With The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s Hard-On for State Power Softening?
Since Marvel Studios took the reins of their movie universe with Iron Man, each movie has been highly militarized but, more troubling, increasingly cozy with secret government agencies employing brutal methods.
Government has always factored into superhero stories traditionally as an antagonist. The government, allowed as it is to employ force against citizens, has a bit to say about superhumans who can twist tanks into pretzels. Marvel’s Avengers movies may explore that antagonism but they have always landed with their heroes in compliance with government.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first movie where the Avengers stand in opposition to the government. Yet Marvel movies’ affection for militarization and secret government agencies is probably too strong to end completely. Consider these “Avengers”:
The War Profiteer
Iron Man is the story of a war profiteer whose perspective on his business changes once he’s captured by terrorists using weapons his company created. Escaping in a weaponized suit of armor he creates, Tony Stark vows to fight evil-doers by creating another super weapon suit.
In that first Iron Man movie, Stark’s technology is stolen by his war profiteer buddy who makes an even bigger super weapon. Iron Man 2 finds the child of a partner of Stark’s war profiteering father angry enough to create a super weapon for himself and an army of super weapons for yet another war profiteer. By Iron Man 3, terrorists have again targeted Tony Stark since he is clearly the source of all these goddamn super weapons. In saving humanity from a problem he created, Stark reveals he has an army of his own super weapons — automaton Iron Men.
Insouciant as he labors to appear, Tony Stark is never one to lay down his own arms and become an agent of peace. Though clearly his perspective on his business changed, Stark still believes that “the best weapon is the one you only have to fire once.” Says he, “That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
Has it, Tony? Every weapon he makes falls into the wrong hands privately or publicly. While his company may have ceased manufacturing wholesale weapons, he himself made a mechanical suit for his Air Force buddy that is literally christened “War Machine.”
At the end of Iron Man, a mysterious stranger arrives to recruit Tony for a secret government agency. It’s so secret, they haven’t even told their top agent what its initials stand for. Skeptical as he may pretend to be, Stark has never not been in bed with government power and he’s a little insulted when they deem him not fit for the Avenger Initiative.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, we’re introduced to Steve Rogers, a scrawny kid so brainwashed by patriotism that he allows Tony Stark’s father to conduct secret biological experiments on him in hopes of becoming big enough to fight. It’s essentially the most asshole desire anyone could have.
When the “super solider” potions succeed and he becomes stronger, faster, and nearly invulnerable, Rogers becomes a propaganda device for the military. When he tires of being a prop, Rogers gets out and starts killing bad guys.
Dressed in a flag and carrying a shield, Captain America should be a symbol of a powerful defense but his movie portrayal is plenty offensive. In his 1941 comic debut, Cap knocked out Hitler with a punch. In The First Avenger, Cap just guns down his enemies.
In Iron Man 2, we met Natasha Romanoff — aka Black Widow — an agent of the secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. that’s wooed Iron Man.
Black Widow is a key link between the individuals that will become the Avengers. Importantly, she is introduced as a part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency already. She was not previously a free agent. S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to use her as the muscle in recruiting heroes — the badder cop to Nick Fury’s bad cop. Time will reveal she’s been in some shit.
Possessing no super powers, Black Widow is a skilled martial artist but it doesn’t take much for her to resort to using guns. There’s plenty of “red in her ledger.”
It is these three “heroes” who anchor The Avengers — the leader, the spook, and the genius. Although it’s soon revealed all the Avengers are merely Nick Fury’s useful idiots.
The torment of being the Hulk has led Bruce Banner to seek solace through his humanitarian efforts in developing countries. That is, until he’s recruited to “save” the world from a problem the government created by — whom else? — that conniving former Soviet spy, Black Widow.
Likewise, Thor is an alien pursued by S.H.I.E.L.D. for their own use. He and the Hulk are weapons that S.H.I.E.L.D. is keen not to disarm but to use themselves.
Hawkeye too is a government pawn. When we first see him, he’s hunting Thor for S.H.I.E.L.D. In his first scene in The Avengers, he’s tucked away in the rafters of a secret government facility guarding the Tesseract — an alien energy source the government has stolen to weaponize.
After the Tesseract is liberated from S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury goes immediately to a secret global government council who discusses Phase 2 — their super super weapon plan. (NWO much?)
When Nick Fury approaches Captain America to help him recover his magical weapon maker, he asks if there’s anything Cap can tell him about the Tesseract. “Yeah,” Cap replies, “you should have left it at the bottom of the ocean.”
It is the beginning of Cap’s role as the sole civil libertarian in the group. Though Iron Man and Banner put him on the scent (says Stark, “an intelligence agency that fears intelligence? Historically, not awesome.”), Cap is the one who sniffs out Fury’s plans to power weapons with the Tesseract.
At that point, it is clear to anyone who is not a true believer, that S.H.I.E.L.D. and the “bad guys” are after the same thing. Fury tells his S.H.I.E.L.D. agents as soon as the Tesseract is taken from him that they are “at war.” Loki’s benefactor “the Other” tells Loki he will get the war he wants. It’s war both sides want and the Avengers are pawns as much as the Chitauri.
