Statues and monuments aren’t about the people to whom they owe their likenesses. Not really. Such memorials immortalize the ideas, struggles and virtues of ages in the forms of figures who represented and distilled them.

Captain America Statue 03The bust of General George Custer in my hometown represents not the man – who, I gather, was kind of a dick – but the myth that surrounded him: roguish man of action who – by will and grit and skillful heroism – rose through the Union ranks during the Civil War to eventually help secure America’s westward expanse.

Lincoln’s Monument is more a testament to resolve and righteous fortitude than the man himself. describes the purpose of the Martain Luther King Jr. Monument off the Tidal Basin in DC  as a “a lasting tribute to Dr. King’s legacy [that] will forever serve as a monument to the freedom, opportunity and justice for which he stood.” The monument inspires the sense of justice and willingness to fight for change that he represented – it is an attempt to replicate his effect on people as much as it is a way to honor the historical figure.

Statues of fictional characters like Rocky Balboa and – only slightly less fictional – Paul Revere stand as tributes to their roles in the American zeitgeist.

Similarly, superheroes often function as embodiments for ideas and ideals. Captain America Statue 01In a sort of reverse fashion from those who earn monuments through notable deeds, the genre demands that superheroes execute acts of greatness (usually great violence), so what they do is less compelling to readers than WHY they do it. This is why the superhero origin story is such an important component of the mythos: we need to know the idea the hero represents while doing cartoonish battle.

As such, it comes as no surprise that superheroes – like our historical myths – have for almost 80 years now represented our ideologies and anxieties in their flashy, pow-filled “conversations.” They’ve become a part of the way we interpret our culture and world, a sentiment now recognized by the erection of the world’s first public superhero statue.

In honor of his 75th anniversary, Captain America – created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon – received a 13 ft. statue in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Steve Rogers’ hometown. The one-ton bronze bust features Cap in his classic garb holding up his famous shield and, inscribed in the base, the quote, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn,” from Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger.

Paul Gitter, senior vice president of licensing for Marvel at Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, told USA Today that the statue will serve as a recognition of Cap’s place in American history as an embodiment of American ideology.

“For the past 75 years, Captain America has inspired generations of fans serving as the ultimate global icon for freedom, strength and doing the right thing,” Gitter said. “We hope that when fans see the statue, they will think back to a favorite comic book, treasured action figure or even be transported back to a special time and place in their lives where Captain America’s values played influence.”

Gitter’s comment proves that Marvel and the people of Brooklyn see Cap as more than character, but as an ideal. Like historical figures immortalized in stone and metal, Cap represents something more than his actions. Despite a tumultuous history starting in 1941, passed from writer to writer through decades and eras, during which Cap rejected the flag as much as he defended it, he always seemed to be in the right. The voice of calm, rejecting prejudice and extremism at both ends of the spectrum to secure the ideal of “liberty” for all. The statue commemorates this humble, righteous resolve more so than it does his super soldier abilities, which – in the grand superhero scheme – aren’t all that impressive.

That the monument is intended to capitalize on this inspirational nature is indicated by the choice of quote. The line, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn,” is an interesting choice, given some of Cap’s pontifications on liberty and patriotism and doing the right thing. It reveals a distinct message to those who look upon it, a call to action, almost, given the contrast to his heroic pose. It says, “I started as nothing more than you, and inside, I’m still the same; I challenge you to be super, too.”

It’s quite the powerful sentiment, but one wonders if there’s a sense of distraction in all this. The statue originally debuted this summer amidst the fury of yet another flare up of alleged police brutality and violent reactions to systemic racism. It is joined by an ideologically charged conversation drowned out by the sounds of gunfire and hate speech.

Despite his ability to rally troops and stave off alien invasions, does Cap belong right now? Some can say this is vain idolatry – just another example of our escapist prerogatives in a world too violent. Are we asking too much of our superheroes, or is the fictional sentinel of liberty just the kind of beacon we need to spur unity?

Part of the superhero’s appeal is the offer of a third option in polarizing conflicts such as these: easy solutions. Easy justice. He is the outlaw who can shirk the corruption of the state to battle the hatred in the streets, thereby paving the way to relatively peaceable armistice. The superhero represents the enacted sentiments of thousands of social media commenters demanding others to see the fault in extremism and lobbying for dynamic, nonlethal resolution.

But the superhero stories offer no practical roadmap for actually navigating hate, generalizations, shortsightedness, and political aims to achieve such ends. They usually reduce the problems to supervillains, then have superheroes punch them into submission. One might argue that this propagates a polarizing mentality, thereby inhibiting justice by conversation. In Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man communicates a similar sentiment to Cap: “[Mr. Stark] said you think you’re right, and that makes you dangerous.” The irony, of course, being that the same indictment applies equally to Stark on the opposite end of the debate, making the film an interesting exploration into superhero ambiguity.

Captain America Statue 02Still, maybe it’s the ideal that Cap represents – the resolve to do right and see justice done as peacefully as possible, and even to admit when he’s wrong – that people need for inspiration. The statue’s creators must surely hope it catalyzes the sense of justice in others that we’ve all come to associate with Captain America.

Or maybe it’s just Marvel capitalizing on their surge of popularity for publicity. Maybe both. 

Either way, Cap’s presence in Brooklyn – for better or worse – further solidifies the superhero as part of the American narrative. As American mythology.


About the Author:

Travis Trombley is a high school English teacher who studies how superheros intersect with social, political and personal narratives. He and his wife Emily created HeroMonitor as a dedicated place where participants can engage in discussion about superheroes and other popular stories in terms of function – what they say about our anxieties, ideals, hopes and understandings of the world – without the messiness of fan predictions or clutter of trivial argument.