When Superman was created in 1938, the American image of a superhero was simple: a person who acts simply because it is the right thing to do, to save those in need. Nearly a century later, the basic principles remain the same. In an era superhero films dominate Hollywood and characters are bringing in billions of dollars worth of revenue, these heroes are even more popular. Marvel Studios has an unquestionable death grip on the industry and Captain America has risen to become a favorite for audiences. With his charming quality, his dashing good looks, and his goody-two-shoes attitude, he’s the superhero everyone feels they can get behind in today’s world.
Captain America’s rise to popularity is a bit mystic, especially when you consider what the character was originally intended to represent and the divisive turns he has run into in the comics. Captain America has always been political. I mean, his name is Captain America. In the series that saw him realized as a superhero for the first time in 1941, he was fighting the Axis powers of Nazis during World War II. From the time since the character’s creation, Steve Rogers has stood for peace, democracy, and coexistence. His abilities aren’t all that complex—he’s an enhanced human with wonderful fighting skills and an unusually strong moral compass.
Isolated from the world, only to come back and find governments embracing some of the very things he fought against during World War II, Captain America’s story is powerful and unique to him. Though his ideology can have comparisons to another iconic character, Superman. Romanticizing the world, saving everyone, leading others is something both heroes share but they have also evolved.
Now, let’s move over to Superman. No matter your leanings re: Marvel and DC, it’s undeniable that Superman is the most iconic, most recognizable superhero ever created. Since his creation, the character’s name alone has produced billions in comics, films, games, TV series, and toy sales. The simplicity of his origin—an alien boy is raised by humans—is enticing, as well as the complexity and breadth of his power set. He’s called Superman, and he really can do virtually anything you can think of.
Superman’s ideology is largely the same as Cap’s. At first glance. He wants to save people. He feels a tremendous responsibility to help the earth, despite having no obligation to do anything except that “this is [his] world”. Across each iteration of the character, whether it’s Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, or Henry Cavill, one thing remains—Superman wants to help people.
So how are he and Cap different? What makes their ideologies separate? What gives them their own individual personas, and makes their superhero antics unique? How aren’t they just copies of one another? And why is Captain America allowed to do things Superman can’t?
Well, for starters, there’s the obvious. Captain America is an everyman. The wealth of ability afforded to Superman isn’t given to Cap, and that makes him less comfortable. Sometimes, he can’t do anything. He can’t save everyone. Superman can. He can literally be anywhere in the world, in the blink of an eye.
DC’s current iteration of the character in the DCEU has been met with a divisive reaction. In many ways, this version of Superman is more relatable than ever. For once, he was conflicted. He saved people, but he also has a emotional journey to becoming the superhero we all know and love. He wondered if being Superman is truly was the right thing to do; in a climate where he was considered a terrorist, where people fought tooth and nail to destroy his good name, where a billionaire company owner literally manipulated the media into painting him as the villain. Yes, he killed. He does it once, out of necessity, yet it’s forever marked on the record of “Why DCEU Superman Sucks”. Despite the fact that Marvel’s iteration of Captain America has killed many times in the comics and films, it is perceived that if Cap does it, its okay, but for Superman, its not allowed. I think I’ve boiled down the reason behind that difference, and it’s quite simple, actually: the everyman angle.
Superman might seem like an everyman, at a glance. I mean, he’s painted that way from his origin: bespectacled reporter from Nowheresville, Kansas, who happens to be the world’s most powerful being. It has that “overnight sensation” quality that so many people love. But Superman’s abilities make him larger than life—and that is what I personally find so intriguing about the character. Superman is a personification of a higher power, acting to intervene on behalf of the mortals he’s been asked to watch over.
And maybe, that’s less relatable than everyman Cap, who’s just your average joe plucked from a war he didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about participating in to become a man equipped with super-strength and increased agility. No matter how large his muscles are, Cap is still a man. A person with human limitations, human problems, and human complexes. Cap can make mistakes—say, killing someone (I’m not saying I agree with this, just pointing out the logic)—because everybody makes mistakes. Superman? Superman always has to be perfect, or else he is not good at his job.
Superman is tasked with the whole world’s problems, and is expected to shoulder the weight without complaint. Cap has the option to change his mind, to give up being a superhero. But what happens when the millions of voices go unheard? What happens when there’s a threat human beings can’t solve? Not only does Superman not want to give up, he can’t. Superman simply can not ignore the problems of the world, his responsibility seems greater than any other superhero because of his stature and iconic nature in and out of the story. To conclude, it is clear that even though their ideologies are similar, at the core, Superman and Captain America are fundamentally different. Both icons, both representative of the American Pop-Culute ideals, but their personas are different, their needs are different, and their reach is completely mismatched, making their place in our culture distinct but equally needed.