Captain America & The Marvel Cinematic Universe: A Timeline of U.S. Anxieties

Captain America is a character inextricably linked to our own collective anxieties about our nation's past, present, and future.

Captain America Winter Soldier Poster

If American pop culture composes our modern myths, then — for better or worse — superhero narratives are one of the loudest, most far-reaching transmitters of our cultural values and, increasingly, our cultural anxieties. Right now, superheroes tend to be the characters who tell us who we are and who we want to be. And, in a movie-making era where international markets are just as important for American blockbusters as the domestic one, they are one of the major modes of transmitting what represents American values and what America angsts about to the rest of the world.

As characters, Iron Man and Captain America have always been particularly good at this. Tony and Steve aren’t the most important characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because they are the most interesting (though they are) or even the best-developed in terms of characterization (though, again, they are). They are the most important characters in this franchise because of how they reflect and represent America’s contemporary angst and anxieties like almost no other blockbuster characters out there.

It’s no secret that Hollywood blockbusters are becoming increasingly dependent on international markets. When a movie costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make, you better hope that it makes some money outside of the United States. There are only so many movie theaters (and so many people who can afford to go to movie theaters) in America.

Though international markets have always been a factor in making Hollywood blockbusters, this rise in importance in the international market has led to greater courting on the part of Hollywood studios. No longer is it smart business to have your supervillain come from one of the largest international markets. (Instead, you should take a page from 20th Century Fox’s book and start braiding a blockbuster friendship bracelet to China like The Martian.)

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Yes, Hollywood studios seem to be paying particular attention to what their movies will look like to various, financially-valuable international audiences — but, let’s face it, this has always been a factor on a cultural level. America’s export of brands (yes, this includes stories) shapes the world’s impression of us — which is kind of fitting, given that we are a country obsessed with trying to understand how the rest of the world sees us.

What do the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially Iron Manand Captain America,tell us (and the rest of the world) about American anxieties? Here are some thoughts…

Iron Man 

Though this article is largely going to look at the role the Captain Americafilms have played in transmitting one perspective on American national identity to the rest of the world, it seems important to give some time to Iron Man,the film that would launch an entirely cinematic universe. 

Iron Manset the political tone for what much of what the MCU has been about: a response to 9/11 and the security culture that would rise up out of it. If Steve Rogers is the MCU hero who represents America as we would like to be, then Tony Stark is the (let’s be honest, best case scenario) ciper for who we think we actually are.

When Iron Mancame out in 2008, George W. Bush was still president. It had been seven years since terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and we embarked on an ill-advised, ill-defined, and ill-fated “war on terror” in the Middle East. Most relevantly: America’s national identity and larger legacy was as inextricable as ever from the military industrial complex.

While our real life leaders weren’t questioning the legitimacy and accountability of the military industrial complex, Tony Stark was. Iron Man was like an apology letter to the rest of the world. Sure, it was a kind of a crappy apology wrapped up in commercialism, masculinity, and a quasi-glorification of the military industrial complex even as it critiqued it — but, this is America, and we’ve never been very good at admitting when we’re wrong.

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After a particularly harrowing personal experience, Tony Stark saw the error of his arms-dealing ways and decided to change the way he had been living his life. This fictional journey gave American and international viewers alike an alternative history for how we could have responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — with force, yes (after all, this is still America we’re talking about), but with more thoughtful, specific force.

Sure, rather than chatting with people who had been working on dismantling the military industrial complex or brainstorming non-violent solutions to solving the world’s problems, Tony Stark built a super suit and starting shooting people himself, but beggars can’t be choosers. Iron Manstill felt like one of the only mainstream stories that was even addressing America’s anxieties around its own accountability in a system of global terror. (Obligatory shout out to Battlestar Galactica.)

Captain America: The First Avenger

Next up, we had Captain America: The First Avenger(or, as it was tellingly marketed to the rest of the world, simply The First Avenger), a movie wrapped up in a collective nostalgia for an imagined past where heroism was simple and you always knew who the bad guy was. What makes this film so great is that it is somewhat aware (again: beggars, choosers) of the fragility of this national historical narrative, and echoes it in Steve’s own journey: He is a man who hungers for the front lines, but who doesn’t understand the tragedy of that desire until weary soldiers are throwing tomatoes at his head. Furthermore, his identity is just as shaped by the government’s wartime propaganda machine as it is by his own actions. 

