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Saturday 5 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Part 2 -- HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe

Previously: Part 1: "Trust No One" -- Steve Rogers as the ~gritty superhero America deserves.

When it came to using HYDRA as the antagonist once again, Winter Soldier's writers were caught between a rock and a hard place. At face value, the concept of an evil organization infiltrating SHIELD is perfect for the Winter Soldier storyline ("You shaped the century.") and can be linked in with real-world concerns about PRISM and drone strikes.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn't really create a new, more plausible evil conspiracy when they already had HYDRA ready and waiting in the sidelines of the Captain America mythos. This meant they then had to try and legitimize a scenario where thousands of SHIELD agents decided to join a blatantly evil secret society with roots in a Nazi cult, without ever being detected. And, in many cases, without a clear-cut explanation for why they joined in the first place.

With a villain as wide-ranging as HYDRA, they had to give us a few entry characters to illustrate different aspects of the organization. Zola represented the cartoonishly evil Nazi backstory, while Alexander Pierce had a more pragmatic explanation for why he believed in HYDRA's goals. The weakest point was Agent Sitwell. Introduced as the "human" side of HYDRA, he was the evil equivalent of Coulson's benevolent middle-manager schtick in Avengers.

I understand why they chose Sitwell: He's an established character, and having him turn traitor was proof that HYDRA was there already, lurking under everyone's nose. Except by putting Sitwell in that role, we're now supposed to believe that this previously friendly dude was secretly really evil all along, to the point of conspiring with lecherous senators and plotting to kill millions of people.

And yet the movie never provides us with an explanation for why he decided this was a good idea, or why nobody ever noticed. By bringing Sitwell front and centre like this, they accidentally highlighted the lack of plausible motives for becoming as a HYDRA spy.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure Sitwell is the only Latino character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So while we're meant to be feeling betrayed that a familiar character turned out to be a bad guy, I think many fans are more likely to feel betrayed about the fact that it was Sitwell, specifically. After all, Sitwell isn't actually a person, he's a character who a team of filmmakers decided would best serve the story by turning evil and then dying.

Let's take a look at the trajectory of the two main SHIELD agents we see as background characters throughout the MCU: Coulson and Sitwell. Now, I love Clark Gregg as Coulson, and I think he deserves his role in Agents of SHIELD. But CATWS basically tells us that out of two recurring characters with similar roles in the franchise, the white guy was pushed to have a well-developed storyline and a huge fanbase, while the Latino character's most significant contribution was to inexplicably become an evil minion, and then a corpse.

Just to counterbalance what I've said about Sitwell's role, it's also worth pointing out that CATWS is still way more diverse than any other superhero movie in recent memory. Which is kind of a dubious honour considering Hollywood's incredibly low bar for this kind of thing, but whatever.

Out of the central cast of good guys (Cap, Falcon, Black Widow, Fury, Maria Hill and Agent 13), only one of them was a white guy, and everyone had distinct and engaging characterization. (N.B. You can read my thoughts on X-Men: First Class here. With such a big ensemble cast the X-Men series has the opportunity to reach miles ahead of any other current franchise, but they wind up shooting themselves in the foot over and over again.)

I hope that Marvel isn't going to just reach this point and then plateau. There's a lot of talk in comics fandom about how the Marvel universe is far more diverse than DC, and how Marvel Studios is better than anyone else when it comes to movie adaptations. However, we're still at the point where Marvel is praised for the Thor franchise being "girl-friendly" because it has emotional depth and three female characters who aren't love interests. CATWS manages five whole women, which seems mindblowingly impressive until you notice the fact that a) the movie doesn't even pass the Bechdel Test, and b) virtually every background character is a dude.

Just to clarify, I'm not all up in arms about CATWS, and obviously I enjoyed it both as an action movie and as an addition to the MCU. This is just a reminder that even in a relatively well-thought-out film like this, we're still measuring our standards of diversity and gender representation by the extremely low bar of "average Hollywood blockbuster."

