What a ride Avengers: Endgame was, huh? The 22nd MCU film and the final chapter of “The Infinity Saga” gave us many callbacks, triumphant moments, tearjerkers and plenty of the best kind of fanservice: things you always wanted, and things you never knew you did but were so awesome you whooped and hollered in that packed theatre (at least I did.)
One of the most exciting moments was something no one could’ve seen coming — except for how often it’s happened in the comics.
[Ed. note: This post will contain spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.]
As part of the time-travel hunt for the Infinity Stones that makes up most of Endgame’s second act, Captain America (Chris Evans) winds up fighting himself.
Winding up at the Battle of New York in 2012 to fetch the Space Stone, the Mind Stone and the Time Stone, Steve didn’t just wind up having to convince some SHIELD guys-who-were-actually-HYDRA guys that he was one of them by whispering “Hail, Hydra”. He also had to face off against the 2012 version of himself who thought he was an escaped 2012 Loki. The fight was brief and hilarious, with 2012 Cap intoning his renowned catchphrase as present-day Cap responded exhaustedly, “Yeah, I know.” And it ended with Cap knocking 2012 Cap out, and recovering the scepter.
As singular a moment like this may seem — it’s only when time travel gets involved that you fight yourself, right? — the “Cap versus Cap” fight has a long, wild tradition in Marvel Comics.
When you’re dead but not really dead
To begin with, you have to go back to before the Marvel “Universe” was a thing. Captain America debuted in 1941 and was a huge hit for Timely Comics right out of the gate (that’s what happens when this is your cover). Like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman; Cap and Bucky stayed popular through WWII and into the postwar years. But when a character is indelibly linked to wartime and that war ends, what do you do?
For Timely and its rotating creative staff on Captain America Comics (a lack of credit in comics of the era makes figuring out who wrote or drew what hard, but Cap’s creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had long moved on), the simple solution was to have Cap transition into being a regular old superhero. He even joined the super-team the All-Winners Squad, alongside the original Human Torch and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. But in the end, Cap just wasn’t popular enough to withstand the huge postwar shift from superheroes to horror and crime comics and his stories were put out to pasture in 1950.
In 1954, the Cold War prompted a shift back to superheroes, but with a sci-fi edge. Reasoning that Captain America could work with an anti-Soviet twist, Timely — now Atlas Comics — relaunched Captain America Comics with the tagline “Captain America...Commie Smasher!!!” It didn’t work. After three issues, it was curtains again for Cap.
But in November 1963, the true Marvel Universe was in full swing. And in 1964’s Avengers #4, Iron Man, the Wasp, Ant-Man and Thor found Steve Rogers frozen in ice. “Captain America Lives Again!” But a small problem crept in over the next decade: If Captain America was frozen in 1945 and stayed that way until the Avengers found him, who was the Captain America of the ’50s? Marvel’s answer was: There was more than one.
Everybody wants to be a Cap
As Endgame’s final moments revealed, Cap trusts Sam “Falcon” Wilson with the shield. But Sam wasn’t the first non-Steve Cap. There’ve been a lot, from William Naslund, a World War II soldier recruited by President Truman to be the new Cap and killed by the robot Adam II in 1946; and then Jeffrey Mace, who served until 1949 in Marvel Comics time.
But it was Defenders creators Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema who gave us the definitive explanation for “Captain America...Commie Smasher!” in the pages of Captain America — with a third replacement Cap, William Burnside. Burnside would clash with Captain America over and over again, becoming a perfect example of why some guys just aren’t cut out to carry the shield.
In the 1940s, Burnside idolized Captain America, even getting his PhD in US History with a thesis on Cap’s life. His obsession led him abroad, where he discovered Nazi files containing Cap’s true identity and everything the Nazis had on the Super Soldier serum. Not realizing the Nazis’ research was incomplete, Burnside returned to America and told the FBI he’d give them the serum if they made him Captain America to inspire the nation during the Korean War.
But while the ever-fanatical Burnside underwent plastic and vocal surgery to exactly resemble Steve, the Korean War went south for America. The FBI cancelled the project, reasoning it’d be unwise to reintroduce a symbol of national pride in the current political climate, and set Burnside up as a high school teacher. Also, for some reason, he was legally renamed Steve Rogers.
As a teacher, Burnside met a student named Jack Monroe, who was equally obsessed with Cap. When the now-communist Red Skull attacked the UN, Burnside whipped up a serum based on his Nazi notes and injected himself and Monroe. They stopped the Skull as the new Cap and Bucky — the Cap and Bucky who’d been in all those 1950s anti-communist stories.
But the incomplete serum was fatally flawed, and made Burnside and Monroe psychotic: They began attacking anybody who expressing contrary opinions to them or wasn’t white. The FBI arrested them and put them in suspended animation. Engleheart and Buscema’s story then cut to the present day (of 1972), where the men were revived and sent out to kill Cap and the Falcon; whereupon, being villains (albeit tragic ones), they were defeated and refrozen.
The two were eventually thawed out again and Burnside was sent to psychologist Johann Fennhoff for treatment. But Fennhoff — secretly supervillain Doctor Faustus — brainwashed Burnside into becoming the Grand Director of his Neo-Nazi group, the National Force. Shooting Monroe (who’d return mentally stable and become Cap’s sidekick Nomad), Burnside fought — and was defeated by — Cap and Daredevil, who broke the brainwashing. Horrified by what he’d done, Burnside attempted suicide.
