I grew up loving superheroes. I think most boys from my generation did.
When I was very young I was convinced that a friend and I were actually aliens. The fact that we both had dark hair but were tow-head blondes as toddlers were all the proof I needed. I thought I had powers, amazing powers, powers akin to what the superheroes in the comics had. Eventually, I outgrew this.
Some of my most vivid memories of dreams as a child were about flying. It always struck me that it was not easy to fly in my dreams. It was a feat of will and concentration. That somehow made it feel more real. Things in life are a struggle. As a child, I somehow knew that. There was a part of me that felt that with the proper will and concentration I would be able to fly in real life and not just in my dreams. I outgrew this as well.
My “alien” friend and I later invented our own alien races which we would continually draw and invent stories about. This went on for about five years. Most of my early drawing memories are about these creatures or others that somehow fit into the stories we would invent.
In Junior High, this fantasy life was dying down and my drawing turned more toward comic strip style drawings and superhero drawings. Superheroes were a slightly more mature outworking of my childhood fantasy life. Further, they were supported by comic books, afterschool cartoons, and Saturday morning cartoons. To this day, if someone says or sings “Spiderman, Spiderman…” my natural next thought is “does whatever a spider can.” That theme song from the Spiderman cartoon is ingrained in my head every bit as deeply as the words to Amazing Grace.
When I was young, superheroes were for the young. They existed in cartoons and in comic books; but with my generation, superheroes began to grow up. Comics became darker and grittier. The development of graphic novels allowed the comic book medium to grow up even more, but not fully. However, the development of the superhero movie industry has changed that. There has been at least one superhero movie released every year since 1988, with the exception of 2001. Fifteen superhero movies to date have grossed half a billion dollars with four (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Iron Man 3) breaking a billion. The Avengers has so far been the highest-grossing superhero movie breaking the one-and-a-half billion mark and stands as the third highest-grossing movie of all time. Box office success does not equal quality; but, it does show the connection that superhero movies are making with the broader culture. That said, the superhero movies of today are often not the cheesy movies of my childhood. They are large-budget films with tremendous special effects, quality writing, and excellent acting.
The Marvel movies, of recent years, have taken a cue from the comics by adopting narrative arcs that unify multiple franchises. The 2012 movie, the Avengers, unified the worlds of the Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor movies. This expansive approach to storytelling has even resulted in the spin-off ABC television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which has dialogued with both the recent Thor and Captain America films. While this cross-dialogue adds depth to the narrative and is intriguing, the Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie functions fully as an independent film. The viewer gains increased insight from a broader awareness of the Marvel Universe but the plot also stands independently.
Early in the film, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Captain America, leads a mission to free a ship that has been captured by terrorists. The rescue goes well except that at one point Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson), the Black Widow, deviates from the pan to download S.H.I.E.L.D. (an international espionage and law enforcement agency) files from the ship’s computers. This begins some questioning for Rogers about his purpose and association with S.H.I.E.L.D. Romanoff was not acting on her own. She was actually following orders from S.H.I.E.L.D. director, Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), about which Rogers had not been informed.
Rogers confronts Fury about his secrecy and lack of trust but to no avail. In an attempt to share and assuage Roger’s concerns, Fury shows him a secret hangar where three new Helicarriers (essentially aircraft carriers that fly) are being constructed. The carriers have tremendous offensive power and Fury mentions to Rogers the ability to stop threats before they materialize. Rogers shows concern about this sort of preventative strategy and accuses Fury of “holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection.”
Through a series of events, it is revealed that Hydra, the organization which Captain America fought during World War II and which was long thought defunct, had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and usurped the plans for the Helicarriers. Hydra was instead planning to use the Helicarriers to murder twenty million people who would potentially stand against them in their quest to bring security to the world. This security, though, necessitates the abrogation of individual freedom. The balance of the film uncovers how Captain America and his compatriots uncover and fight to ultimately thwart the plans of Hyrda.
A Modern Mythology
Joseph Campbell wrote at the beginning of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished, and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.” Whatever one believes about Campbell’s broader theories on mythology the importance of myth seems clear. However, we must remember that myth does not simply mean, as many assume, untrue. A myth serves to reveal a part of a people’s worldview and to embody the ideals and aspirations of that people. So, to claim that Amazing Grace grows out of Christian mythology is not to claim that the Christian narrative is false but to acknowledge that the song embodies the beliefs and ideals of the Christian people. Superheroes, likewise, embody the beliefs and aspirations of modern American people.
Historically, maybe more than any other superhero, Captain America is tied directly to the ideals of a nation. Captain America first appeared in comics in 1941 and fought the Nazis. During the early forties, he was directly linked to important notions of patriotism. Following the war, he switched to fighting communist threats but during the fifties fell out of fashion. It wasn’t until the late sixties that Captain America was revived as a part of the Avengers storyline. He is a uniquely American Hero. He is synonymous with the bravery, work ethic, and devotion that we associate with The Greatest Generation of which he was a part. But, in this movie we see him try and reconcile with a world that is very different. In the end, though, Captain America and the other heroes embody the honesty, loyalty, goodness, and authenticity that the contemporary American ethos idealizes.