Having successfully established a couple of female side-characters like Maria Hill and Agent 13, perhaps Marvel can now work their way up to something vaguely approaching gender parity for the background cast (LOL, this will never happen), or even give Black Widow her own movie. Because seriously, it's kinda ridiculous that Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy got there before her.

Continued in:

Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU
Part 6: Costuming and design: Steve & Bucky
Part 7: Costuming in CATWS: Nick Fury, Black Widow and S.H.I.E.L.D.


  1. I think Maria Hill and Black Widow do briefly discuss bullets while watching Fury in surgery, but your point still stands

  2. Did Sitwell actually die? I missed that, and felt unsure of it by the end. Which may have just been "too much going on, didn't pay attention at some key moment".

    I certainly thought at the time, and remarked to my friends, that I was annoyed about Sitwell's heel-turn. But, I reflected that if one of the two pre-established SHIELD agents (who isn't Coulson) was going to have a heel-turn, and one was going to show up and save the day multiple times, I was kind of glad that Maria Hill was given the latter role.

    Still, I was holding out hope for Sitwell to turn out to be a double-agent, as it were. Alas.

  3. It's sort of worth noting that, although, as a group, MCU SHIELD looks like a whole bunch of white folks and white dudes specifically, if you look at the recurring characters that would have been an option here, it's surprisingly diverse: two women, a black guy, a Latino and two white guys.

    Since the two white guys (Hawkeye and Coulson) weren't viable options, there was no way to go that wasn't going to be a hit, diversity-wise. And Sitwell's not a great option, since I doubt he's registered all that much with viewers who watch only the MCU features and they didn't do much to set him up here prior to his unmasking.

    But then they wouldn't have needed to make any recurring character a mole if they'd embraced the paranoid political thriller genre more fully. They needed to isolate Steve Rogers more than they did, but he never really doubts Black Widow or questions his sudden friendship with Sam Wilson. They could have had him in a relationship with Sharon Carter only to
    feel betrayed when he finds out she's a SHIELD agent that's been
    assigned to him. They could have made him more disoriented by Bucky's resurrection, perhaps having him question whether, like Peggy, he's starting to suffer from some kind of dementia. They wouldn't have needed those couple of recognizable moles if they'd embraced some of the other genre conventions instead.

  4. OH MY GOD how did I forget that? I did note it at the time! Like, "OW!!!" I guess there was just a lot of intense movie after that and awesome Falcon action sequences and it got pushed out of my brain.

    Because his "death" would have taken place below the line of sight of the Jersey barriers, I suppose there is room for them to decide that he didn't die after all, that he fell into the narrow 3 or 4 feet between the barrier and the semi. I'd buy that, given the angle of it.

    (I haven't caught up with my viewing of AOS yet -- that's okay, I don't really care about spoilers, but yeah, I didn't go into the movie with the up to date developments of the show in mind. I suspect Hand because of the comics, is all. But I forgot to mention that because of the comics, it might have made me suspect Maria Hill would be made "bad" a bit more, and I'm glad they didn't go that route.)

    I think it's a good point that the POV of HYDRA/SHIELD is really not seeming so different from the POV of the Security Council in Avengers.

  5. Also, weren't they in contact during the mission? And talked while in the secret base?

  6. Great stuff on the frankly idiotic comments about the Black Widow being eye candy in the MARVEL films. When I read people making statements like that, I have to wonder what planet they live on. Of her three movie appearances (IRON MAN 2, AVENGERS, WINTER SOLDIER), only one, IRON MAN 2, could be seen as having overtly sexed-up aspects, and even that was pretty mild by the standards of, say, Michael Bay. In contrast, AVENGERS and WINTER SOLDIER are pretty much devoid of cinematic leering. If film critics are getting hot and bothered by the Black Widow, well, that's pretty much entirely due to ScarJo being an attractive woman. The film-makers are certainly not using her for that purpose.

