I really liked a lot of Iron Man 3, but my favourite part was the trick it plays on the audience. We begin the film with terrorism being committed in the name of “The Mandarin”, clearly modelled on your common or garden variety Middle Eastern terrorist. Yet, we soon learn that in fact this person is an actor hired by the real villain – and not even a Middle Eastern actor, but an Englishman. The world inside the fiction has been sold a fiction by the villain, and the joke is how easily the first-time audience believes that the enemy really is the Mandarin and is therefore surprised at the revelation. I saw more than a couple of casual facebook and G+ reviews criticising the racism inherent in yet another Middle Eastern terrorist villain – but it doesn’t take much of a deeper look to recognise at whom the true critique should be aimed: at us. The real villain has created a phantom for the world to fear, a distraction from his real agenda. There is a clear political message embodied in this fictive deception, that we need to review our perception of Terrorism in a general way, because doesn’t almost all Terrorism in the modern world originate from well-intentioned interference by “The West” in its battle against the USSR? The audience who casually accept the one-sided view offered within the fiction for its opening act have to wonder whether we have similarly been duped in reality.
What Iron Man 3 offered above-and-beyond the usual heroic exploits, was a sharp political critique. What it offered though, in the main, was the usual heroic exploits, and the bulk of the story remains focused around the personal struggles of Tony Stark, whose role in creating the villain and the villain’s main weapons is downplayed as a moment of casual excess that occurred before the enlightenment that saw the creation of the Iron Man suit in the first movie. The film thus plays a kind of double-trick on the audience, because the overt revelation of the true power behind “The Mandarin” allows us to feel that the situation was an abberration, and that it has been resolved – actually, problems remain. At the beginning of the film, Stark is captured in Afghanistan while demonstrating new methods of mass-destruction. The weapons he is working on are being sold in order to enhance the fictionalised War on Terror, which is the true origin of the Mandarin figure used so expertly in Iron Man 3. Tony Stark is thus doubly complicit, in helping to spur to villainy and in creating the mask under which the villainy hides.
This means that the real origin of “The Mandarin” remains unresolved at the end of the film. The system that allows the creation of such fictive villains remains completely intact, and Stark has defeated a product of the system, not an abberration from it. The fear of the Muslim-coded “Other” typified by “The Mandarin”, as created by the military-industrial complex through the course of modern history, remains available, accessible, and ready for another iteration. One specific application, a ludicrous application, has been taken out of service, but that is all.
This points to the great secret that powers all Super Hero storytelling, and which finds its expression in the “usual heroics” set-pieces that are now done so well, which is that however heroic an individual, they can only address problems on an individual level. They are powerless to correct the systemic problems that create the villains they fight. Of the mainstream huge comic franchises, only X-Men has addressed systemic causes and effects in even the most casual way, initially through “Mutant Registration”, and ultimately through the Sentinel program. If anything, Superhero films form the contrary expectation, subsuming systemic concerns into those of the individual, by, for example, blaming Batman for the emergence of the Supervillains that he fights. Aside from X-men, we might even argue that the arbitrary way in which Super-heroes are created implicitly advocates against systemic influences – they’re all created by so-called “freak accidents”. I like to imagine one of those Health and Safety posters in The Bugle or The Daily Planet: “It has been 23 days since the Super-being was created.” That counter would never get into double digits in Marvel’s New York.
Captain America is one of the great exceptions to all of these super-hero norms, because he is explicitly the creation of the Military Industrial complex. In the comics, his main adversary is The Red Skull, rather short-changed in the The First Avenger. The Red Skull and his organisation are very explicitly interested in large-scale social reformation, and are possibly unique in that they are fairly comprehensively an organisation, rather than a gang. As an aside the most recent iteration of the comics seems to have missed this point, resurrecting the Red Skull again and again, completely failing to see where his real terror originates: in his replaceability within Hydra. Captain America fairly frequently has to defeat successive iterations of cheap Nazi or Hydra imitations of the Super Soldier Serum that was used to create him. In Captain America, we have a hero whose motivation is not some kind of vague sense of personal morality, but a codified and integrated system of belief: The American Way. His enemies, likewise, are as terrifying for their desired world as the acts they perpetrate in order to bring that world into existence.
