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Captain America: Man Out of Time by Mark Waid and Jorge Molina (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Captain America: Man Out of Time suffers under the weight of its nostalgia.

The past few years have been kind to fans of the star-spangled Avenger. Ed Brubaker enjoyed an extended run on the character that enjoys favourable comparisons to the best work by the best writers ever to work with Steve Rogers. A Captain America film finally saw theatrical release with Captain America: The First Avenger. So it made sense for Marvel to try to extend the brand in 2011, as that blockbuster was ready to hit cinemas and as the character’s stock was at an all-time high.

"It's okay, Cap. The First Avenger wasn't THAT bad..."

“It’s okay, Cap. The First Avenger wasn’t THAT bad…”

Mark Waid was a great choice to assist in this. Waid is a well-liked comic book writer with a long history at Marvel that includes two extended well-received runs on the character. Waid has written a number of genuine comic book classics, and he’s a writer who tends to handle nostalgia very well. So tasking Mark Waid with writing a comic book set in the early days of Captain America’s revival was a no-brainer. A five-issue miniseries about Captain America waking up in contemporary times written by Mark Waid? That should be a default slam dunk.

Unfortunately, there was a miscalculation somewhere. Man Out of Time feels sappy ans manipulative, with little new or interesting (or insightful) to offer about its temporally dislocated protagonist.

The man in the iron mask...

The man in the iron mask…

To be fair, this was always a possibility. Mark Waid trades in nostalgia. That’s not a criticism. Even Waid’s best works tend to work as nostalgic paeans to pasts that may never have existed. Kingdom Come was a firm rejection of the nihilism of nineties comics, and an assertion about the values of traditional comic book superhero storytelling. His current Daredevil run harks back to the earliest days of the character, but feels so novel because Waid is attempting to evoke a sensibility that pre-dates Frank Miller’s formative and definitive run.

However, that nostalgia doesn’t work with Captain America: Man Out of Time. Focusing on a recently-revived Steve Rogers, there’s a sense that Man Out of Time is tied to a romantic vision of the past that never quite existed. It’s not just the way that Waid deals with Steve Rogers’ forties origins, but also the way that he deals with re-writing the sixties Avengers narrative that helped bring Captain America into the modern world in the first place.

That's life...

That’s life…

Much of Man Out of Time unfolds between the panels of those early Avengers comics that saw Steve Rogers waking up in the care of the Avengers. Waid follows established continuity fairly tightly, with the first few issues of the miniseries even playing out the early story where the Avengers are turned to stone during a photo opportunity. This is a perfectly grand way of approaching the assignment, but it does raise all manner of questions that Waid isn’t too ready to answer.

What is the point of this story? What does a reader get out of reading Captain America: Man Out of Time that they would not get from leafing through the classic issues of The Avengers? Sure, the miniseries branches off and goes its own direction in the last few issues, but the first couple don’t offer anything we haven’t seen before. It’s the same story, except Captain America has to use a computer and a search engine this time, and Barrack Obama happens to be President.

A grave decision...

A grave decision…

Waid even copies the whole “Captain America confuses Rick Jones for Bucky” plot point for those classic issues. That plot point was understandable (if still somewhat creepy) in the context of sixties comics. It was a lazy way of conveying that Captain America saw Rick Jones as a stand-in for Bucky, even if the narrative never really explored how dysfunctional and downright creepy this was. (At one point in those classic comics, he even gets Rick Jones to dress up as Bucky, which is equally unsettling.)

This sort of conduct was something that comics could gloss over in the sixties, the era of teenage sidekicks. The creepy subtext was still there, but it fit within the context of the times. Today, Waid can’t just gloss over the “Cap is casting this kid as his dead sidekick” storytelling device. It’s something that demands exploration and insight. It requires the plot to call out Steve Rogers as unhealthy and disturbed and possibly even dangerous.

Thundering on about it...

Thundering on about it…

It might be a nice way to explore the psychological damage cause by Bucky’s death and the trauma of pulling Steve Rogers so far forward in time. Those were ideas that sixties comics weren’t equipped to handle, and it’s something that might be fun to play with. After all, the basic premise of Man Out of Time is that Steve Rogers is a man trapped in a foreign time period; why shouldn’t the script play with it?