  7. I think it's more likely that any HYDRA agent joined HYDRA first, and then SHIELD. With some of the higher-ups in SHIELD being secret HYDRA members from the beginning, it would be easy to doctor records or just hire the "right" kinds of people until you've got a sizable secret faction.

  8. This is Marvel, so there is no guarantee that Hydra!Sitwell was the real Sitwell. Its not like established characters have never been replaced by lookalikes for nefarious purposes in the comic books. I could easily see Coulson & Co. rescuing the real Sitwell sometime during season 2, or even Sitwell just showing up one day with only a brief explanation to hand wave his betrayal away.

  9. The whole "mooks are always men" thing is something I find increasingly tiresome. The only property I can think of that did not do this was Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV show, not *barf* movie) and it was amazing how much it gave me the warm fuzzies. Even putting just one or two women in the elevator-ambush sequence would have been awesome.

  10. Pretty sure these people were Hydra BEFORE they joined SHIELD. Some of them may have been brought in afterwards but I don't think it's that implausible within the universe we've been shown. They had 60 years to do all this in, it's not really that surprising they could get a lot of people 'in place", because as pointed out, SHIELD and HYDRA's missions in some ways weren't that different, there really wasn't that much separating Fury from Pierce, or rather they ran along sort of parallel paths, so those people were mostly able to just go along and feel perfectly fine about it, able to act and perhaps even feel like perfectly normal co-workers.

    Also Hydra were not Nazi's. Too many people conflate them but we see in CA: TFA that Red Skull breaks away, he has his own people. Red Skull's Hydra was using the Nazi's in much the same way Hydra has been using SHIELD. It so happened they were an "evil" using an "evil" group when they were with the Nazi's whereas now they were an "evil" who had been using a good group as their face. But Hydra is not "the Nazis".

  11. shannon windley19 April 2014 at 08:42

    Part of me wishes for this because i always liked Sitwell as a background character, but then i can see why they chose him to be a double agent, thematically he mirrors Colson in his roles in the previous movies. And if they do decide to resurrect him in some form it might take the fear of death out of characters in peril in the movie verse, cause he will be the 3rd character to ether be resurrected or fake his death in the movie verse. Because then character shields will become stronger than vibranimum it it becomes a trend

  12. If I recall correctly, it does actually scrape a pass on the Bechdel Test - it's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, but Maria Hill and Black Widow have a brief conversation during Nick Fury's operation where they talk about topics like the assassination attempt and what exactly is going on, where the subject isn't Fury specifically, but the attempt on his life and just what in the fuck happened. It's just barely a pass, but IIRC, it still passes.

  13. MarĂ­a Hill is latina! Although as far as the movies go you cant really tell. Also there's a lot of discussion about whether or not it passes bechdel, it definitely makes levels 1 and 2, I consider the bullet conversation to count for level 3 personally, but I acknowledge it is debatable.

  14. I think I can clear up a point. You worte that, "we're never given a plausible motive for why someone like a SHIELD agent would join a Nazi-founded conspiracy" That's because "someone like a SHIELD agent" wouldn't. If I infer correctly, you seem to feel that good hearted people are joining SHIELD and then being recruited into HYDRA. No.

    HYDRA is doing its own recruiting. It doesn't wait until someone is a SHIELD agent. They recruit the badguys who would never join SHIELD. So right from the start of their careers HYDRA agents are working undercover within SHIELD.

    HYDRA's been doing so since SHIELD was founded. So as SHIELD was being created, HYDRA was already inside, natural to the structure, and comfortably invisible.

  15. It's fine and fun and perhaps even illustrative to compare and contrast Coulson with Sitwell. But in trying to project from that most minimal sampling possible of just two people, to a greater message about diversity in the Marvel universe, you are, I fear, going too far with too little.

    Like Freud said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and here, Agent Sitwell is just a HYDRA agent, and not a representative of Marvel Studios representation of the entire Latino universe.

