Captain America is a 75-year-old comic book owned by Disney about a 98-year-old super soldier who was recently dead and might currently be a fascist. If that sounds like a busy schedule for a nonagenarian, then consider his third movie, Captain America: Civil War, which was released on May 16, 2016 and is already the highest-grossing film of the year, while also sporting a 90 percent rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.
Let’s acknowledge the fact that Captain America was conceived as a propaganda piece for a war that ended more than 75 years ago, but has managed to stay more relevant than most contemporary fictional characters. He recently kicked off two hashtags on Twitter which snowballed into bigger and broader conversations across the internet: #Saynotohydracap and #Givecapaboyfriend.
The first refers to the controversial twist ending of Cap’s new monthly comic, Steve Rogers: Captain America, where Steve throws his partner (Jack Flagg) out of a plane and greets a kidnapped scientist on board with, “Hail Hydra,” the secret salute shared between members of Marvel’s villainous agency, Hydra. It is unknown whether the backlash against the cliffhanger was organic or manufactured by the Disney marketing machine, but it got people talking about the meaning and representation of Captain America and his role in pop culture — a role many feel is behind the times.
#Givecapaboyfriend was started by a fan named Jess Salerno on May 10. She felt that Cap needed to be more inclusive to queer fans and an American icon in a same sex relationship would fold queer representation into popular consciousness. As she explained in her own words to Metro U.K.:
“It sucks that people in the LGBT community don’t get the representation that they deserve and it would be so amazing for something like Captain America or Marvel to be able to portray that. And maybe just let people know that it’s okay to be who you are.”
After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a multi-billion dollar franchise about a disparate group of people uniting to save the world, but their concept of diversity is specifically hetero-normative men and women. It’s fair to say Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is indeed lacking in queer representation, which isn’t a fair representation of the source material.
What most people don’t know about the comic books is that Captain America had a longstanding, albeit platonic, relationship with an openly gay friend since the early 1980’s. The friendship was revealed during writer J.M. DeMatteis’s run on the title. When the Reagan administration was publicly ridiculing “the gay plague,” Captain America was busy connecting with his childhood friend, protector, big brother figure, and one of Marvel’s first openly gay characters — Arnie Roth.
Steve and Arnie grew up together in Brooklyn, with Arnie being the bigger and stronger of the two and often protected the scrawny Steve from neighborhood bullies. The Roth family became a second home to Steve while his single mother worked to support him. The two were inseparable, and essentially brothers.
As time marched on, Steve’s mother died, and World War II started, and the young men drifted apart. Arnie joined the Navy and Steve undertook the experiment which would turn him into Captain America. When the two meet again in issue #270, Arnie admits he’d always suspected Captain America was Steve. Arnie also concedes that running into Steve and Bernie on the street was no accident. He sought out Steve because he needed some super-powered help. Arnie had gotten in trouble over some gambling debt and his boyfriend of 10 years, Michael, had been kidnapped by the mob and threatening to kill him if Arnie didn’t pay up.
Of course Captain America helps Arnie out, but while en route to rescue Michael, Arnie admits he was being blackmailed into leading Cap into a trap but just couldn’t sell him out. Steve forgives Arnie and jumps headfirst into the trap to rescue Michael anyway. Cap and Arnie save the day, but Michael winds up in the hospital. Meanwhile, Arnie becomes a regular character in Captain America.