This weekend, superhero sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be slinging his mighty shield around a multiplex near you:
I think it looks terrific, but then I would say that: I’ve been a Captain America fan for most of my life. This may seem odd coming from a Chomsky-chomping left-leaner like myself, but I devoured his comic-book adventures as a kid and have no problem reconciling a lifelong fondness for the character with a lifelong disdain for certain American institutions, administrations and assholes. To me, Captain America – when handled right, at least – is an idealised representation of all the things I like and respect about the US. On a more practical level, this patriotic hero with his trademark shield was one of the few comic characters that an 80s kid growing up in working class North Birmingham could easily identify with. It wasn’t a place known for its rich abundance of radioactive spiders, Gamma Bomb explosions and high-tech suits of armour, but dustbin lids were everywhere.
In case you missed it, the first Captain America film told the story of Steve Rogers, an impoverished, idealistic, wartime weakling who longed to join the US Army and beat the Goddamn Shit out of Nazis. Unfortunately, the US Army of the 1940s wasn’t in the business of recruiting scrawny streaks of piss, so Steve signed up for a top secret government ‘Super Soldier’ project that transformed him into a well cut, star-spangled fighting machine with an all-purpose circular shield. After several years of successfully beating the Goddamn Shit out of Nazis, he found himself frozen in a block of ice only to reawaken in the modern era, just in time for The Avengers film.
The typical Birmingham cinemagoer will probably have a reasonable grasp of Captain America’s backstory thanks to the phenomenal success of Marvel Studios’ franchise of interconnected movies. Some may even realise that Marvel Comics has its very own UK-based patriotic superhero called – you guessed it – Captain Britain. In contrast to his US counterpart’s humble origins, Captain Britain was an aristocratic Home Counties chap who got hand-picked by Merlin (yes, that Merlin) to be this country’s champion. During the mid-80s his adventures were written by comics legend Alan Moore (who once described the character as ‘a cosmic Ken Barlow’), and his origin story probably says more about the endemic unfairness of the British class system than any of its creators originally realised.
But if Birmingham-based cinemagoers (at least, those who didn’t spend their childhood brandishing dustbin lids) want a Marvel superhero they can really identify with then they’ll have to look elsewhere. Luckily, an ideal candidate already exists.
His name? Captain Midlands.
Yes, that sprawling and overpopulated metafictional monstrosity that is the Marvel Comics Universe actually contains a patriotic, shield-slinging, living legend of World War II who is also a Brummie. If the likes of Captains America and Britain are (in the language of the aviation industry) national flag-carriers, then Captain Midlands is (in the argot of social media) a hyperlocal hero.
As you might expect, the character shares a similar wartime backstory to his more illustrious American counterpart, with Brummie Sid Riley signing up for Britain’s answer to Project: Super Soldier (presumably called ‘Project: Bostin’ Battler’). Unlike Captain America, though, he wasn’t cryogenically preserved in a block of ice but instead grew old and increasingly uncouth and belligerent. More Steve Bruce than Steve Rogers, he became Marvel Comics’ version of some miserable old scrote on the number 11 bus, a super-powered senior citizen with a Pumping Iron-era Schwarzenegger physique.
Unlike his A-List counterparts who habitually deal with big name supervillains and interplanetary threats, Captain Midlands spends most of his time rehabilitating low-level ASBO types and battling tower block crack dens. To put it another way, he’s a sort of meta-human Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator. And while the big shot patriotic heroes represent some kind of noble, nationalistic ideal, Captain Midlands is a lot more – shall we say – down to earth. In fact, one character memorably describes him as “the only super soldier I know who complains about his piles.”
As you might have guessed, I’m rather fond of him, too.
I was introduced to the character in Marvel comic called Captain Britain & MI-13 during a storyline called – I shit you not – ‘Hell Comes to Birmingham’. It featured Captain Britain, Captain Midlands and Blade the Vampire Slayer (yes, that one) battling a monstrous psychic critter that terrorised the good people of Hodge Hill. It’s a cracking yarn written by Paul Cornell (who also penned several of my favourite David Tennant-era Doctor Who episodes) and I recommend it highly, particularly if you’ve got fond memories of dustbin lids.
With another big-budget Captain America movie almost upon us, it’s probably unlikely that Birmingham’s own hyperlocal hero will ever get a similar big screen treatment. Yet, in a world where just about every comic book character has been optioned for a lucrative movie deal, maybe it’s only a matter of time before we hear Captain Midlands complain about his piles in a multiplex near you.
Somebody should give Shane Meadows a call.