Why Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is less liberal than it seems
By Mahnoor Yawar
Disclaimer: This piece contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter’s Soldier.
Richard Matheson’s famed short story ‘Button, Button’ is often alluded to as a simplistic representation of drone policy. Imagine a man offered you a box with a big red button on it. He tells you if you press it, you will receive a hefty sum of money, no questions asked. There is only one consequence: someone you don’t know will be killed. It’s an interesting dilemma – would you press it, knowing some nameless person’s life rests in your hands?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier paints a similar scenario as a hypothetical. The primary villain, Alexander Pierce (played by a somewhat hollow Robert Redford), is justifying his nefarious purpose with Project Insight, an extreme version of NSA’s surveillance strategy combined with drone technology. “What if Pakistan marched into Mumbai tomorrow, and you knew they were going to drag your daughters into a soccer stadium and shoot them… and you could just stop it, with the flip of a switch,” he says. “Wouldn’t you?” One of the council leaders being addressed pipes up indignantly: “Not if it was your switch.”
This neo-fascist reshuffling of power in the fallout of the 9/11-like events of The Avengers is an interesting storytelling choice. It effectively removes any real conviction within the message, by outsourcing the blame for all bad decisions to a foreign entity, rather than taking apart the narrow-minded, paranoid approach that relies on predictive algorithms to maintain national security. Why take a stand and criticize the intelligence community when everything that goes wrong can so conveniently be attributed to a continuity-based plot device? It cancels out its own subversion by coming to the same faulty justifications for a surveillance program as the real-life system it seeks to criticize. Of course, bearing in mind that very little in this universe is, in fact, based on reality, the movie does little to disguise its Obama-era anxieties ensconced in a Bush-era narrative.
This latest installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a genuinely enjoyable offering. Often dismissed as earnest to a fault in a sea of brooding vigilantes and flawed do-gooders, the star-spangled Captain manages to reveal quite a bit of nuance in his second solo outing, despite the politically heavy backdrop. Unlike his counterparts among the Avengers, he is the only superhero whose nature is least affected by angst, and yet the movie hints at newfound strands of melancholic darkness. He finds himself as an anachronism in a world he doesn’t understand, and isn’t quite sure who he is fighting amid the systematic internal breakdown of his very structured organization. He visits his old flame Peggy Carter, wilting at the realization that even her bravery and wit were no match for the vicissitudes of time. He keeps an endearing list of pop culture fads and historical events to catch up on as he goes. It’s a poignant tale – probably the first in a long time to stand mostly on its own – of a hero who has survived beyond his relevance and the lifespan of his peers.
But much as we can focus on the black-and-white hero contending with more grey than he’s ever known, the overall narrative of the MCU has far greater implications. Under Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, who has laid out a roadmap for Marvel movies all the way through to 2028.Considering he only came to his current position in 2007, it would appear we’re barely a third of the way through his master plan for the franchise. We’ve already seen Iron Man as the stand-in for military warfare in the capitalist age, its narrative fraught with criticism for the War on Terror and its effect on the armed forces. Thor, the Avengers’ only real link to unearthly forces and how their monarchial power struggles can wreak havoc in the human world, represents the eccentricity of old-fashioned masculinity. Hawkeye and Black Widow, formerly master spies, must consistently sacrifice their autonomy for the greater good, reluctantly joining this ragtag team of superhuman warriors. And then we have the Hulk, the very epitome of a man victimized by his emotions, who disavows his career as research scientist for a life on the run, meditating and tending to the sickly in rundown slums.
None of these are particularly groundbreaking concepts, nor are they particularly subversive against the establishment, even as each hero individually rebels against or fights to defend the rigid structure of the now-defunct S.H.I.E.L.D. apparatus.The Winter Soldier revels in its overt political thriller tropes, complete with cover-ups, lies, betrayals, and long-buried secrets, laying the groundwork for a very elaborate return to eventual order. It is the story of how the Captain comes to trace the origin of modern woes to the original sins of his generation, and how this helps him maintain a sense of purpose and identity. The movie itself seeks to reclaim patriotism for the skeptical left, showing that those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.
All things said and done, the future of the MCU is full of exciting possibility. With more and more enemies rising from within, with more heroes rising to the forefront, the war seems to be growing larger in scale and consequences. Near the end of The Winter Soldier, Black Widow dumps all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s classified data on to the internet in a distinctly Snowden-esque twist, effectively jeopardizing all key players attached to the organization and their tenuous hold on national security. She even shows up to a hearing at the Capitol defiantly claiming that none of them will be penalized, because the world needs heroes more than ever, as I’m sure we’ll see.
Like the country westerns of the ‘70s and ‘80s, comic books (and by extension, their cinematic adaptations) are never far from the historical context they are conceived in. Political allegory lies at the root of most such narratives, made just fantastical enough to offer recognizable relevance, albeit with plausible deniability.This new era seems to signal a change in tone, entering a much darker phase with greater stakes. And it seems to be stepping into the territory of criticizing modern governmental policies, both domestic and foreign. What this means for individual characters remains to be seen, but with at least a decade and a half’s worth of narrative to go, we might as well strap in for the ride.
Mahnoor Yawar is Articles Editor for the magazine.