Face front, true believers! Plot spoilers below!
“On your left.”
Granted, Captain America's opening line is more likely intended literally than as some kind of political metaphor. But as Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian “advocates of the 'liberal Hollywood' conspiracy will find plenty of ammunition here.” It's much closer to the 'Dark Knight Rises' that the fulminating Tea Party thought they were watching than anything that actually happened in that film. The conceit, as set up at the end of the previous instalment, is that a handy plot device transports Cap from the clear-cut square-jawed Forties to today's sinkhole of moral ambiguity. And finds it wanting.
As co-director Anthony Russo states “We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties — Obama talking about who they would kill... We wanted to put all of that into the film because it would be a contrast to [Cap]'s greatest-generation [way of thinking]." It could almost carry a screen credit “based on an original idea leaked by Edward Snowden”.
How come? How did the most straight-laced Marvel hero, the one with a military title embedded in his name, the one who made his costume out of the American flag, get first billing in a superhero movie that overtakes the others from the left? Actually, to those of us who know our comics history, its not so surprising. As Tony Keen argued in 'Captain America: Sentinel of Liberalism', Cap was created not to represent a white-faced conformist America but a liberal, inclusive one. The little guy who got beefed up by that super-serum never forgot the other little guys. His brief McCarthyite existence as 'Captain America Commie Smasher' has since been retconned out of existence. It's scarcely a co-incidence that his chief allies here are a black guy and a woman.
The plotline of course echoes the original comics, where wartime Cap woke up one day in the Sixties. Except the 'current day' here owes as much to the film world of the Seventies as to news articles. Producer Kevin Feige has stated “we really want to make a '70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie,” citing films such as 'Three Days of the Condor', 'The Parallax View' and 'Marathon Man.' Casting Robert Redford, who starred in 'Condor' and 'All the President's Men', who is almost the poster boy of Hollywood liberalism, seems a deliberate tip to the audience to look in that direction. And casting him counter-intuitively as turncoat bad guy Alexander Pierce... well, we'll get to that.
Of course it references those political thrillers the way pop songs sometimes filch from symphonies, it takes the big thumping themes but leaves behind the complex structures and counter-melodies. It's all summed up in one exchange - “How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?” “If they're shooting at you, they're bad.” There's a memorable scene in a lift at SHIELD's corporate-looking HQ, finding tension and paranoia in tiny details. Then as soon as the slugfest starts they could be fighting anywhere over anything.
A classic example of the need for jeopardy rigging the debate is when the big guns of the Helicarriers get locked and loaded. Its implied they're trained on actual or nascent superheroes, without any corresponding suggestion they might be taking in any super-villains. (Let alone your actual common-or-garden terrorists.) To the fan those guns don't represent a pointed debate between security and liberty, they threaten something more fundamental – preventing the making of any more superhero films. Yet even a dyed-in-the-wool state-hatin' civil liberties champion like me would concede that terrorists exist. Many of them are already in government, true. But not all. And I don't really want to get blown up on the London tube.
This structure also resides on the quaint notion that the Allies fought the War adhering rigidly to the Hayes code, and black ops are some recent arrival on the American landscape. That atom bomb was presumably dropped by someone else, then. The closest this comes to a head is where Cap admits to Fury they may have bent the rules back then, but “we never struck, until someone hit us first”. In other words the simplistic 'clear blue sky' myth that still hangs over Pearl Harbour.
You're probably better off not thinking of any of that. You're probably better off imagining some 'Purple Rose of Cairo' scenario, in which Cap steps not out of an actual past but down from one of those propaganda images on show at the Smithsonian – with their peculiar blend of primary colours and sepia. Which was more the way Marvel first brought him back. He'd then been out of the comic pages for more than a decade. Combined with the general young age of the readership, that effectively made him a long-lost figure from history, rather than from another film we all went to see a couple of years ago.
But there's a deeper structural flaw. How did SHIELD get warped into a sword? There's a moment in the end credits where its emblem is reflected as Hydra's, effectively encapsulating the plot. Hydra's infiltration of SHIELD is clearly meant to represent corruption at SHIELD. We became the people we fought. Yet language can be slippery stuff. The signified needs a signifier by definition, but then sometimes that signifier can just plain get in the way. At one point Rogers spits at Fury “You're not part of Hydra, but you had the same ideas as they did!” Which most likely represents the film's intent. But it often slips into implying that all of SHIELD's problems were external. There wasn't an excess of power, it just fell into the wrong hands. Pierce's plan, at root, seems to be to create a climate of fear which will allow him to rule more easily. If he'd genuinely believed his own rhetoric about assuring security, the film may well have been bolder and richer.
