Mar 31, 2020
Captain America #289 “Tomorrow, the World?” The Deathlok saga (part 4 of 4)
It’s weird, but when I picked the Deathlok Saga to review, the only thing on my mind had been the fact that the titular character was essentially an animated corpse; Halloween was the only thing on my mind. Then someone pointed out the story is about a cyborg from a dystopian future and I realized soon after I posted the first part that this was pretty similar to the new Terminator movie out in theaters (which might be out of theaters by this point). And in the wake of recapping that Batman story arc “A Death in the Family”, I jumped right in to another story involving a hero training a young sidekick who gets himself in over his head. Weird how the mind works.
Now, displaying just a fraction of the cover really doesn’t do its batshit insanity any justice, so I feel I simply must share it with you in its entirety.
Ah, Assistant Editor’s Month. When it seemed like working at Marvel was actually fun, and employees there didn’t take themselves quite so seriously. But more on that later.
Our final chapter opens with a bunker in some unknown location and a horde of green-clad minions holding what look like the bottom parts of metal bongs or something. They’re the Nth Division’s foot soldiers and they’re holding the infamous portal guns that will send all our heroes off to another dimension. Just saying that reminds me of the original Dragonball Z dub; they couldn’t say Goku and company died, even though the anime showed them as spirits sporting halos. As for the guns, I get that Zeck and DeMatteis were going for an alien feel, but firearms are designed a certain way for a certain reason: trigger, barrel, stock, all meant to balance one another out and make it easier to shoot and hit what you’re aiming at.
A man is giving a speech for the troops. His name is Albert DeVoor and he’s head of the Nth Project, and he’s pleased as punch to be here. He lays down some very helpful exposition for people picking up this comic who haven’t read the prior three issues, and if that’s the case, I really wonder why any first time reader of Captain America would choose this one as the jumping on point. Was it to see a female Captain America? A Red Skull/MODOK hybrid? Was there really that great a demand to see Marvel staff in the pages of their own comics? DeVoor sums up that after the Nth Commandos wipe out the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men, the Defenders and various solo heroes will be hunted down and booted out of their reality as well. Roxxon will have America, and then… the world! Elsewhere, at a now familiar subway platform, Captain America is back!
Now it’s his turn to provide exposition as he dashes out of the station, laying down the events of the last three issues. Cap hops the turnstiles like a common juvenile delinquent, although to be fair, I don’t see where in that costume he’d be able to keep any spare change. There’s a reason why Animal Man started wearing a jacket with pockets. Cap says this is the day Roxxon initiates its plan to inadvertently screw up the planet, and he makes his way to a payphone where he gives the operator an emergency code. The operator must be new, because she still demands 20 cents and Cap ain’t got it. See? If Cap had pockets or pouches he’d have space for a little change purse. Go ahead, Marvelites, laugh at Batman’s utility belt. But I bet he never had to lament his lack of 20 cents.
Cap gets frustrated with the operator and dashes off, with the person on the other end saying he doesn’t have to get nasty. Cap, you can’t bum 20 cents off a bystander? Make a collect call to the mansion? Dude, you hopped a turnstile, how much more outrageous would it be to smash open the payphone with the edge of your shield and grab some coins? Cap says he hasn’t got time for this nonsense, because he’s got to shut down the teleporter power generator now. Then why stop to try and make a call in the first place, dude? Get your star-spangled butt moving!
We cut to one of the Nth Commando teams, and we see Godwulf actually wearing clothes and sporting a wicked pornstache. He’s with Iron Butterfly and some others and they make a dash for the Baxter Building. Back with Cap, he’s thinking about how weird it is knowing Godwulf is out there leading a team bound for wiping out some of his friends and/or colleagues, but time paradoxes aren’t his thing, because he’s got timelines to save. He bursts through the Broadway branch of Metro Bank and tells the guard that hey, he’s Captain America and he’s robbing the joint, so maybe you should call the cops. He figures that the guard is probably on the level and he’ll phone the police. Only, the guard is a Brand employee and he lets DeVoor know that Cap is here.
DeVoor is confused; shouldn’t Captain America be at the Avengers meeting? But he figures it doesn’t matter, because Cap is here now and they’ve got to stop him. Down below, Rogers reaches the vault and keys in the code Godwulf gave him: 7727BVW-82. How Steve memorized that, I don’t know. Steve internally monologues that once he busts the generator, he doubts Roxxon could ever afford to make another one, and that does make some sense, but there’s more: it took Roxxon/Brand ten years to set up this plan, which included research, construction, training soldiers, and doing research on the heroes to zap them. If the plan fails and nobody knows how Cap stumbled onto it, would anyone want a repeat? Cap reaches a second door and there’s another code: 883GHS-95. Okay seriously, how is Cap memorizing these numbers? Did the Greatest Generation also have superior memories? Have my brains atrophied so much from owning a smartphone that the idea of memorizing a number longer than four digits seems daunting? Did the Super Soldier Serum also produce superior memory retention?
