core concept of the original but modernizes it for a new era with an all-new cast. Neither takes anything away from the other.
Flash: The Fastest Men Alive
When I read Flash comics in the ’90s, the Flash wasn’t Barry Allen; he was Wally West—the former Kid Flash all grown up and succeeding his deceased mentor.
That worked because Barry Allen at that point had always been a likable but fairly bland character, and Wally wound up receiving much greater development through more modern storytelling.
Throughout the course of his series, while struggling to live up to the example of his uncle, Wally grew up from a self-centered 20-year-old to a respected hero in his own right and ultimately a responsible family man. He had such a great arc that it reached a solid conclusion and feels like a complete story told over twenty years of comics. Even with the success of the Flash TV show, I still tend to think of the Wally West version before any other.
Because he’s Batman
But compare that to Batman. Batman is such a distinct character that he can only be Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson is a valid substitute on occasion, but he’s never more than a substitute.
During the Knightfall storyline from the ’90s, Bruce tapped the wrong substitute, Jean Paul Valley, also known as Azrael, which was essentially a way of showing how terrible it would be to have a darker, more violent Batman without the ethical restraints of Bruce Wayne. (The Punisher as Batman, essentially.) The replacement validated the original, reminding us how great he is.
Superman had a contingent of substitutes after he died in the early ’90s, and like with Batman, the point of the story was to show that only Superman (Clark Kent) can be Superman.
Three of the four substitutes were outright horrible. One, derived from his Kryptonian heritage (a “Last Son of Krypton,” if you will), was very cold and alien and didn’t mind killing criminals. And seeing any type of Superman kill is highly unsettling.
Then there was a cyborg version of Superman (a “Man of Tomorrow”), who represented the excesses of early ’90s comics—all style, no soul. This Superman was never a hero, and he indeed wound up being a villain in disguise.
We also had a Superboy, but this kid wasn’t raised by the Kents and therefore was a selfish, arrogant brat (though he matured in later stories).
The fourth fill-in Superman was most obviously not like the original Superman on the outside but most like him on the inside. John Henry Irons was a steelworker whose life Superman saved, so when Superman died, Irons felt an obligation to pay it forward. He built himself a suit of armor (becoming a “Man of Steel”) and sought to help people in Superman’s memory. Unlike the other three, this character was actually heroic. But he never claimed to be Superman. He was the only one who didn’t call himself Superman, and the only one who evoked the authentic spirit of Superman.
And this brings us to Captain America. The character was created as a propaganda symbol in the ’40s, but after his revival in the ’60s, he became a character in his own right. And that character was man-out-of-time Steve Rogers.
John Walker, like in the recent TV show, was used to show us how Cap should not behave (again, just like Azrael-Batman and the ill-behaved substitute Supermen).
Bucky and Falcon are both valid substitutes—the only valid substitutes, I would say. They both had their stints as Captain America in the comics (fairly recent comics, all in this century). Bucky’s Cap story was part of his redemption arc, and it was part of a Death of Captain America story not all that different in spirit from the Death of Superman story, though it took a different route.
The main reason Bucky ultimately agreed to step into the Captain America role was because he knew no one could live up to it, least of all himself, but out of respect for his best friend, he would give it his all. Pretty much everyone reading the storyline understood that the “real” Captain America would inevitably return within a few years or so.
I’m less familiar with Falcon’s Cap story, as it happened during a time when I was reading fewer comics. I read some Avengers comics where Sam Wilson operated in the Captain America role, and I had no problem with the concept. It reminded me of Dick Grayson filling in for Batman—it was interesting to see, and he was legit, but we all knew the original would return before long and the substitute needed to return to his own superhero identity, which he had spent years of hard work establishing.
Comic books, however, don’t have to worry about casting. Chris Evans has moved on from playing Captain America, and Anthony Mackie will likely carry the torch until the MCU runs its course. Therefore, out of necessity, cinematic Sam Wilson needs to be less “Dick Grayson as Batman” and more “Wally West as the Flash.”
Granted, it also would have been perfectly fine to simply retire MCU Captain America and launch a series of solo Falcon movies, giving Marvel Comics’ first African American superhero his time in the spotlight in his original role. But “Captain America” is the bigger brand, so naturally the producers would want to keep using the name for as long as possible. And Sam Wilson is indeed a fine choice to fill the role.