This is all pretty much summed up by the film's treatment of Nick Fury. The most radical idea it comes up with is that Fury himself might somehow be implicated. But this notion is only really flirted with, and it soon becomes obvious the bad guys' plot centres around bumping Fury off. Their failure to achieve this becomes their overall failure. Yet the comics were, after all, called 'Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD'. Nick Fury is SHIELD as far as we the viewers are concerned. They're the guy with the eyepatch plus his mates. If he was never corrupted then SHIELD never really was.
The dichotomy between Fury and Pierce also suggests that the split lies between the 'suits' and the 'agents' – those who make Powerpoint slideshows of strategic directions and those who do the actual work. Fury partly defeats Pierce through using the imprint of his bad eye, which of course he got in battle.
Having previously complained that Jane Foster got little to do in 'Thor', and that the Black Widow was somewhat under-used in 'The Avengers', my happier task here is to tell you that the Black Widow plays quite an integral role. Peter Bradshaw goes as far as to say that she “at least gets to be an actual character this time.”
If she was paired up much with Cap in the comics, it was after my mainstream-reading days. But she makes a good foil for him, to quote Bradshaw again, “chipping away at [his] old-school earnestness and trying to fix him up with a date.” Some of this is schematic. (Cap won't push a bad guy off a roof to make him talk. But she will because she's, like, a badass herself, yeah?) And this date-pushing business is doubtless only going one way. But there's genuine sparks in the scenes between them. And they're pretty much fired by her to his straight man.
Now the alert reader may already have noticed my talking about this relationship rather one-directionally – what she does for Cap. He's certainly the moral centre of the film, around whom all the other characters need to reorient themselves. (While he just needs to catch up on modern cuisine and Marvin Gaye.) Her reformed criminal role is not only repeatedly referred to, but in many ways reprised. The film is bookend by scenes of her uploading data. The first time she's uploading from, going off-mission to rescue info rather than people and consequently raising Cap's ire. But then she uploads to, to the people, spilling those black op beans like a one-woman Wikileaks.
But she's so much like Selina Kyle from 'Dark Knight Rises' I could almost cut and paste what I said back then about her. While you probably don't want to picture me sporting the costume, I would rather be the Black Widow than the pious, serious-minded Cap any day of the week. Unsurprisingly, she's sexy. But she's also smart, sassy and just enough on the right side to not be goody-goody. And it's not just me who things so. In his review at the FA site, Will Morgan comments: “in comic stores, or at least the one I run, we had numerous girls and young women coming into the shop asking for 'Black Widow' comics, because they’d finally seen an on-screen Marvel heroine who wasn’t insipid, leaden or flat-out embarrassing.”
Superhero films commonly suffer from overcrowding, and its true the two-way banter between Cap and the Widow leave the Falcon as something of a gooseberry. Look at his comparatively minor contribution to winning the final battle. At one point he even points to Cap and says “don't look at me. I do what he does - just slower.” And it's funny because it's true. At times you feel he's there so there can be a black character for Cap to be racially inclusive to.
Which is perhaps true to the comics. For most of the Seventies the cover was double-billed 'Captain America and the Falcon' ('71 to '78). While Marvel comics in many ways pioneered black characters in mainstream comics and often ran overtly anti-racist storylines, there was also a tendency to pair them with a more suburban-friendly white face when it came time to sell the unit. There was also 'Power Man and Iron Fist' ('78 to '86). (Disclaimer: Power Man started out with sole billing, and the Black Panther had his own title from time to time.)
But it's the other double-biller, the Winter Solider, who really feels double-booked. You could easily imagine the plot running without him, suggesting he was spliced in at some stage or other. It might have been better to hold him back more in this film, perhaps just hinting at his actual identity, then give him more screen space in the third instalment. (A mid-credits teaser tells us he's returning.)
It would, its true, be fairly easy to come up on this film's left. But in a way, it would be too easy. If, ultimately, it's not terribly radical its coming up on those other blockbusters' left still seems notable. Could you ask for more than this? Yes, of course you could. But we're not used to blockbuster films even having an agenda. Normally they're stewed by too many cooks and too wary of alienating any sections of the audience, the ellipses and caveats effectively driving 'Dark Knight Rises' into incoherence. Perhaps it could be taken of an indicator of the way the Snowdon revelations have been taken more seriously in the States than here in the UK. Even baby steps in the right direction might bode well.