Instead, Man Out of Time never doubts its lead character. It never questions if he needs some space or some time to adjust. It never hints that this perpetual soldier might be suffering from his own post-traumatic stress disorder. The biggest change that Waid makes when exploring Captain America’s early days in contemporary society sees the character considering a trip back in time using Reed Richards’ technology.

Flag-waving fun...

Flag-waving fun…

There’s something very telling about this. The only major alteration that Mark Waid sees fit to make to the story of Captain America waking up doesn’t involve him adapting to contemporary norms, or having an existential crisis. Instead, Steve Rogers tries to get back home. Even ignoring the fact that we know that he won’t or can’t go home, given he’s featured in a host of contemporary comics, it’s an approach that favours nostalgia and romanticism.

(Even accepting this departure from the character’s set history, it feels like Waid bungles the plot about. Steve Rogers’ desire to go home is never anything more than a polite request. There’s no sense that Steve Rogers is struggling or desperate to return to his own time, merely that he wouldn’t mind going back too much. Man Out of Time doesn’t do enough to establish Steve as a character or his life in the forties to justify this decision as character development.)

Masking his true feelings...

Masking his true feelings…

The final issue does throw Captain America back in time, but it all feels rote and familiar. There’s never any real question that Stave Rogers would want to stay in this alternate timeline – there’s no strong temptation that might conspire to keep him there. He doesn’t have to make a tough choice. He can’t get in touch with Peggy Carter, and Bucky is still dead. It feels like Waid is working very hard to make Steve’s decision as easy as possible.

When he decides he might want to return to the present, there are no tough choices involved. He doesn’t have to give up Peggy Carter again; nor does he have to allow Bucky to die. Those choices would have moral weight, those would make it understandable if Steve Rogers considered remaining. They’d give the audience an emotional stake in all this. As it stands, Steve Rogers seems about as invested in returning (and staying) in his own time as he might be in picking wall paper.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

In fact, when Captain America asks President Obama if he can travel back in time, Obama seems primarily concerned with the potential pollution of the past rather than the destruction of the present. “Even before Tony gave you tonight’s civics lesson, you’d already seen and heard things that could change history,” Obama explains. He glosses over the fact that the very presence of Steve Rogers in the past would create an alternate flow of history that would effectively re-write the history of everybody living on the planet.

So the dilemma is rooted in the question of the past, rather than the present. Indeed, the only real reason that Steve Rogers might want to stay in the past is nostalgia. When the plot enters the obligatory “Steve Rogers learns the modern world kinda sucks” phase, he meets a fellow old-timer who is similarly shell-shocked by modern culture. (The veteran is named General Simon, in a none-too-flattering shout-out to one of the character’s creators.) “Steve,” he explains, “they’re invented crimes you’ve never even heard of.”

It never rains...

It never rains…

This is just a variant of the tired “it wasn’t like this in my day” argument, as Simon rattles off a laundry list of human crimes. “Carjacking. Identity theft. Human trafficking.” Nobody in the story points out that although the terms may be new, the crimes themselves pre-date the Second World War. The Bonnot Gang in the 1910s was infamous for crimes that would now be described as carjackings. The nineteenth century novel The Prisoner of Zenda is based around identity theft. Human trafficking exists primarily as an extension of the slave trade.

This is the biggest problem with Man Out of Time. While the comic pauses to acknowledge the strides that have been made in acknowledging the rights of women and ethnic minorities, it never pauses to wonder how Steve Rogers could justify travelling backwards to serve and protect a society that treats them as second-class citizens. The implication is that Steve Rogers would have been happy to return to America in the fifties and watch silently as that discrimination was tolerated and practised. We get a small scene of Steve witnessing intolerance at a baseball game, but it doesn’t feel like he’s bothered to actually do anything.

None the worse for wear?

None the worse for wear?

