Are Superheroes Outliving Their Usefulness?


Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige recently thrilled fanboys by announcing that the interconnected world of films starring Iron Man, Thor, and an increasingly obscure set of superheroes will continue until at least 2028. Some pundits have wondered whether American audiences will still be interested in comic book movies by then, but, judging by the critical and commercial success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, our hunger for superheroes is hardly waning. Fans love the film to the tune of a $96 million opening weekend, and critics have praised its attempts to grapple with our real-life debates over the costs of liberty in the post-9/11 era. Drones and government surveillance feature prominently into the proceedings, and as long as Marvel continues to reflect the politics of the day, it is unlikely their films will ever go out of style.

Winter Soldier effortlessly weaves the political issues of the day into its action-heavy plot, but the film raises more questions than it can answer. As the film begins, Steve Rogers is still working for S.H.I.E.L.D., but is becoming increasingly wary of its centralized power. When Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows him the agency’s newest toys — a series of massive unmanned weapons that can both predict future crimes and eliminate would-be criminals without human control — Rogers senses that his beloved country has gone too far and takes action to curb the abuse of power.

Critics seem to think that these stabs at topicality make Winter Soldier more thoughtful than the previous Marvel movies. At The Atlantic, Chris Orr argued that the film’s political themes are “grimmer and more sophisticated (relatively speaking) than the usual Marvel fare.” Entertainment Weekly called it “the most political (and subversive) superhero movie ever made,” and The Wrap praised its “provocative questions about our own government and…the compromises we are willing to make.”

The problem with these plaudits is that the film’s political content is nothing new. In fact, part of the reason the superhero movie has been such a popular genre in this century is that it offers a perfect vehicle to reflect our post-9/11 anxieties: in tracing the origin stories of these American icons, watching them grapple with their power and see the impact of their attempts at keeping the peace, we see ourselves struggling to form a new national identity. The Dark Knight offered a penetrating exploration of the practical and spiritual impacts of fighting terror with terror. Iron Man can be read as a revisionist take on the post-9/11 era that casts the military-industrial complex — wealthy defense contractors — as the driving force behind the War on Terror (remember that the villain in the first film was Jeff Bridges’s greedy arms manufacturer). Spider-Man reminded us that “with great power comes great responsibility,” an apt slogan to represent the lessons of the Bush administration’s failed, pre-emptive wars.


But if the first round of Marvel superhero movies hinted at the idea that the enemy is within, Captain America: The Winter Soldier puts this idea front and center by criticizing the hallmarks of the War on Terror: pre-emptive attacks, drone warfare, extrajudicial assassination, and the surveillance state. Marvel and directors Joe and Anthony Russo deserve credit for raising these serious questions in an escapist Hollywood action movie, but they sadly come nowhere close to answering them and end up making an argument that superhero movies may not actually be the best place to resolve our collective grief.

If the complex debate at the heart of the film is over how much liberty we are willing to give up for our own security, Winter Soldier’s answer can be found in who it glorifies: besides the Black Widow (a former KGB agent turned American), the two heroes are both military veterans, Rogers from World War II and Sam Wilson, a PTSD-afflicted friend who becomes the superhero Falcon, from our recent wars in the Middle East.

Notably, the average citizens of America are not represented onscreen, except as a faceless mass of victims whose lives hang in the balance of the final battle. But the young males that comprise Marvel’s most prized demographic will surely identify with Rogers and Wilson, ensuring that, even though the film affirms our pervasive mistrust with the people in charge, we will not leave the theater doubting the basic goodness of our national defense. This messaging is hardly progressive; in fact, it is more consistent with the Rogue Cop movies of the 1980s such as First Blood or Die Hard, in which archetypical American heroes battled both foreign agents and ineptitude or corruption at the top of their own ranks. Much like John Rambo, Wilson seems to get over his PTSD by fighting this new battle against corrupt government officials.

The Rogue Cop movies of the 1980s dovetailed nicely with Reagan’s small-government messaging and may have even helped America recover psychologically from its defeat in Vietnam, but Winter Soldier’s simplistic solution to our current problems is not a pointed political statement. It’s just a product of its more complex era. We don’t quite understand the nature of the problems in our democracy today. We don’t know if drone warfare and “kill lists” are necessary evils or just symptoms of a hopelessly corrupt corporate state. This is probably why the filmmakers trot out an old, simpler version of evil to raise the stakes: Nazis.

Turns out that the Nazis Steve Rogers was fighting in the first Captain America are part of a decades-long secret plot to control the world through fear; now they exist as a secret cell within the U.S. government. It’s an impressive narrative feat that folds Rogers’s old world into this new one, but it overly simplifies and ultimately obscures the real problems that the film aims to discuss. Bringing Nazis into the mix makes the film a lot more satisfying — but a lot less honest.


In fact, the forced introduction of an antiquated villain — as opposed to the topical villain of, say, Iron Man — suggests that the superhero may be losing its value as an archetype. An archetype is a way of expressing some set of cultural values, and it was reasonable to assume that the superhero movies of the 21st century were a way to express and ultimately process our post-9/11 anxieties. But the questions raised by these films must be answered in subsequent works of pop culture, otherwise they are only re-stating the problem. Winter Soldier gets us no closer to the truth.

Because it reaches into our past for a simplistic representation of evil, the film suggests that our ongoing journey towards forging a new, post-9/11 identity may be stuck in neutral, or, worse yet, going in reverse. And all of a sudden the idea of a new Marvel movie in 2028 is a frightening proposition. Will we still be figuring out how best to fight terror well into the next decade? Will the true nature of our enemy remain murky? Perhaps we need a new archetype to challenge us, instead of reinforcing the status quo. If nothing else, a $94 million opening weekend is in fact the best evidence that Winter Soldier offers no challenge to our collective values. And given the current dysfunction that is rippling through our culture — including but not limited to the federal government — that’s a serious cause for concern.