The glut of American superhero films that continue to dominate the US box office have proven time and again to provide a rich and repeated diagnoses of post-9/11 American power. Whether showing an empowered Spider-Man triumphantly swinging between NYC buildings, depicting Bruce Wayne going all Patriot Act to save Gotham from being subsumed in terror, witnessing Iron Man privatize the defense industry, or simply blowing up iconic buildings ad nauseum, these films have served – sometimes with surprising depth – as startling funhouse mirrors for 21st century values, sentiment, and fears as they bear upon the politics and iconography of armed defense and homeland security.
But no other film in this endless cycle of cinematic behemoths has explored with such clarity and precision the larger paranoia-industrial complex as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Marvel Studios’ Iron Man series has been remarkably consistent in depicting the essential complicity of a domestic for-profit defense sector that benefits wholesale from the circulation of weapons to anyone who desires them. The major bad guys of the Iron Man series (most pointedly in the last two films) have, tellingly, always turned out to be American suits, not the more spectacular villains who they hide behind.
But the newest Captain America entry does the reverse, staging a paranoid thriller in which the bureaucracy that the hero most depends on is also that which produces the most profound threat.
The fact that the principal suit this time around is played by Robert Redford seems to be no accident. In the context of this film – and its decisive tonal shift from a playfully revisionist historical spectacle – Redford’s presence evokes the political paranoia that shaped cinema so thoroughly in the 1970s, from his work in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor to other man-against-the-system yarns like Coppola’s The Conversation and Pakula’s The Parallax View.
In fact, the Warren Beatty-starring Parallax View closely resembles The Winter Soldier’s overall structure, as it shows how one man uncovers a corporate conspiracy in which the complicit are not an enemy abroad, but domestics in power, after being subjected to the strange human engineering experiments of said corporation.
Such thrillers were released after an exodus of trust in American institutions from the executive branch to the US military in the face of presidential corruption, exhaustive spying, regular assassination plots, and an unjust war. American paranoia was hardly a new tradition, but by the ‘70s that culturally expressed paranoia belonged to the American New Left and its distrust of centralized domestic power rather than the Right’s evergreen distrust in foreign power since the onset of the Cold War.
Charming offhand references to Marvin Gaye in tow, The Winter Soldier feels downright anachronistic at times in its reclamation of this genre, eschewing any reference (even Iron Man’s perfunctory ones) to a foreign threat in favor of a story in which the very institution that created Captain America is turned inside out. This, I remind you, is a sequel to a film that featured a Werner Herzog-invoking Nazi From Hell as its lead villain the first time around.
Of course, the film’s tensions aren’t entirely domestic. The threat, like Captain America himself, is a remnant of history, a residue left over from prior conflict: in this case, Hydra, a terrorist organization that has managed to somehow hide itself within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. until executing this long-awaited this moment of grand power usurpation.
And the Marvel-style predator drones of Iron Man 3 are now replaced by the unmanned targeting behemoth that is the helipad. The defense industry, once again, constitutes a dangerous, larger-than-life force whose products do not distinguish between friend and foe, or private and public. While they might be everlasting enemies, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hyrda share a mutual, reciprocal ideological investment in automated defense systems. They are each involved in industries that benefit greatly from a culture of paranoia. No wonder Hydra was able to hide in plain sight.
Yet The Winter Soldier’s drudging up of the past is quite telling. Hydra, as Toby Jones’s Arnim Zola elucidates in beyond-the-grave exposition, is rather breezily described as responsible for ostensibly all of the world’s conflict after WWII – from displays of social unrest to something about Venezuela to anything else that makes for an effective montage about All Of The Global Problems. Where Hydra stands on all of these conflicts in unclear (was Hydra pro-Mubarak or pro-Morsi?).
But where Winter Soldier began as a thriller about the corruption that rests at home, it quickly shifted to the convention of having a clearly delineated enemy of foreign origin. For this the film can be forgiven, because in updating Hydra’s history by making its prime enemy the guy in the chief executive office rather than the guy with the red skull, the film (as with the paranoid thrillers it invokes) gestures to the arbitrary nature of borders in contemporary conflict. Where the conflicts of Captain’s past were defined by national allegiances in a war of superpowers, Captain’s present war is drawn over lines of bureaucratic affiliation.
All of this makes the film’s ending something rather unsustainable. In the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, the institutions of fear almost always prevailed in one way or another. There was never a guarantee that Warren Beatty or Robert Redford or Gene Hackman would make it until the end. And even if they did survive, or “win” in some immediate sense, what was the cost? Their sanity? National trust in the presidency?
The superhero movie (or, at least the Marvel movie, which currently defines the majority of the film genre) obviously cannot abide by such rules. Just as it requires a clearly defined enemy, it needs an unequivocally triumphant ending. Hydra, by the end, is destroyed, Captain emerges victorious and alive, and S.H.I.E.L.D. can perhaps begin to piece itself back together. But who could suspend their disbelief enough to put their trust in an institution like S.H.I.E.L.D. after events such as these?
Regardless of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new non-existence (as a monolithic entity), shouldn’t such events show the profound fallacy of entrusting such enormous power within an easily corruptible system that could host an underground terrorist organization for decades without notice? Isn’t the problem, as Captain states at the film’s beginning, the mass production of weapons as much as it is who uses them? The film casts S.H.I.E.L.D.’s excessive development of mechanized warfare to be a covert development of Hydra, but isn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. ultimately complicit in a system that sees necessity in the unfettered development of dangerous materials?
Of course it is, and that’s exactly the point. Unlike the men on the run in paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, 21st century superhero movies are never truly interested in conflict being seen to the end of one party or the other. They depend on the unceasing cycle of paranoia. After each thrilling conclusion is another nascent conflict ready to emerge after a minute into an end credits sequence.
The very bodies of Captain America and Iron Man are products of the industrial complex against which they fight. They battle enemies, and yet their existence motivates the production of more enemies. Despite the Hollywood endings, there is no winner or loser, as the conflict will never be over. The Winter Soldier saw the destruction of an organization ostensibly responsible for every modern world conflict, yet its next sequel has already set a date.
And this is where Marvel’s relationship to post-9/11 sentiment stops making for better-than-fluff superhero films and more of an insidious assembly line of post 9/11 branding. Images of warfare and falling buildings now belong as much to our summer multiplex entertainment as they do our cable news channels. The iconography of terror and paranoia these films invoke now seem to offer less a chance for catharsis or even reflection, and has instead solidified into a requisite genre trope across a widening web of films and studio-based narrative universes. This is what it means to be a Superhero Movie now.
While Marvel films have offered surprisingly incisive views into the implications of armed global conflict, they are also products of the paranoia-industrial complex that they use as their playing field. They are invested in recycling the images and affects of 21st century paranoia into perpetuity. Or, more specifically, into 2028. No wonder the real-life Captain wants to find a way out of the cycle.