The heroes must eventually wage an exhaustive, violent battle to save the earth from the aliens S.H.I.E.L.D. has provoked. Yet in the end, they remain the Avengers — a quango that works for S.H.I.E.L.D. The Avengers never would have worked — S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Agent Coulson explains in his “dying” breath — “unless they had something to…[avenge].”
Coulson’s death is of course a device used by the government agency to ensure the Avengers’ loyalty. (He’s living and breathing again in the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) Nick Fury even gets Coulson’s Captain America trading cards out of his locker and smears blood on them to really sell the Avengers on avenging Coulson.
Marvel, in general, has a troublesome relationship with state power. There’s some great irony in the fact that Marvel does not own the film rights to their most rebellious characters, the X-Men. As such, they’re making do with a movie universe of bellicose statists.
Indeed, even Marvel’s comic universe is plagued by government schemes to control and regulate heroes yet, shockingly, the heroes constantly comply.
In the Civil War comics storyline, Iron Man takes the side of the politicians who have passed a law requiring heroes to register and reveal themselves. And he gets that mewling quim who could never stand up for himself, Spider-Man, to go along with him.
Captain America leads the resistance in that story arc and is indicted and subsequently assassinated by … wait for it … a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. (Spoiler alert: she’s his blonde neighbor in Winter Soldier.)
It’s not so much that Marvel’s universes feature heroes working with government agents that is troubling but those heroes’ complicity with violent, secretive power. Their “heroes” carry guns and kill people. Lots of people.
The heroes of Marvel movies have become “true believers” — the term Eric Hoffer gave to “the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause” and coincidentally, what Stan Lee calls his followers.
The Unfrozen Patriot
Finally, in Captain America: the Winter Solider, Cap sees what any sensible person knew five movies ago: S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra are essentially the same organization.
As the movie begins, Marvel and their heroes are still worshipping secretive, militaristic state power. Marvel even retconned Falcon to give him a military background instead of his reformed-criminal / social worker origin from the comics.
Nick Fury casually mentions that Tony Stark has helped S.H.I.E.L.D. build flying warships that will float above cities and murder anyone they anticipate will cause trouble. That’s not even a secret. All that changes in the course of the movie is that Cap learns Hydra has been controlling S.H.I.E.L.D. from within.
So what is the difference? Time and again we see in Marvel’s movie universe the same inconsistent belief we see in real life “true believers” — that there is good government power and bad. But this is a false dichotomy. Government power is government power. If one supports some of it, one supports all of it.
This is why we put limits on state power and why we oppose government secrecy in a democracy. The only way to rein in government’s power is by making it as transparent as possible. Therefore, Black Widow leaks all S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files including those of her own spying past onto the internet as a means of preventing Hydra’s ability to sprout a new head.
Yet, in the dénouement to the movie, we see the “bad guys” getting arrested by more government agents who could be part of Hydra for all we know! And then there’s Nick Fury — possibly the man with the most red in his ledger — who doesn’t seem to learn his lesson despite being killed earlier in the film by his S.H.I.E.L.D. / Hydra compatriots. If anyone needs to head to a developing country to perform humanitarian work, it is he. Yet he marches off to be more secret than a secret agent.
Contrast Marvel’s universe with DC’s Gotham City. Gotham’s superhero protector, Batman, doesn’t comply with government agents. He sometimes allows government agents to comply with him.
State power in Batman’s Gotham is acknowledged to be corrupt. While Bruce Wayne has a personal reason to become a vigilante, it is also a social imperative: there is literally no state agency that will help him find justice.
Batman struggles on with his code. He refuses to become like the criminals or the state. He will not use guns and he will not kill. State agents are his useful idiots. He’s not trying to implement “order” — a fool’s errand that statists / tyrants like S.H.I.E.L.D. / Hydra are constantly pursuing. He’s just eliminating those who use force against good people.
His sometimes antagonist, Catwoman, isn’t really his “enemy” but another vigilante agent with a different code — one that’s highly sympathetic. She’s an anarchist acting in her own self-interest. This is why she’s easier to accept as an ally to Batman than Black Widow is to Captain America.
What Batman realized is that it’s not super powers that make a superhero but the willingness to act super-legally. Batman’s stories on screen and on page are compelling because they are about the essence of being a superhero. The system is broken. If you want justice or solutions, you have to make them yourself.
Marvel’s “heroes” — at least in their movies up til now — are just rock stars, bratty valedictorians, class clowns. They are sycophants who seem to embody rebellion but really follow orders of the state within the system because that’s who got them where they are. Tony Stark was always a weapons maker. Howard Stark and the Army gave Steve Rogers his power. A state trained Natasha Romanoff. Government experiments created the Hulk. Falcon learned his skill and acquired his wings through the military. And Nick Fury… that guy has been in the bureaucratic military machine since the 40s.
Here’s hoping Captain America picks up his shield, puts down his gun, and becomes a conscientious objector. Superhero lore needs more independent thinkers, more skeptics, and more rebels. I’m just not counting on them from Marvel.