Joss Whedon’s Avengers revealed that the Avengers, a super-hero team, was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s back-up plan in the event that their super-weapons program hit a dead end, which it duly did. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents like Black Widow and Hawkeye get short shrift in the wider world for being patently and obviously less powerful than the rest of the team, but what they really represent is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best efforts so far at systematically creating Super-heroes. Black Widow or Hawkeye may not be a match for their comrades in a physical encounter, but it is also obvious they are an order of magnitude more dangerous than their unpowered foes. Avengers established S.H.I.E.L.D. as a well-funded and resourced operation, and in Captain America: The Winter Solider, those resources are allied to a political purpose, explicitly bringing into the story the kind of wide-scale systemic considerations usually eschewed or obviated by the genre as a whole. This means that in order to appreciate The Winter Soldier holistically, we need to utilise on a greater range of analytical stances than usual.
Whenever I see a Super-hero film, there is a little sceptical voice in the back of my mind – the voice of my friend Liz. Without wanting to put words in her mouth, the gist of the anti super-hero argument is that superhero stories are generally a kind of exercise in violent machismo, whose whole purpose is to find an expression of male power fantasies via large-scale destruction. It’s a hard view to counter using evidence like Man of Steel, which is almost entirely about different models of masculinity posturing at each other before resolving their differences in the might-makes-right moment of the so-called Superman murdering Zod. Liz’s insistent voice asks two key questions – what’s left of the story if you take out the fighting, and is there a space for women in the story of the world?
There are some superheroes for which this is a ridiculous pair of questions. The Incredible Hulk, for example, is rooted precisely in the idea that uncontrolled violence solves nothing, so that the best versions of the Hulk myth are all oriented around Bruce Banner finding constructive outlets for his violent urges, a story arc that can only be executed via scenes of violence. The space for any other character than Bruce Banner in the core story of the Hulk is as either anchor to humanity or antagonist – there can only ever be an adversary and a love interest. Betty happens to be female, but it is her role as anchor that is important for the story – I would love to see a version where Betty becomes Berty, able to offer a counter-narrative of masculinity to that offered by the Banner/Hulk dichotomy, while still fulfilling the core story function of anchor.
In most ways, Captain America is a hugely problematic hero. He embodies the best and the worst of the dream of “America”: Freedom and Justice must coexist with the undeniable fact of American interventionism and adventurism that began in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century interventions in Cuba and the Philippines. We tend to think of the rock of isolationism that could only be broken by the attack on Pearl Harbour, but in most ways that simply brought to an end an aberrant period that had seen them not flexing their military might. Death is also on the table in Captain America stories. He has as much blood on his hands as the entire Justice League. Steve Rogers is also a public figure – he wears a mask that provides no anonymity. This means that the scope for his private life is confined to the same rough sphere as his working life, of people who’re inside the circumference of S.H.I.E.L.D. This isn’t a set of associations or problems that Spiderman needs to worry about. The solution has generally been, as with Superman, to represent Captain America as morally unimpeachable. Nick C regarded the whole issue at the heart of the Civil War storyline as moot because Captain America was against the registration of Super-heroes. Cap’ formed a view, and that was enough for Nick.
I don’t think this is a melange I could sell to Liz because many super-heroes have a background that’s notionally as interesting as this, but they trip at the first hurdle, by relying on quips and combat instead of storytelling. For all that it got rave reviews from the fans, Joss Whedon’s Avengers has an inordinate amount of posturing and combat as the context for its strands of human drama. If your expectations are for the primacy of violence, there may not be much to dissuade you in Avengers. What’s it about, after all? It’s about the clash of titanic egos, each of which needs to be knocked into shape so that a team can be formed out of individuals. It’s a combative story. What’s important is the testing of these qualities in the course of telling a story – and that’s both a procedural directive and a dramatic one. Most superhero stories tell the story of the mask rather than the hero who wears it. That’s the big problem with the way most people tried to watch The Incredible Hulk, because Banner and Hulk are two aspects of the same person. Whedon’s Hulk almost works dramatically because Banner acknowledges that it’s not about the anger – he’s always angry. But all he has to do in the film is fight, and quip with Tony.
The Winter Solider brings all of these elements together inside another well-established genre: the Spy Thriller. The Spy Thriller is a very efficient vehicle for including all of these considerations and more; it has a long heritage of being an omnibus genre that is able to adapt itself well to different story requirements. In their perspicacious book, The Spy Story, John G Cawelti and Bruce Rosenberg outlined several different common configurations for the spy story, the principal being the Flight from Persecution, as pioneered in John Buchan’s genre-defining thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps.