But Faustus and the Red Skull froze him again to heal his wounds, brainwashed him again and brought him back again after Steve had died and Bucky had become Captain America, to kill him. After breaking free again, Burnside drifted for a while, wondering what America was now and where the hell he belonged in it. Unimpressed with the modern day, he was manipulated by the right-wing terrorist group the Watchdogs into joining them and nearly blew up the Hoover Dam before Bucky stopped him.
Becoming a reckless vigilante, Burnside was confronted by Steve and, disoriented, was hit by a truck. Steve visited him in the hospital, saying he’d been a good Captain America before the bad serum broke his brain, that he (Steve) didn’t blame him. Steve had arranged for Burnside’s death to be faked; he’d been given a full military funeral with honors and a new identity, and was sent to a facility to finally repair his mind.
Enter U.S. Agent
In the pantheon of long-running superhero sagas with one or more creators, there’s a guy who’s considered to be one of, if not the best, Captain America writer of all time: Mark Gruenwald. He created loads of memorable characters and is beloved for creating and writing The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Squadron Supreme. But his most enduring work is considered to be his 1985-1995 run on Captain America.
By his own admission, one of the things that made it so iconic was a deliberate choice: His Captain America fought villains that were uniquely his — who only he could fight — as opposed to generic mooks. U.S. Agent, coming at a time where patriotism was giving way to hyper-nationalism, was one of those villains.
John Walker grew up idealizing his older brother Mike, who was killed in action in Vietnam. Wanting to live up to his brother’s memory and make his parents proud, John enlisted when he was old enough, but never saw action. Honorably discharged, John and a friend learned about the Power Broker and Dr. Karl Malus, two supervillains who took cash in exchange for injecting people with superpowers — while really getting them hooked on drugs (under the pretense of stabilizing their powers — it was the ‘80s) so they could use them as henchmen.
Initially planning to join the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation, a wrestling promotion full of superpowered people (which is awesome), Walker’s manager convinced him to become a superhero. He debuted as the corporate-backed Super-Patriot, touring the country for patriotic rallies and community service.
Things really broke bad when he staged an attack on himself by diehard Cap supporters in Central Park. Cap intervened and told him to stop before someone got hurt, but instead, Walker attacked Cap, sending Steve into a spiral as he realized that the Super-Patriot was his physical better in a lot of ways.
Soon after, when Rogers quit being Cap out of frustration at the government (this kinda happens a lot), the Commission on Superhuman Activities decided Walker would be easier to control and named him the new Captain America. One of his fake Central Park attackers, Lemar Hoskins, become his Bucky (renamed Battlestar after then-Marvel editor Dwayne McDuffie informed Gruenwald of “buck”’s history as a racial slur).
As Cap, Walker was highly reactionary and emotionally unstable. Though he tried to live up to Steve’s ethics, he continually failed, accidentally beating B-list supervillain Professor Power to death. At a press conference, his two other hired attackers crashed the affair and revealed his name and birthplace on national TV. This led to his parents being killed by the Watchdogs, which — along with the government denying him the right to attend their funeral due to his Cap responsibilities — pushed him to a mental breakdown. He killed many of the Watchdogs and attacked his former co-workers, leaving them to die in an explosion.
After some more Red Skull shenanigans, Walker resigned as Cap and Steve came back. But the Commission faked Walker’s assassination at another press conference, hypnotized him into thinking his parents weren’t dead, gave him a new cover identity as “Jack Daniels,” and made him into US Agent, a superhero who served as the government-appointed member of the West Coast Avengers.
He’s clashed with Cap time and time again, as unlike Cap, US Agent always does what his government orders him to do, even if that includes murder.
HydraCap, who sucks real bad
Flash forward to 2017 and what was probably Marvel’s worst event idea in quite some time, that basically broke the comics community in half: Secret Empire. You can find more about that here and here, but the short version is: Captain America got brainwashed by Kobik, a small child and physical embodiment of the Ultimate McGuffin, the Cosmic Cube, into thinking he’d been working for HYDRA this whole time. Later, after over a year of fan controversy, Kobik made another, Good Copy of Steve Rogers from its memories, who beat the snot out of his imposter on live television and took the role back.
HydraCap isn’t dead, of course, and he’s had some shadowy appearances in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Captain America series.
To Cap it all off
Like any superhero who gets replaced and has to fight “themselves,” U.S. Agent and William Burnside are, in one sense, an answer to a rhetorical question: “Why is Captain America (almost) always Steve Rogers?”
The answer is “Well, that’s the only way it can be.” Captain America is a symbol by default, but it’s Steve Rogers who really embodies the ideals of the American Dream, write large and Done Right (and boy do we need an example of that now). U.S. Agent and Burnside show that Steve is Cap and Cap is Steve.
It’s a truism that keeps Captain America comics selling, sure, but Cap-on-Cap fights demonstrate why we gravitate towards these heroes in the first place. It’s not about if the superhero triumphs, it’s how. These are aspirational figures, after all. And Captain America is one of the most aspirational. He is the best of us.
Like Ant-Man and even Steve himself says upon looking at his own knocked-out 2012 ass, “That is America’s ass!”
Tom Speelman is a freelance writer, proofreader & editor based in Lansing, IL for a variety of websites and publishers like Seven Seas Entertainment, for whom he adapts Magical-Girl Spec-Ops Asuka by Makoto Fukami and Seigo Tokiya. He’s on Twitter @tomtificate and loves yelling about superheroes.