By Russell Brandom
In 2014, it’s easy to think of Captain America as a bit of a tough sell. He’s a figure of an earlier time, and bringing him into the modern age has always meant a dance between sly retcons and outright hokeyness. He’s also a pain in the ass, sticking up for abstract ideas of justice and liberty when a lot of other heroes are content to just blow up the bad guy and move on. And then there’s that name: When the first Cap movie debuted in South Korea, it bore the unassuming title The First Avenger. After 60 years of military bases, having "America" in your hero's name had become a marketing liability.
So far, Marvel’s solution has been to bring the conflict front and center, drawing on deep questions about American power that have become newly relevant in the wake of the Snowden leaks. The Winter Soldier was bleak, betraying a real pessimism about US intelligence operations, and if the third movie follows the Civil War plotline as Marvel has suggested, we'll see things get even bleaker. (Major spoilers ahead, so be warned.)
The bulk of the series is about the fight between Iron Man and Captain America over the Superhero Registration Act, which becomes a stand-in for broader issues of civil liberties and government control. At the peak of the series, Cap is killed by agents of Red Skull after surrendering to the government, a symbol of the ultimate failure of the registration project. When the Civil War comics came out in 2006, it was a statement on the Iraq war, how the rush to fight had left behind certain fundamental American values. Eight years later, the ideas seem even bigger.
In many ways, it was the natural place to take the character. Cap’s not just about fighting the country’s battles, remember: he gave Hitler a sock in the jaw a full year before the US entered the war. At his best, he represents bigger ideas about freedom, democracy, and liberty, fighting fascism in all its forms. Put in Cap's simpler language: "I don't like bullies, wherever they're from." He’s uncompromising, even when the rest of the world is ready to take moral or political shortcuts. And in 2014, fighting fascism is more complicated than it looks.
Marvel has already started to play out that dynamic in the films. Once he's unfrozen, Cap quite literally does not recognize the country he's fighting for, and spends most of The Avengers reminding SHIELD agents of the simple patriotism they'd long since abandoned. The Winter Soldier goes further, putting forward an America in which the government had been taken over by fascists who were using deep surveillance and big-data algorithms to identify and assassinate dissidents. Instead of the NSA, we got a bunker in New Jersey, with rows of reel-to-reel computers that could have been pulled directly from Fort Meade circa 1975. To execute the kills, we got flying aircraft carriers, which crash more cinematically than a Predator drone. The NSA critique wasn’t perfect, but it was hard to leave the theater without feeling a more paranoid than when you went in. The fight against fascism is now a fight within the US government, or even against it.
As luck would have it, the real-life version of that conflict is already hitting theaters in Laura Poitras's CitizenFour documentary, following the excitement and real paranoia that accompanied Snowden's flight to Hong Kong and eventually Russia. Watch it back to back with The Winter Soldier and you'll see many of the same beats: a shadowy adversary, an encrypted USB drive full of secrets, a last-minute appeal for help from the public at large. Snowden even has a few Cap-esque speeches, dropping lines like, "I am more willing to risk imprisonment... than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me." Of course, sometimes that fight means going underground, staying out of the reach of the US military — but it’s nothing you haven’t seen in the movies. The story is in the air, even if no one knows exactly what to say about it.
It’s hard to say whether the filmmakers will continue that parallel in Captain America 3, but they’d be fools not to. Comics work best when they capture something like this, whether it's Jack Kirby's New-Deal optimism or Frank Miller's urban fatalism. So far, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn't taken much of a stand on tone. It's been too busy defining itself, getting all the pieces in place. But the new Civil War rumors suggest that may be about to change. Cap's getting darker and starting to grapple with real ideas about America's role in the 21st century. If Marvel plays it right, it could be the most interesting thing that's happened in movie theaters in years.