Movies & TV / Columns

Comics 411: The Best Heroes Who Have Been Captain America

March 31, 2021 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Captain America Steve Rogers Sam Wilson Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Welcome back! I’m Steve Gustafson and if you enjoy discussing anything comic book related, you’ve come to the right place. Each week we cover something in the industry and I always enjoy your input in the comment section below.

Previously on…

Last time we discussed the Greatest Justice League Villains Here’s what some of you had to say:

mcdropkick: “Starro is always the one for me. There is just something about a giant evil mind-controlling space starfish that I like.

The real answer is probably the Injustice Gang/Injustice League/Legion of Doom/whatever you want to call them. Like how the Justice League is a collection of the world’s greatest heroes, they’re the world’s greatest villains.”

Lawrence Ziese: “I would say the answer is anyone voiced by Mark Hamill”

D2Kvirus: “Zack Snyder, who wielded hype culture to convince people they wanted to sit through a four hour-long film”

Excollector: “Honorable mention to Abnegazar, Rath, and Ghast. Their quest to pull down the moon is simple stuff but played a big role in some early JL stuff and got a nice subplot in Morrison’s run.”

Benjamin Kellog: “Kanjar Ro and Felix Faust as honorable mentions. They’re both a bit better known as, pardon my wrestling lingo, all-time jobbers these days, but they were both among the first to establish reliable villaionous archetypes among the League’s rogues gallery and have stayed in circulation far longer than I certainly would’ve reckoned.
Kanjar Ro, the tiny alien dictator of planet Dhor, famous for making a play for the other three planets in his local solar system, only for the League to intervene. He’d be back for several more rounds over the years, and every time a new space empire starts up in DC lore, it seems their leader has to negotiate with Ro for weapons, minions, or local influence. (At least, that’s the impression I got from reading DC’s “Silver Age” event from 2000, and I assume it’s fairly accurate to his overall characterization.)
Felix Faust, one of the first magic-based villains the League ever dealt with, and one of the modern DCU’s first notable reality-warpers. His most famous feat is likely still his first one, uncovering the whereabouts of the Demons Three and their respective containers, then unleashing their deadly superpowers on a world too removed from the days of rampant black magic to effectively deal with such magical entities on its own. I think that was one of the first times the League was stretched to its limits trying to keep that world crisis contained and putting the dastardly demons back inside their bottles. It seems that, despite having several noted magic users on its roster (Shazam, Zatanna), the League just can’t ever handle a magical crisis as effectively as it can for virtually any other problem, and that might partly be due to Felix getting inside their collective minds in the worst way.
The warped wizard also deserves kudos for rocking the “ancient druid” look so darn well; plenty of other villains on this list have changed their overall look more times than I feel necessary, but Felix keeps it simple like the cool cat(!) he is.”

Captain Mcgloo: “No love for Starbreaker, the Space Vampire!!”

Al Lobama “It may seem like an odd choice, but I’d say that they’ve done so many JLA stories with the Joker by himself that he has to qualify as a Justice League villain. Whether he’s the secret member of the Royal Flush Gang, messing with the JLI just for the heck of it, brainwashing the Justice League into attacking Batman in Endgame, or pulling the ultimate joke of convincing Snapper Carr to betray them, Joker’s got a pretty well established history of going after the League that goes through Pre-Crisis, Post-Crisis, Post-Zero Hour, New 52, and today.

I’m kind of shocked that Kobra didn’t get mentioned. While the Cult of Kobra often gets treated like disposable henchmen, I always thought that Kobra himself was pretty badass and had a very underrated costume design. One of the better things to come out of Identity Crisis was how they treated the Cult of Kobra like the Aryan Brotherhood; when you go to jail in the DCU, you either find religion or you find Kobra.

Personally, my favorite JLA villain will always be Despero. The guy was the villain in Justice League of America # 1, so I’ll always have a soft spot for him because of that. Even without that, he’s been featured in great stories from multiple different eras; Silver Age, JLI, and even Justice League Detroit. Power-wise, he’s got muscle AND brains, and yet he is an outsider even among his own race because of his third eye. I always thought Despero could transition into being an arch-enemy for a solo hero simply based on his toughness. I would’ve loved to have seen him as a recurring villain in the Martian Manhunter solo series, for example.”

So many great comments! Big thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts!

This week we discuss the…

Best Heroes Who’ve Been Captain America

Have you been watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? I’m loving it so far and it brings back plenty of fond memories of those who’ve stepped in to fill the Captain America shoes. Of course it also had me thinking about the brave heroes who replaced Steve Rogers as Captain America over the years. Like people who’ve been worthy enough to have lifted Thor’s hammer, the list of heroes who’ve stepped in to be Captain America is a pretty select group.
We all know the story of Steve Rogers. A frail young man enhanced to the peak of human perfection by an experimental serum to aid the United States efforts in World War II. Trapped in ice and survived in suspended animation until he was revived in the present day to become the long-time leader of the Avengers.

But what about the others who’ve stepped in to be Captain America?

The first person who comes to mind is John Walker. No spoilers but thanks to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I’m seeing a favorite character of mine come to life. A Mark Gruenwald creation who was originally Super Patriot, he’s a character that foreshadowed a landscape we’re currently in today. Gruenwald brought him back as the new Captain America in Captain America #333, replacing Steve Rogers as stepped down from the spot after the government decided they owned the Captain America persona and wanted Rogers to play ball. He declined. In stepped Walker. 

