Captain America is one of Marvel’s very first superheroes, created by Joe Simon and Jacky Kirby all the way back in World War II when Marvel was still being called Timely. Kirby was just 24 at the time, but would go on to become probably the greatest comic book artist of all time. Still, Captain America would always stand tall as one of his finest creations, a man who was brought to the peak of physical perfection by a war-time experiment, but whose real super powers would always be his courage and determination.
Captain America more or less disappeared from comics after the war was over, but was brought back a few decades later to lead the Avengers and become a source of excitement and inspiration for a whole new generation of readers. These days, he’s best known as one of the surest box office draws in Hollywood history, as Chris Evans has suited up to the tune of billions for what might just be the standout series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But it hasn’t always been fireworks and apple pies for the shield slinger. Captain America’s been around since 1941 and in that time, he has lived through some American nightmares. Some of them have called on Cap to summon all of his considerable strength to overcome, and some are honestly just better off forgotten. Here are 15 of Cap’s worst, most WTF moments.
15. The time he was turned into a werewolf
We begin with one of the most infamous moments in Cap’s history. While the Captain America of today and yesteryear has always lent himself to grand, political epics, past writers have seen him as an avenue for gonzo sci-fi stories. (This won’t be the only time we see an example of this on the list here.)
The ‘90s were not a good time for superhero comics, but this story was uniquely and distinctly awful by any standard. After being captured by the villainous Nightshade in a story by Mark Guenwald, Cap was injected with a serum that turned him into a werewolf with only the faintest memories of his life as an Avenger, a tattered uniform, a lot of howling and slobbering and some gratuitous guest appearances from Wolverine.
Nightshade was always trying out weird experiments on Captain America – she once captured him and tried to turn him into a woman. That plan failed, but even if it had succeeded, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the weirdest thing to ever happen to Cap. Perhaps more shocking than the fact that Cap was turned into a werewolf at all was that Marvel left him that way for four whole issues.
14. The time he wore a terrible ’90s exoskeleton version of his costume
One of the unshakeable rules of the Marvel Universe is that if you were a superhero in the ‘90s, you had to wear a stupid exoskeleton at some point. Captain America is subject to the same laws as everyone else, so via a story by Mark Guenwald in which Cap’s Super Soldier Serum faded from his bloodstream, Tony Stark created a cybernetic eyesore that kept Cap alive at the high cost of looking like a star-spangled idiot. He probably wouldn’t have even got through the front door of Comic-Con in this getup, yet managed to lead the Avengers for six whole months in it without anyone ever once laughing right in his chrome-plated face.
13. The time he had his past re-written to make him a covert Hydra agent
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months (and after 2016, who could blame you?), you’re aware that Steve Rogers is basically a Marvel supervillain now, although he’s managed to keep up appearances as a good guy.
It all has to do with the most recent time he lost his Super Soldier Serum, and had to have it replaced by Kobik, the human personification of the Cosmic Cube. Unbeknownst to anyone, Kobik was working for the Red Skull, and when she turned Steve Rogers back into a musclebound dreamboat famous around the world, she also rewrote his history, making him a longtime covert Hydra agent.
Fans didn’t like the move. Writer Nick Spencer got death threats. But the story has given Captain America a subversive political edge, and helped Spencer explore the dark side of the American dream, using one of pop culture’s most famously patriotic symbols. It’s been rough for Cap. It’s been a good story for his fans.
12. The time he learned President Nixon was a traitor
Marvel was facing some tough choices with Captain America during the Watergate scandal. The character had made a lot of sense back when he was first created on a wave of feverish patriotism during World War II, but the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration brought the American spirit to an all-time low, and fans grew uninterested in buying a comic about a superhero who represented a country nobody was all that jazzed on at the time.
Writer Steve Englehart decided to lean into the problem by making Steve Rogers grow disillusioned with his country too. During a storyline called “Secret Empire,” Cap uncovers an evil plot to take over America. As he investigates, he eventually learns that the conspiracy went all the way to the top. The comic showed Cap unmasking the evil leader of the revolution and depicted his horror at learning who it truly was. The comic never stated or showed it directly, but the implication was pretty clear: it was Tricky Dicky himself.
11. The time he lost his Super Soldier Serum
Captain America has lost his Super Soldier Serum a few times, turning him back into the scrawny runt with lousy genes he was back before enlisting in World War II. But a recent arc featuring the evil Iron Nail went one worse, sucking Cap’s serum out of his blood which sapped both his giant muscles and his eternal youth, leaving him little more than a super schmo.
