How Many Captain Americas Is Too Many?

Captain America Steve Rogers  - P 2016
Jesus Saiz/Marvel Entertainment
When Steve Rogers comes out of retirement, he's underscoring a new trend for the comic book giant.

When it was announced this week that Steve Rogers would be returning to the role of comic book Captain America, Marvel Entertainment sought to reassure fans of the current version of the character — Sam Wilson, the former Falcon whose promotion grabbed headlines in late 2014 — that he, too, would be Captain America. Moving forward, in the comic books at least, there would be multiple simultaneous Captain Americas.

While this might have seemed strange to those unfamiliar with Marvel's comic book line, it is actually following a strange trend for the company. The two Caps will join two Spider-Mans (Peter Parker and Miles Morales), two Wolverines (James Logan Howlett and Laura Kinney), two Thors (Jane Foster and… well, Thor Odinson, the guy whose name is actually Thor) as well as co-existing versions of X-Men cast members Iceman, Beast and Angel from different points in their lives brought together to this point in time. (Additionally, next month's launch of Power Man and Iron Fist will also bring the number of heroes using the "Power Man" name at the same time to two.) Far from being just a corporate franchise, Marvel's superheroes are increasingly becoming literal franchises, with their costumed identities being shared between different characters and series.

Although the idea of a "legacy identity" — a different character re-using an existing costume or superhero name — has been around for decades (The 1961 first issue of Fantastic Four, after all, featured a Human Torch who shared a title and powers, but nothing else, with the original version who'd debuted in 1939's Marvel Comics No. 1), what's novel about this movement is that characters now co-exist with each other. Peter Parker hangs out with Miles Morales, the cover of Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1 apparently sees the two Captains having a footrace with each other, and so on.

The "why" of this trend is a complicated one. On a basic level, it allows for Marvel to capitalize on familiar brands and titles to a greater degree, as there are literally twice as many characters available with those names to sell. Duplicating the number of in-universe characters with a particular name, as opposed to simply publishing more series featuring the same character, allows Marvel to both differentiate the different series (and, potentially, try and attract different audiences for each series) and avoid fan concerns about how Series A fits in with Series B in terms of the larger continuity of the character.

It also allows Marvel to have its cake and eat it in terms of character diversity; they get to proclaim a commitment to diversifying its line-up with a mixed race Spider-Man and a black Captain America, while also keeping traditionalists — and, I guess, racists — happy by keeping the originals around in the same roles. Similarly, Thor gets to be a woman, but also the traditional male Asgardian god of Thunder. (The time-traveling X-Men hanging around with their adult selves thing is less obvious in terms of appeal, admittedly.) Everyone's happy, right…?

Well, no.

Putting aside the fact that the attempts at diversification are, at best, hurt by not allowing the new characters to come into their own without the oversight of their older, white male counterparts — as argued by ComicsAlliance editor Andrew Wheeler in the wake of the Captain America news — there's the additional problem that, by plugging new characters into existing franchises and identities instead of establishing themselves as individuals in their own rights, Marvel's comic book universe will end up feeling smaller and less expansive than it, by rights, should.

That will become especially true when the one true constant of superhero comics reasserts itself again: that everything trends towards the original status quo eventually. It happened to DC's Batman, the first hero to franchise his costumed identity in 2010's Batman Incorporated, only to reclaim the mantle solo the following year, and both experience and occam's razor suggest that, when a dramatic moment is needed to draw eyeballs and wallets to a particular character or franchise, a return to the original character under the promise of "the original and still the best" is a proven attention-getter.

No Marvel character demonstrates the unfortunate fall-out of that plot better than Bucky, AKA the Winter Soldier of the second Captain America movie. Reintroduced to comic books in 2005, the character's profile continued to rise until he took over the role of Captain America in 2008 — a role he stayed in until 2011, at which point he was pushed into the background. A subsequent solo series in 2014 failed to win over readers and was canceled after 11 issues, despite the promotional boost of starring in that year's big Marvel movie, and the character has now been relegated to supporting roles in the Steve Rogers and a newly announced Thunderbolts comic book series.

It's one thing to raise a character's profile by giving them a fan-favorite name and identity, but once the original comes back to reclaim that identity — as almost inevitably happens, especially the bigger the name — that character has nowhere to go. Duplicating well-known superheroes might be a trick that works to goose sales in the short term, but in the long term, Marvel is likely to be worse off for it.