Nah, he probably wrote ‘em on the inside of his shield with a sharpie. Considering the tone of this story, DeMatteis and Zeck could have had a lot of fun with that. The second door opens and Cap’s feeling all cocky, and it seems things are working out pretty well for them. But then he’s confronted by a horde of Nth Commandos who aren’t out zapping superhumans, and for some reason aren’t packing heat. I guess after all the money spent on dimensional ray-guns, Roxxon couldn’t afford Glocks. But it’s okay, because I’m sure Cap is all about fair play. He’ll just wait until the guys can get some guns to give them an even playing field…
…or he’s just gonna wade through ‘em and liberally hand out concussions like they’re on sale. Cap leaves the pack behind and makes it to a hallway where ceiling-mounted lasers try to fry him. As he uses his shield to block the beams, he thinks about America and what he’s fighting for. As he uses his shield to tear through a steel door, he thinks that his being with Bernie and having friends like Josh, Jack, Anna, Arnie (and the only one among that bunch who’s memorable is Arnie Roth, based on what the Red Skull does to him later on down the line), and especially Bernie makes him appreciate the freedoms and ideals he’s fighting for even more. Cap reaches the elevator, leaving the minions behind and that’s when the gas hits. But that’s okay, because he’s got a gas mask.
God, I hope that’s a gas mask, because I can only think of one place where he could have been keeping it. The elevator takes Cap down to the chamber where the dimensional generator is.
Meanwhile at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Nth Commandos have a device set up that will knock out Professor X’s powers and render the rest of the mutants helpless for a little while. I was kind of wondering how these jokers were going to get into the mansion; claiming Wolverine ordered fifty pizzas and beers would have been my first guess. The commandos turn the device on, and they sit and wait five minutes for the D-guns to get hot. Meanwhile back with Cap, he inner monologues that as much as Godwulf knew about the security, he had no idea what would be guarding the generator. Elsewhere, a finger presses a button.
Ah, looks like the generator guards itself. Is anybody else getting a Mars Attacks! vibe here? The robot looks utterly ridiculous, but for some reason I’m digging it. It turns out the robot—I’ll call it “Ak Ak”—might look silly, but it’s anything but. It’s amazingly fast for its size, and its eye-beams are so hot that Cap can feel his shield heating up through his insulated glove. In desperation, Cap whips his shield at Ak Ak, but the robot catches it and tosses it right back at Steve, who takes it in the chest and feels some ribs go. All the while, the robot tells Cap he should just pack it in and Rogers is scared as hell. Wait, Cap scared of a robot? A silly-looking robot? I smell me some shenanigans.
Cap is on the verge of packing it in, and then maybe for the first time he directs his inspirational monologuing powers on himself. Cap gets himself all psyched up as he talks about the millions and millions of people with hopes and dreams like his, as he scrambles up Ak Ak and gives it a robot-lobotomy, smashing its dome. And it turns out it was all an illusion; the final defensive device was an illusion ray that produced negative waves. DeVoor looks on in horror as he watches the generator get smashed.
Yeah, I imagine Godwulf met a similar fate at the Baxter Building. I shudder to think what Wolverine did to the poor bastards at the X-Mansion. Later, Steve calls SHIELD and Nick Fury finds himself doing cleanup duty, hoping he can find evidence linking Nth to Brand. But Cap hasn’t got time for that, because he’s got a date to keep. Meanwhile, Bernie… okay, this is where things get weird.
And then we meet “Bernie America’s boyfriend”, AKA Steve “my balls didn’t survive being frozen in ice” Rogers:
Then Bernie wakes up and Steve is there, and everything is okay. I… have not the words to describe just how jarringly weird the last chapter of this grim and dark story is. Then again, the Deathlok Saga as a whole is kind of strange. It’s pretty much writers and editors wrapping up a story that started years earlier, with Deathlok bumming around the Marvel Universe at loose ends, so for parts of the story Captain America is a guest star in his own comic. And then it ends with Assistant Editor’s Month, so the ending feels like part of some other story entirely, like something you’d find in the back of Marvel Fanfare. Perhaps DeMatteis felt that with the subject matter, the series needed to end on a lighter note? Maybe the story ended early and DeMatteis needed several pages of filler? I admit that giving those pages mostly over to Cap repetitively punching dudes in green would have gotten old real quick, and despite myself, I admit Bernie America did make the story more memorable. And hell, I don’t think it really detracted from the tale, in part because at the time Bernie Rosenthal was one of my favorite characters, as the everywoman who had fallen in love with a hero and helped keep him grounded.
It wasn’t until I had started looking at part three that something struck me about this story. Captain America winds up heading to a dystopian future where all the heroes are gone, and he has to help rebels take down a despot, and then head back to the past to prevent that dark future from happening. It all sounded familiar. And then it hit me: this was the plot to Captain America #700.
Yes, I know the Thing and the Hulk are still around, but the essential premise is the same. Writer Mark Waid’s antagonist is “Big Baby”, who’s a stand in for Donald Trump. I’ve seen enough of the story to know it’s a pretty sad, ham-fisted parody of Trump, made all the more depressing by the fact that readers had to pay to be lectured to. Waid has turned into a sad shadow of himself; Marvel published a special #1000 issue and Mark was supposed to write a foreword, but it was so depressingly anti-American that they opted to toss it into the trash, because after the failure of the Secret Empire event comic, Marvel editors might have finally gotten it into their heads people are sick of this crap.
And maybe that’s why I love this era of Captain America so much. For years, we’ve had writers like Coates, Waid, Spencer, et al give us a downer view of both Captain America and the country for whom he’s named. I don’t pretend either the world or the United States are perfect—we have problems, and things can be better. But we’ve always had problems, and there’s always been room for improvement. It feels like we’ve had a succession of writers who look back at the Steve Englehart run of the ’70s in the wake of the Watergate scandal, when Steve had quit being Captain America, and they all think that yeah, they can top that. And then they get more negative and socially “woke”, missing the point that ultimately, Captain America finds his way back to the light and his faith in his country is reaffirmed. Writers today focus on the former, and forget the latter. So I can skip whatever sociopolitical commentary Ta Nahesi Coates is trying to sell people for $3.99; give me old school Captain America every time.