During this period, Steve Rogers — looking like a 90-year-old he actually is — became more of an Avenger strategist, calling the shots over a radio from his wheelchair in between Bingo rounds. To be fair, nobody is more qualified than he is for the job, but he sure didn’t seem to enjoy it much. How would you feel if you’d gotten used to being a perfect specimen of peak physical potential only to be reduced to some old guy bumbling around the Avengers mansion with Jarvis talking about your old adventures as Captain fricken America?
10. The time he was lost in Zola’s Dimension Z for 12 years
This is a weird one so strap yourself in. During a run by Rick Remender, Captain America found himself abducted by a Marvel bad guy b-lister known as Arnim Zola and trapped in a wonky post-apocalyptic hellscape of an alternate dimension called Dimension Z, populated by bizarre war-like tribes of freaky aliens. That’s just another Tuesday for most superheroes, but this arc set itself apart because it had Cap stuck in this dimension for twelve years.
That’s a tough sentence. It was long enough for Cap to adopt a surrogate son and create an agrarian life for himself as a farmer of extraterrestrial veggies, while always maintaining a Mad Max-esque readiness to throw down if anyone wanted to push him to it. Of course, after twelve years in hell, SHIELD showed up to rescue Cap. But in our world, it’s only been a few minutes since he disappeared, so Cap returned from his otherworldly nightmare realm to a bunch of friends he hadn’t seen in over a decade and who were never even aware he’d left. All told, Cap spent more time in Dimension Z than he has with the Avengers.
9. The time he lost Bucky Barnes
For years, Cap’s greatest tragedy was the first one we heard about when he re-appeared in the pages of The Avengers in the ‘60s. After spending years becoming America’s living legend as Nazi Germany’s greatest enemy, Captain America and his kid sidekick Bucky Barnes were caught in an explosion that seemed to send Bucky to a watery grave.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier made it clear that Bucky survived the blast, but for decades, Bucky’s death was one of the few permanent demises in comic books, and it lent an air of tragedy to Cap. He would be slow to trust other, younger Avengers, having seen how quickly and easily they can be taken. Steve Rogers is nothing if not a soldier, and what soldier isn’t haunted by loss?
Of course, both the comics and the movies eventually revealed that Bucky had survived the war and became the legendary assassin known as the Winter Soldier. But that didn’t happen until the ‘00s, which must be some sort of record for how long a superhero stayed dead.
8. The time he got killed after Civil War
As we’ve noted before, Captain America has “died” a lot. He’s been killed by Thanos. He’s been killed by the Grim Reaper. He’s been killed by Korvac, the Beyonder and Onslaught. However, there’s only been one arc in history known as “The Death of Captain America,” and that death came at the hand of a mindwiped Sharon Carter.
It was right after Marvel’s original Civil War, when Steve Rogers turned himself over to the police, having developed a guilty conscience over all the superhero fisticuffs. That’s why he was handcuffed when Crossbones shot him, and his hypnotized girlfriend Sharon delivered a few secret, killing shots when she “ran to his aid.”
Of course, it turned out that these were special bullets made by the Red Skull that just froze Cap in space and time or something, so he was back in action soon enough. Still a pretty terrible thing to have happen to you.
7. The time he had his body cloned by the Red Skull
We haven’t talked much about the Red Skull in this post so far, which is odd because the Skull has been making Cap’s life miserable since before most of us were born. This whole list could honestly just be filled with the evil garbage the Red Skull’s been pulling over the past 70 years but let’s limit ourselves. One of the worst things the Skull ever did was clone the body of Steve Rogers so he could have it for himself.
There was a time when the Skull was bad news, but not much of a physical threat. He’d dream up some crazy world exploding weapon and would get close to using it, but Cap would always show up and beat him senseless. Those were happier times, because the Skull now has Rogers’ body, meaning he’s Cap’s physical equal. (Of course, he now has Professor X’s brain too, meaning he’s a pain in the ass no matter how you slice it.)
6. The time he was drawn by Rob Liefeld
Red Skull. Superia. Baron Zemo. Cap’s had his fair share of enemies throughout his existence, but perhaps no foe has been as cruel and relentless as comic book artist Rob Liefeld. Cap’s not the only foe to have fallen prey to Liefeld’s stylings (Cable, Deadpool, Domino and many others have all met tragic fates at his hand), but his designs for Cap’s body truly veer into the sadistic.
For a while, Rob Liefeld was the most in-demand comic book artist in the world. We can chalk that up to the ‘90s being a weird time and everyone being too busy fretting about the WMDs to pay much attention to comics. Liefeld took over the industry with some truly baffling ideas about the human body, its capabilities and proportions. In his world, every woman had the ability to survive without internal organs, which explains why their waists are no bigger than their wrists. Men, in the meantime …well, just look at this picture. This was Captain America’s actual body size for a few years there, and that he survived is a testament to his incredible will.