The basic story outline is that an unsuspecting hero, of fine and upstanding character, discovers some dastardly plot. They tip their hand in some way to the villains, and are forced to go on the run, seeking clues and opportunities to free themselves from persecution. Eventually, they navigate their way through the obstacles to find either an ally or the crucial weakness in the villain’s plans. The tables are then turned – Richard Hannay spends the last quarter of The Thirty-Nine Steps on the hunt for the conspirators. The only way in which The Winter Soldier breaks this basic template is by having a villain of the same race and colour as the hero, while Buchan and Sax Rohmer delighted in vilifying the Other. The critics that I’ve read who dismiss The Winter Soldier as a Spy story because of its action set-pieces need to re-read the roots of the genre to find that it’s not so far over par on action, when expectations are suitably amplified for modern jaded audiences.
One advantage that the Spy Thriller has as a fictional skeleton over other formulae, such as the Chivalric Quest or the Whodunit, is that there is greater freedom in the specific contents that can be used as musculature. In some ways, you could think about the Spy Thriller as an empty container, ready for whatever topical content is required to fill it. This has meant Spy Thrillers always reflected the latent fears of their era. In The Winter Soldier, the fear is our modern surveillance state. The big argument that The Man has always made for surveillance has been that we should trust Him with it. He knows things he can’t tell us, things that if we knew would disrupt society, but that if we did know, would place is complete agreement with His course of action. I am truly perturbed by the number of my friends who do have a basic trust of authority.
When Captain America begins to feel uncomfortable with some of the missions he’s going on for Nick Fury, he begins to ask questions. To cut a long story short, he discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra to the point where, astonishingly, only Nick Fury appears to have remained uncorrupted. The people who have “earned” the absolute trust of the world, turn out to be Hydra agents or unwitting Hydra stooges. The overt message could hardly be clearer – Trust No-One. As more advanced tools for surveillance and analysis become more available, the power of those at the heart of the state becomes more pervasive and more palpable. The Winter Soldier ends with the apparent destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D., deemed too hopelessly inter-penetrated with Hydra.
The surface reading of this film is a heartening one in today’s state. It is a warning against allowing those in power to act out of the oversight of the general population, and there is a literal call for moral action at the beginning of the final set-piece. Rogers opens up the P.A. system and tells the workers in the Triskelion that they need to individually make a moral choice – that they should trust what they can perceive and reason, rather than the orders they are given. Civil war breaks out in the rank-and-file, as the dedicated Hydra operatives attempt to maintain control. It is very easy to draw a line between these heroic resisters and whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden.
This plot construction helps the film exceed what I think Liz might consider to be inherent limitations of genre. While there is a good amount of fighting, almost all of the story nodes are resolved by character-driven decisions of who to trust, and what moral response to form. The fighting is, I believe just spectacle, and so hardly necessary to resolve any of the central scenes in the film. In fact, The Winter Soldier includes Rogers submitting to Bucky, because he’d rather be killed than take the life of his friend. This is the ultimate sacrifice, and it’s made not for a grand ideal – it’s not martyrdom to a cause. It’s a decision made as a personal moral choice on the level of individual human relationships. One good friend felt this moment was insufficiently motivated – that the story hadn’t proven a strong enough connection between the two. Even if you view The Winter Soldier in isolation from The First Avenger, I think this scene works because Bucky in that moment is in the same kind of personal moral quandry that Rogers found himself in, and which he resolved by following his personal moral code even against the opposition of the might of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Once the top Hydra agent is defeated – by Black Widow, rather than Captain America! – the decision is made for Nick Fury to remain dead, and for S.H.I.E.L.D. to be disbanded. In a coda to the main action, we see the various “good” S.H.I.E.L.D. agents being reintegrated into the familiar legal organisations with proper government oversight: the FBI and CIA. We see the Hydra agents we knew of being rounded up by these agencies, presumably for a nice legal trial supported by evidence and lawyers, but altogether possibly to go to the USA’s Gulag in Guantanamo Bay. The obvious reading for this ending is that not only has the threat ended, but the organisation which sustained it has been demolished. This appears to provide Captain America with the systemic solution denied to Iron Man, an appearance does function as a proper moral interpretation of the action and does point to the same conclusion as the main text: organisations must be subject to moral regulation, cannot be completely clandestine, and ultimately, must be reformed or disbanded if they prove harmful. S.H.I.E.L.D. was not “too big to fail”.