The First Avengerlets us temporarily indulge in that imagined past, even as it challenges us to understand it is a partial lie — or at least understand it as a narrative that should be more complicated than a fairy tale. Perhaps most importantly and effectively, it ultimately reminds us that we cannot stay there. The film’s ending — which sees Steve waking up in modern-day America after having been frozen for 70 years — is the most interesting aspect of an entertaining origin story. It begins the thematic mourning process for a national identity that would continue as an all-important story element in The Winter Soldier. 

This ending and Steve’s presence in contemporary America also allows us (somewhat paradoxically in a “have our cake and eat it, too” respect) a tangible connection to that “old-fashioned” idea of heroism that gets talked about so much in The Avengers. Steve Rogers represents the desperate national belief that we can not only regain America’s status as a heroic force, but reaffirms the national narrative (whether true or not) that we were ever heroic in the first place. 

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

If The First Avengerintroduces this desperate longing for a national identity and past that may or may not exist, then The Winter Soldiertakes that theme to the next level, as Steve personally grieves the loss of his mid-20th century life while also trying to deal with his soldier identity. Steve does so with a sense of pragmatic determination. He knows he cannot go back, so instead focuses on what he has now (all hail the internet and the availability of Thai food in America). We have (mostly) indulged our desire for a world where good old-fashioned heroism isn’t the exception in The First Avenger;now is the time for clear-eyed criticism of the institution.

The Winter Soldieris all about the failure of the institution and what eventually happens when systems of money, power, and privilege operate without transparency or accountability. S.H.I.E.L.D. puts the nation and world at risk not because of one man’s villainy — as was mostly the case with The First Avenger(and our simplistic narrative of World War II) — but because a relatively benign bureaucratic system was co-opted by a less benign organization in the name of “the greater good.”

S.H.I.E.L.D. (here, a stand-in for America at large) became so paranoid about its own security, so fearful of chaos and the destruction that comes with it, that it became the instrument of its own destruction. (It’s worth noting that, if The Winter Soldierreally wanted to get radical, then it would have made S.H.I.E.L.D. itself willing to launch Project Insight without the behind-the-scenes manipulations and machinations of Hydra and Alexander Pierce.)

Ultimately, it is not just Steve’s takedown of the helicarriers that saves the day, but Natasha’s uploading of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files onto the internet. The Winter Soldieris clear in its indictment of America’s intelligance-driven security state: if we can be heroes again, then transparency and accountability will be the instruments that save us.

Captain America: Civil War

Heading into Age of Ultronand Civil War, “accountability” is the watchword and America is its own worst enemy. It’s like: we know we should be talking about the global system of inequality and destruction of which we are an integral part, but we’re pretty distracted getting our own shit together to bother. 

It’s telling that the big fights between the Avengers in Civil War take place in isolated places — first, an evacuated airport and then an abandoned Siberian compound. We like to pretend that our domestic issues have no effect on the rest of the world — that we are our own little island except in circumstances when we expressly decide that we are not. But the increasingly interconnected world is more complicated than that. It is only in Civil Warthat our in-fighting has no effect on the outside world.

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Ultimately, Civil Wartakes the cowardly way out when it comes to resolving this ideological question of personal freedoms vs. security, of small government vs. big government, of the dangers of individual and systemic corruption vs. the dangers of authoritarianism. The characters are partially-shoehorned into perspectives to service the larger plot and the final deciding fight between Team Cap and Team Iron Man is not based on ideology at all, but rather very personal motivators. 

In this respect, Civil Wargoes the way of MCU films like Iron Man 2and The Avengersin that it is more interested in the personal than the political. This isn’t an inherently inferior storytelling decision, but it makes the film’s second half thematically at odds with its first. It also eschews the larger political narrative inherent particularly in the previous Iron Man(save for Iron Man 2) and Captain Americafilms.

There was a more daring politically-motivated film possible in Civil War,but Marvel ultimately chose to prioritize the introduction of new characters and the larger MCU plot rather than giving a satisfying conclusion (or continuation) to the thematic throughlines in the Tony Stark/Steve Rogers character narratives. This was probably the right business decision — not to mention the safe narrative decision, especially in the long run — but Civil Warwas weaker for it.

Don’t get me wrong, Civil Waris still a ridiculously impressive film. It juggles about a million different storytelling elements and somehow makes it look easy. But, like the Avengersfilms before it, the demands of the larger MCU plot must supercede the demands of any one film’s theme — even if that theme is woven into the very fabric of the MCU.