5. The time he accidentally got high on meth
This list has been pretty tough on the ‘90s, but that’s only because comic books in the ’90s were insane. Frank Miller had proved that superheroes could be an avenue to talk about serious societal issues, but not everyone was as good at it as Miller was at the time. Case in point, Cap ends up fighting some bad guys at a warehouse and inhales a bunch of meth. Let’s just say he was not a natural.
Cap was flailing out of his mind and roamed the streets like a psychopath, unshaved and bug-eyed, yelling at anyone who looked like they wanted a fight and a lot of people who didn’t.
This was all Marvel’s way of telling a “very special episode”-type moral lesson about the dangers of drug use, which is all well and good. But this story seemed to have been written by a group of concerned parents whose idea of drugs was that they made you squawk chicken noises. That surely was the nadir of Cap’s career. Or it would have been, except for …
4. The time he was played by J.D. Salinger’s son in a godawful 1990 movie
If you’re not already aware of Marvel’s 1990 attempt at a Captain America movie, consider yourself lucky. Watching it today, it is a genuine astonishment that a group of alleged professionals would devote time, energy and resources to create this and then at some point or another decide that, yes, indeed, their part in this movie’s creation was complete and ready to be delivered to the viewing public.
The role of Captain America went to Matt Salinger, son of Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, who would never again be seen after his son’s movie was released because he was so justifiably ashamed. There’s sadly not much information out there about how Matt Salinger was picked for the role, but the real mystery is why the film’s producers didn’t try to get their star’s dad to give the script a quick edit. Nobody gave the script any edits at all, judging by the finished product In fact, it’s entirely possible there was no script, and the first Captain America movie was just an experimental improvisation by a lot of people who had heard of Captain America but didn’t actually know anything about him. This unmitigated catastrophe is only called a “movie” because more accurate words aren’t fit for polite conversation, and it’s straight up amazing that a movie this bad had the same source material as a movie as good as Captain America: Winter Soldier.
3. The time he lost his shield
Cap’s shield is an interesting weapon, a gimmicky World War II prop that has nevertheless become an iconic part of the character. It’s a rallying totem, made of unbreakable (mostly) vibranium and obeys the laws of physics about as faithfully as you obey the speed limit.
Cap’s had his shield broken a few times and, currently, he’s loaned it out to Sam Wilson. But during Mark Waid’s Heroes Return storyline, Cap actually lost his shield at the bottom of the ocean when a bomb tore its straps. The next few months saw Steve experimenting with both a nifty, high-tech Tony Stark-crafted replacement and his original, triangular number from World War II, but neither lived up to the genuine article. The shield was eventually found by War Machine, and returned to its rightful owner (though not before it had to be “fixed” because of some whole “vibranium cancer” thing. It’s a long story.)
2. The time he started a superhero Civil War
Whose side are you on? That was the question Marvel asked during their first Civil War crossover event nearly ten years ago, when Captain America and Iron Man led two teams of superheroes against each other over a “superhero registration act.” 2016’s film adaptation borrowed heavily from the arc and even improved upon it by making Bucky’s friendship the emotional motivation for Captain America’s insurrection.
In the comics, Captain America’s stance is entirely one of principle, which is admirable in its own way, but sure does cause a lot of violence and chaos over something that seems like it could have been hashed out over coffee. Instead, Marvel’s Civil War led to Goliath being killed by a Thor clone, Spider-Man being beaten within an inch of his life by the Thunderbolts, Captain America himself nearly getting killed by Iron Man, Spider-Man getting unmasked in public (which indirectly led to him making a deal with the devil to erase his marriage from history in order to save his Aunt May), and Sue Richards leaving Reed, which is like the superhero version of Beyonce walking out on Jay Z. So, yeah, good intentions notwithstanding, Cap created a real mess here.
1. The 50 years he was frozen in ice
And so we finish with the granddaddy of Captain America’s terrible life: the time he was frozen on ice for …how long exactly? It sort of depends on who’s asking. The exact date of Captain America’s revival is continually updated, since time is the only thing more fluid in superhero comics than death. There’s sort of an unspoken rule around Marvel that it’s been about seven years since the Fantastic Four first got bombarded by cosmic rays and kicked off earth’s golden age of superheroes. That would mean that, at this point, Captain America was frozen alive for around 60-ish years, even though it had only been about 20 back when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first thawed him out in the pages of The Avengers.
Twenty years or sixty, that’s a rough blow, and it’s been the defining element of Cap’s life ever since. He remains a man out of time, someone who was raised in a very different era of the United States, which has instilled a very different perspective in him. He still believes in this country, believes in the people in it, and even believes that there’s a lot of good that can come from its highest ideals.
Any other terrible moments in Cap’s life that we missed? Let us know in the comments!