I really enjoyed the storyline and Walker’s portrayal was a perfect contrast to Steve Rogers. He played the role from #333 to #350, surprising readers with its longevity and depth of character. 

A pair of villains (Left-Winger and Right-Winger ) publicly revealed Walker’s identity to the Watchdogs (bad guys), who ended up killing his parents. Walker retaliated by killing most of the Watchdogs, which was pretty hardcore at the time. He captured Left-Winger and Right-Winger and ignited some explosives they were strapped to, leaving them horribly burnt and in comas. Again. Hardcore.

Walker’s Captain America had a dark edge to him and when Rogers came back to take back the mantle, Walker transitioned over to becoming U.S. Agent and has had a pretty up-and-down career since.

The 2003 limited series, Truth: Red, White & Black was supposed to rock the Marvel Universe to its core. Instead, it told a good story, full of potential but never really found its footing with audiences. Thanks to the new show, this story is finding the attention it deserves. 

It introduced us to Isaiah Bradley, another volunteer for the World War II Super Soldier program of 1942, operated by “Reinstein” that used African American test subjects to re-create the formula that had been used to transform Rogers and duplicate that process.

Bradley is the sole survivor of his test group and takes a spare Captain America costume and a shield and fights the good fight. He destroys the Nazi Super Soldier program, kills some baddies, but is captured. Deciding to use him for experimentation, Bradley is saved, only to be court-martialed and imprisoned at Leavenworth.

Bradley is later pardoned by President Eisenhower and released. In a twist, within the black community, he’s a legend but he’s unknown everywhere else.

I thought the concept was realistic but the execution was lacking. I know some people had issues with the timelines and you also had your usual racist remarks but Truth co-creator Kyle Baker clarified the respective timelines of Bradley and Rogers in an interview saying:

“With Captain America, people get on my case for ‘changing’ Captain America. We got a lot of grief from the Captain America fans on that series until the fifth and sixth issues came out; when it turned out that we hadn’t tinkered with the continuity. Before that, everybody was very upset, because our story started with Pearl Harbor, and everybody knows that the first issue of Captain America took place before Pearl. Somewhere in the middle of the series, it’s revealed that Cap already existed, and we hadn’t tinkered with the timeline, and suddenly, the book is okay.”

I still feel he has some potential and wouldn’t mind a little continuity tweaking to see it fulfilled.

I always seem to lump William Naslund, William Burnside, and Jeffrey Mace together. All had brief and relatively unremarkable careers as Captain America and are little more than footnotes in Captain America history. I mention them here to save some of you commenting about them below.

Naslund fought crime as the Spirit of ’76. After the supposed deaths of Rogers and Bucky Barnes, President Harry S. Truman named Nasland the new Captain America. Nasland was killed while thwarting a plot to assassinate then candidate John F. Kennedy.

Like Naslund, Mace had been a superhero before, as the Patriot. After Nasland, Mace stepped up before retiring in the 50s to become a…reporter. He later died from cancer.

Burnside was a little more extreme. An uber-fan of Captain America, he went Single, White Female after finding the Super Soldier formula. He then went on to get plastic surgery and change his name to Steven Rogers. After some false identity adventures, playing bad guy for a bit, Burnside met his death thanks to a bullet from Bucky Barnes.

“There are days that are the worst days. There are days that tear hope down and stamp on it. Days when the horror gets so thick you think you might drown. But even on those days, we can stand up. We can fight. We can rise. And I will stand and fight and rise alongside you. My name’s Sam Wilson. I’m Captain America. And that’s what I do.” — Sam Wilson

Taking over for Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson was a fan favorite when it came to carrying on the shield. I’m a huge fan of Sam. Even though his Falcon has been written unevenly, his most recent adventures have really captured his character. While I was worried he’d be a Steve Rogers clone, he’s made Captain America his own and his stint has been a solid, entertaining one.

“Bucky” Barnes used to be an example of comic book characters who died and stayed dead. That all changed with a stunning and shockingly well done Winter Soldier storyline that brought James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes back.

Originally he was Captain America’s sidekick during World War II, who was thought dead after a fight with Baron Zemo. Little did everyone know, Bucky was captured and brainwashed by the Soviets into becoming the assassin, the Winter Soldier.

There was a lot of skepticism (and anger) over bringing Bucky back. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Winter Soldier story arc was brilliant and quickly quieted any doubters. It brought him back in a way that was exciting and believable. It was done so well that it was used as the story for the Captain America sequel.

In the comics, Bucky comes back with no memory of his heroic days. He finally came around and took up the mantle of Captain America when Rogers was thought dead. His Captain America was a great blend of his ideals of a life lived as an assassin and his experience fighting for right. I felt his run as Cap could have gone on longer and wouldn’t have been upset if he was the permanent Cap. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Captain America has been since 1941. It’s telling that while his popularity has gone up, down, and up again, Steve Rogers has been the constant. While others have stepped in, it always comes back to Rogers.

Who’s your favorite, non-Rogers Captain America?

That’s all the time I have. See you next week!