A Complicated World
The World of 2014 is in many ways more complicated than the world of the 1940s. That is even truer of Marvel’s version of reality.
One of the wonderful developments within Marvel movies is the ability to involve tremendous actors. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury brings an engaging arrogance that makes you both love and hate him. Scarlet Johansson as the Black Widow delicately balances wit, confidence, and vulnerability that makes this former Russian spy and assassin an incredibly rich and compelling character. She manages to at one moment shock the viewers with her deadliness, then charm them with the banter she has with Steve Rogers about finding a date, and then draw them in emotionally when she whispers “don’t do this to me” at the death of Nick Fury or when she simultaneously with confidence and humility admits to Rogers that she “only pretends she knows everything.” Her performance is the emotional lubricant on which the film relies.
Chris Evans also gives a convincing performance as Captain America. So many of us think of the Captain as a serious and able leader. The soldier of soldiers. But, Evans humanizes him. In battle, he is confident, assured, and decisive. In his personal life, however, he questions himself and his purpose. His world has changed and we see and feel his struggle to adapt. His dementia-ridden, elderly former girlfriend Peggy (Hayley Atwell), in a moment of lucidity, profoundly states, “The world has changed and none of us can go back.” We see in Evan’s performance the struggle to move forward in a world he barely understands. A world where one of his closest allies, the Black Widow, believes, “The truth is a matter of circumstance. It isn’t all things to all people at all times.” The black-and-white world of Roger’s past is gone. At one point when the Black Widow and Captain America are on the run and they have discovered the Hydra plot, she comments about how happy he seems to which he admits that it is nice to know who he is fighting. This is the world he is used to. A world where he knows his enemy. There is some pleasure in it. Even if in the wake of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s infiltration he is uncertain about who his friends are, he can at least know his enemy.
Often the enemy is what really makes a movie compelling. It is not uncommon for a superhero movie to be about a super-powered hero fighting against a super-powered villain. The gratuitous class between Superman and General Zod in the Man of Steel (2013) comes to mind. But, the enemy in Winter Soldier is very different. The organization Hydra has survived its Nazi roots and unbeknownst to all infiltrated the highest levels of government and S.H.I.E.L.D. Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) is a member of the World Security Council that governs S.H.I.E.L.D. and a longtime friend of Director Nick Fury. In fact, he appointed Fury as director. At age 77, Redford does not play a physically intimidating figure. Especially compared with Captain America or any of the other superheroes. But, his cunning and subterfuge balance his physical frailty. His charm and intelligence make him just as much a threat at the Winter Soldier (Sabastian Stan) who he commands. To complicate matters, Pierce was once a good friend of Fury. Their relationship was so close that Fury proclaimed, “I would have taken a bullet for you.” The Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes the former best friend of Steve Rogers who Rogers thought had died during World War II. Even once Rogers knows who his enemy is his decisions are still complicated in a way they were not seventy years earlier. In both cases, the viewer is torn when it comes to the villains. With Bucky it is because he is being controlled and there is a hope that he can be saved. With Pierce there is an initial attraction to his charisma and the acting mystique of Redford which leaves the viewer feeling betrayed.
Post 9/11 and the NSA
The world changed on September 11, 2001. How does a Hero from World War II deal with the world as it is today? And by extension, how do we? Hydra scientist Arnim Zola whose mind has been preserved in an aging computer explains to Rogers and Romanoff that Hydra has been working behind the scene for years causing conflict and strife. The goal of Hydra is to bring order and security to the world but they believe that to do so they must sacrifice freedom. Zola explained that Hydra thought in the 1940s that they could take people’s freedom but they realized that “Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly.” This is the very tension in which America has been living since 9/11. How do we balance security and freedom? Hydra developed an algorithm to determine threats before they manifested so that they could be eliminated. This is obviously an extreme but in some ways very similar to what we face with current NSA spying on American citizens. Lives are not being taken by the NSA but rights are being trampled in the name of security. There are so many examples of the United States and the world dealing with these very questions over the last thirteen years. We struggle with how to answer them as do the characters in the movie. In the end, in the moment of crisis. They decide what best serves the public interest is transparency. To bring down Hydra they have to sacrifice S.H.I.E.L.D. Romanoff releases all S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra documents to the world decimating the intelligence infrastructure of the United States. She is in some ways the Marvel version of Edward Snowden. She is even called before congress to testify and is threatened with jail. But unlike Snowden, the Black Widow, Captain America, and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are not expendable. Romanoff in a striking moment of transparency admits to Rogers that she thought she was “going straight” when she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. As she says, “I thought I knew whose lies I was telling. But, I guess I don’t know how to tell the difference anymore.” This is a penetrating question in a post-9/11 world where it is difficult to identify our enemy and where a nation’s intelligence apparatus may be turned on its own people.