There is a problem with this interpretation. The filmmakers were constrained by the Iron-Clad convention that these types of film must have a happy ending, and so they do their best to tidy all the loose ends. Even if we regard this as implemented successfully, it still completely fails to address the systemic origins of Hydra and its infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. Captain America has dealt them a mighty blow, but has he addressed any of the underlying conditions that allowed Hydra to flourish in the first place? Not as far as I can see – but even if he had, even then, we are left with a problem.
I began this analysis by pointing out the aleatory nature of the Super Hero origin. Even though Steve Rogers was a specifically created and crafted hero, just as his main physical adversary “The Winter Soldier” was, Rogers remains an utter exception to the norm. He is a role-model, an exemplar, but that is all. He creates a situation where ordinary people can play a role in resisting Hydra, but he does not provide a template for future corrections. We would rely on having Captain America handy for fighting Hydra. This is illustrated perfectly by the strategy session between the heroes. Nick Fury appeals to Falcon to convince Rogers of a particular point, and Falcon says “I do what he does, only slower.” The fiery and shining example of Captain America has brought into the fight other moral people, but they are both outside of the system of S.H.I.E.L.D. In other words, unless the FBI and CIA each has a Captain America, they’re just as vulnerable to Hydra as S.H.I.E.L.D. was. We aren’t shown the interviews of Hydra agents, just the righteous who stood with Captain America, but you’d have to be fairly optimistic to believe those interviews weren’t taking place. The problem has been multiplied rather than reduced – cut off one head and two will spring back, appropriately enough.
Ironically, the one person who recognises this inherent limitation is the film’s true central villain. He explains his conversion to Hydra by referencing the heroic actions of a young Nick Fury, who disobeyed orders and protocol to “get the job done”. A resounding victory for the Good Guys pointed out that in any system, there will be problems. Nick’s evasion of the rules, of the chain of command, in short of the security system, created the doorway for Hydra to enter S.H.I.E.L.D. and destroy it from within. There was a lot of praise for the casting of Robert Redford, famous liberal, as the Machiavellian despot behind Hydra – but I think that in effect, he does get to utter the real problem, pointing at one solution. The very exceptionalism of a Super Hero makes it impossible for them to be anything other than a disruption to the operation of democracy and conventional justice. His crystal-clear insight into the problem with exceptionalism means that while he is the villain in plot terms, he also presents the heroes with the key to a permanent victory, if they dare to grasp it and hence their own obsolescence.
This makes The Winter Soldier the obverse of The Dark Knight; the light-side version of Christopher Nolan’s dark morality tale. As Zizek points out, The Dark Knight ends with the comfortingly conservative propaganda, that the public can’t be told the truth. In order to reform Gotham society to crush the power of Organised Crime, Gotham is sold a pack of lies about Harvey Dent and Batman. It is nothing short of a wholesale endorsement of a surveillance state and a blind trust in authority. The Winter Soldier reaches just the opposite conclusion. A mass surveillance state is more dangerous than beneficial. It creates only opportunities for systemic corruption and for oppressing the mass of people. In order for society to function, there must be true law and order. I think perhaps The Dark Knight Rises intended to revisit the issue, and Bane was intended to show how the 8 years of prosperity were ill-founded, but it didn’t work for me on that level.
The Winter Soldier blends story concepts from Super Heroes and Spy Thrillers, junk genres essentially, to tackle head-first the biggest political issue in recent times. It does this while also functioning adequately as a human drama about personal relationships and trust. For me, it lacks the emotional punch of The Dark Knight, but it replaces this lack with an entirely more palatable political message. I think both these movies demonstrate that Super Hero stories can provide the kind of mirror to the world that we expect from “real” literature and films, and both deserve to be considered outside the ghetto of genre fiction. Is The Winter Soldier a Best Picture candidate? I actually think so. It’s certainly better than a number of recent nominees. Of course, it has a snowball’s chance in hell of receiving anything like the critical praise it deserves, because it’s main character sometimes wears a mask.