To be fair, there are a few nice moments scattered throughout Man Out of Time. Rogers’ confession that he has no idea what he would do after the war is strangely touching, as is the fact that Bucky correctly speculates on what his future might have looked like – bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ed Brubaker’s alternate future as presented during House of M. Similarly, Steve Rogers trying to listen to Kid A is a charming image. However, these moments feel too few and far between, smothered between lazy nostalgia and affectionate throwbacks to a past that never existed.

That’s the biggest issue with Captain America: Man Out of Time. It feels like it was written by a writer who takes the virtues of the past for granted, without any real critical insight into the politics or the attitudes of the times. If the past is a foreign country, Man Out of Time reads like a tourist brochure.

4 Responses

  1. A very interesting review.

    I am not really a Captain America fan outside of the movies (I always prefered DC) but I’ve always had difficulty with Steve Rogers being frozen in the Forties and waking up in the present, since he seems perpetually portrayed as a 21st century man with a few old fashioned hobbies. I’m not saying that Captain America should be a racist, sexist dinosaur (far from it) but it always strained my sense of credebility that he could simeltaneously be both the salt of the earth, pure hearted kid who grew in Depression era Brooklyn and an Obama era liberal. Obviously I know there were liberals in the Forties but even they often had attitudes that would look intolerant today (such as FDR and the Nisei).

    There is a wanting your cake and eating it element; to keep him appealing to modern audiences Rogers had attitudes that would mark him as a radical in his native time, but the narrative can’t really follow through on that because it would too radically alter the image of the character.

    • I wish they WOULD explore the idea of Steve Rogers having been ahead of his time in the 1930s/40s, in the same way he’s behind the times in the modern world. It’s really not hard to imagine; he was a working class kid in Brooklyn who grew up during the Great Depression, when radical ideas were more popular than ever. Probably would’ve had plenty of chances to be exposed to unconventional ideas, and if, say, racial equality was one of those he picked up, why not? But they tend to prefer writing him as a generic nostalgic figure, judging the present through the eyes of a better past.

      The upcoming movie looks all set to be another “those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither” Aesop. Which, you know, fine. But if they juxtapose it with Steve’s “it wasn’t like this in my day” routine, I’m really going to groan, knowing what SHIELD’s real life counterparts were like in the “good old days.”

      To be fair, some of the Cap comics DO go the other route and call out the nostalgia. Honorable mention to “Two Americas,” where the bad guy is the 1950s Captain America and Bucky feels a twinge of sympathy while fighting him – “he remembers the old days, he’s out of his time, he’s doing what he thinks is right – he’s like me!” The Falcon, a black man who has every reason not to remember the past with rose-tinted glasses, is having none of it – “that man was NOT like you, Bucky. Remember that.”

      • Brubaker really is one of the best writers to work on Captain America, and I think he nails that nostalgia issue.

        As you said, the temptation with Captain America is nostalgia.

        I’ve seen the Winter Soldier. The review is embargoed until tomorrow night, but – and MINOR SPOILERS –


        … I do like how they deal with the nostalgia thing. They don’t make a big deal of it. Rogers seems to adapt to the present quite well, and engages with it. When he does try that whole “this isn’t freedom” bit from the trailer, Nick Fury basically (and subtly) calls him out on it twice – pointing out that (a.) Nick Fury’s granddad worked an elevator in a nice building and that was pretty much his lot in life at that time; and (b.) Captain America himself was a super weapon deployed during the Second World War.

    • It also seems unlikely that the US army would give the serum to anybody who would pass as a liberal by today’s standards.

      That said, I do like Ed Brubaker and (gasp!) Mark Millar’s take on Captain America. Brubaker’s run starts with the assumption that the character has been in the present long enough to have adjusted, and the only real lingering issue is Bucky. And, despite the awkward (“A… for France”) stuff, I think Millar did a good job of capturing a man out of time – a bit of a macho douchebag ass at times, but basically decent.

      (I also really like the moment in Jason Aaron’s Ultimate Comics: Captain America where Nuke tries to break him with all the crap that happened while he was frozen, and his response is “do you really think I haven’t heard about Richard Nixon yet?”)

      Also, I should concede that I had a lot of trouble finding easily accessible good Captain America comics to review for this month. That’s why I had to broaden it out, quite a bit.

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