The Government as the Enemy
One fear that permeates contemporary politics is the fear of government as the enemy. Like Captain America, we are more comfortable with an enemy we can identify. Since Ronald Reagan, there has been an increasing view of the political right of the Government as the enemy. On the political left, this has also been a concern. Historically in the McCarthy era and more recently with some post-9/11 responses, there is the concern that the government is willing to abridge far too many rights. With Hydra, this concern becomes very real. It is the enemy within that is the real danger. The greatest threat to humanity became those whom humanity had tasked with protecting it. For Hydra, the Helicarriers were power. But, their greatest power was knowledge and information. In the movie when Captain America decided that the secrets had to stop and that S.H.I.E.L.D. had to be sacrificed to preserve the freedom it was established to protect, he made a very democratic decision. He chose to release the information to the people. Captain America had been frustrated by the compartmentalization and distrust of Director Fury. His solution was to embrace the opposite position. He chose to protect freedom not through secrecy but through transparency.
These are live debates today. Is the government friend or foe and how? Must freedom be sacrificed for security? Who controls and has access to the information? How do we navigate a path forward in a rapidly changing world? Is Captain America’s solution too simplistic for real-life application? Maybe. But, like so many Americans he is struggling to bring twentieth-century values to bear on twenty-first-century problems.
Redemption and Judgment
Pierce and The Winter Soldier are former friends of Nick Fury and Steve Rogers respectively. They are the two primary villains in the movie and they meet very different fates.
Alexander Pierce was the conniving leader of Hydra who distorted the principles of S.H.I.E.L.D. and betrayed his friends and country. He, in full knowledge, made his choices and plotted to murder millions of people and remove the freedom of those who survived. His primary weapon had been subterfuge and Romanoff used this weapon to foil his plans. Together with Nick Fury, they foiled his plans. Like the classic comic book bad guy, he was prone to gloat, which lead to one of the funnier lines when after Romanoff interrupted his gloating to turn the table on him she quipped, “I’m sorry. Did I step on your moment?” Again stereotypically, he did not let things end easily. He turned the tables once again on Romanoff and Fury through his cunning and forward planning. Ultimately though through quick thinking, they regained control of the situation and Fury ended up killing Pierce providing a real, though expected, sense of closure and justice for the viewer.
The Winter Soldier was very different though. Rogers had learned that he was his old friend Bucky, though Bucky had no recollection of Rogers, and feared that he would not be able to do what was needed. The Falcon even advised Captain America that The Winter Soldier seemed like the type of guy you stop not the type you save. When the two met in the final battle Rogers was able to fight Bucky for the sake of the millions whose lives were at stake. However after the crisis was averted, Rogers returned to save Bucky who was trapped under rubble on the dying Helicarrier. Once he was freed the Winter Soldier turned on Captain America. Rogers refused to fight because Bucky was his friend but Bucky saw Rogers only as a mission. Rogers then in defiant defeat said “Then finish it,” and then quoting something Bucky had said to him years before, “because, I am with you until the end of the line.” At that moment, there was recognition in Bucky’s eyes. But, the floor gave out and they both fell to the river below. Bucky saves Rogers from the river and then walks off into the distance hinting to the viewer that there may be the hope of redemption for Bucky. In the second section of bonus footage, after the credits, Bucky is seen in the Smithsonian Captain America exhibit looking at the display about him indicating even more that there is the hope of redemption and even reconciliation.
Despite all that had been done to Bucky and the experiments which had destroyed his mind so that he performed actions that were contrary to his character and made it so he could not recognize his lifelong friend, there is a chance for his redemption. In many ways, the fate of Pierce and the hope of a second chance for Bucky are trite resolutions to the problem of the villain. However, when viewing the superheroes as contemporary myths they are completely fitting resolutions—judgment for the unrepentant and a second chance for those who have been taken advantage of. What could better reflect the hopes and beliefs of contemporary America?
A time for Miracles
One of the most potent lines of the movie actually comes during the first set of bonus footage shown between two portions of the credits. The viewer sees a hidden Hydra research facility where the plot points of future films are foreshadowed. When looking at a pair of super-powered twins that the scientists had apparently created the lead Hyrda agent, Baron von Strucker, says, “It’s not a world of spies anymore, not even a world of heroes. This is the age of miracles, doctor. There is nothing more horrifying than a miracle!”
The world has changed from the time of Captain America, Hydra, and World War II. It is a time of promise and miracles. But, there is something terrible about that promise about that potential. We normally associate miracles with a positive term. But, there is also a dark side. A potential for good and for evil. Maybe it could be said that there is nothing more horrifying than the distortion of that promise to evil. The world is complicated. Hopefully, this ending line points to Marvel’s further exploration of this complexity in future movies.