    Last point. You wrote, "by putting Sitwell in that role, we're now supposed to believe that this previously friendly dude has secretly been really evil all along," Well, that's kinda the whole point. That's why they call it, "under cover." If you could TELL he were evil, he'd have been caught long ago. And dramatically, he has to be a familiar and likable character for the revelation of his betrayal to carry any emotional weight.

    I'm loving this series of CATWS blogs. Overall they're very strong.

  16. I too thought Hill and Black Widow were in communication during the fight at the Triskelion, but it doesn't seem proper dialogue, in comparison to the men's.

    I was really bothered by Sitwell for the reasons you mention. I like this universe a lot and enjoy *Agents of SHIELD*, but the first two African American agents we met on the show were both used by the bad guys, in Mike Peterson's case *two different ways*. I think they have a ways to go on racial diversity in particular. (*Agents of SHIELD* does stand out for regularly passing the Bechdel test.)

  17. Actually, they are. Much like in the comics, HYDRA was created by Nazis. The Red Skull himself was just as bigoted as Hitler.

    So they are in fact Nazis, HYDRA is a white supremist group.

  18. Sam wasn't a part of SHIELD, he had no reason to question his friendship and they are best friends in the comics.

  19. Since when is Hill Latina? She's white in the film and in the comics.

  20. As a person of colour, I am glad that we at least get two Asian-American women as bonafide agents of SHIELD (token two-fer minority get). But if you consider that *both* secret agent characters of Maximiliano Hernandez die within a week of each other (he got killed off in The Americans too), it's disheartening on so many levels. I'm glad people in the fandom are catching this.

  21. Benjamin Rosenbaum3 June 2014 at 11:20

    The "lecherous senator" is a bit of diversity fail as well: the one civilian agent of Hydra we meet is a corrupt, nebbishy Senator who kvetches about his back, jokes about schtupping his intern, and then leans in to whisper "Hail Hydra" in an agent's ear. Really?

    I felt the screenwriters elbowing me in the ribs.

    SCREENWRITERS: Ha, you thought this was just going to be a walking "Jews control congress" stereotype, but it's a reversal, get it? Get it? Sure, he's a corrupt, weak (Cap, after all, would never complain about a bad back!), and sexually licentious Jew who is part of a conspiracy secretly controlling the United States Congress... but it's a *Nazi* conspiracy! See how we turned that whole thing on its head? Edgy, right??

    ME: Oh, for -- shut the fuck up, all right?

  22. I have a problem with your argument . . . namely this:

    ["I understand why they chose Sitwell: He's an established character, and having him turn traitor was proof that HYDRA had been there all along, lurking under everyone's nose. Except by putting Sitwell in that role, we're now supposed to believe that this previously friendly dude has secretly been really evil all along, to the point of conspiring with lecherous senators and plotting to kill millions of people, including Tony Stark and the President."]

    Since when has Sitwell ever been friendly? He has always came off as distant and cool to me. I think you had mistaken familiarity for "friendly". Also, Sitwell is an Anglo character portrayed by a Latino actor.

    However, I do have a major problem with how "AGENTS OF SHIELD" portrayed its POCs . . . especially African American men.

  23. ["Also Hydra were not Nazi's. Too many people conflate them but we see in CA: TFA that Red Skull breaks away, he has his own people. Red Skull's Hydra was using the Nazi's in much the same way Hydra has been using SHIELD. It so happened they were an "evil" using an "evil" group when they were with the Nazi's whereas now they were an "evil" who had been using a good group as their face. But Hydra is not "the Nazis"."]

    Actually, this is wrong. HYDRA was created by the Nazis. But when Johann Schmidt became the Red Skull, dear old Adolf kept him at a distant, because he physically no longer adhered to Aryan ideals. This disgusted Schmidt, who viewed his super soldier abilities a lot higher than Nazi ideology. HYDRA broke off from the Nazis and as one scene revealed, planned to destroy Berlin and Hitler's circle; along with New York and other major cities.

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