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Sunday, 27 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Part 5 -- Worldbuilding in the MCU.

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.

With a movie of this scale, I tend to fixate on what happens after the end credits roll. Not in an "I'm really looking forward to Sebastian Stan crying in the sequel!" way (although obviously that's a given), but in the sense of what impact Steve Rogers' actions will have on the rest of the world. I find it disappointing sequels focus purely on character development while hitting the reset button on the rest of the universe, as if the only people effected by a deadly supervillain/apocalypse are the hero and supporting cast. Luckily, the scope of the MCU gives us a better chance to see how the world changes and develops over time.

People love to point out the little details that link Marvel movies together, like Sitwell's offhand mention of Doctor Strange. But to be honest, that type of in-universe worldbuilding is pretty easy. The MCU's real strength is the way it portrays a world with a believable history and contemporary culture, rather than following the more familiar method of plopping a superhero into a city with no hints of influence from the outside world.

From the first Iron Man movie onwards, the existence of superheroes is something that has directly influenced everyday life in the MCU, from the legal ramifications of Tony Stark's unlicensed "prosthesis" to the way he markets himself as a celebrity hero, to his decision to move from weapons manufacturing to clean energy and robotics. By the time we reach Avengers, we've seen more than a glimpse of how the rest of the world is changing as a result. Agents of SHIELD was a stroke of genius because it shares more of the everyday nuts-and-bolts stuff that we're ever going to see in the actual movies. (Note to anyone who stopped watching after the first few episodes: AoS is so good now. Persevere.)

Captain America is the strongest strand in this worldbuilding web because in the MCU, he was the first publicly recognised superhero. He provides a historical link between the Red Skull in the 1940s, and the present-day world of SHIELD and the Avengers. Fittingly, CATWS was the first movie to give us a truly in-depth look at the non-superheroic side of the MCU.

A typical superhero/adventure movie ends with the hero defeating the villain, plus some kind of set-up for a sequel. Just to be clear, I have no real problem with this. A simple story doesn't necessarily preclude good writing. However, one of the reasons this formula is so popular is because studios are leery of making things "too complicated" in case audiences don't show up for later sequels -- a theory that's now been obliterated by the increasingly complex nature of the MCU. Marvel Studios loves worldbuilding, and their movies are better as a result. 

The events of CATWS turned the MCU on its head. SHIELD is not only rotten to the core, but functionally dead. The Avengers no longer have the support structure of a rational, government-funded backup to help clear things up after the next alien invasion. Fury is in hiding. Natasha is now a public figure. Coulson and his team are on the run. Thanks to Natasha's Snowden-esque leak, anyone with internet access can now read everything from SHIELD's black ops missions to the Helicarrier specs to Hawkeye's psych evaluations. Civilians now know precisely how much SHIELD has been hiding from them all these years, and therefore people are likely to react differently to superhuman threats (and heroes) in the future. By sheer force of numbers, "normal people" are now more powerful and influential than the strongest of the Avengers.

Avengers was the most high-impact movie before this, but for obvious reasons it didn't show much of its own aftermath. Iron Man 3, much like its prequels, focused on Tony Stark's life and emotional journey -- although it still followed on from Avengers, because one of the main themes was Tony struggling with PTSD resulting from the Chitauri attack. Thor: The Dark World told Loki's side of the post-Avengers story and spent half of the time on alien planets, meaning that there wasn't much room for earthbound worldbuilding. But Captain America? He was the perfect choice to show us everything else, not just because we already knew he was working with SHIELD (i.e. the Avengers' most direct link to the civilian population), but because Cap has always been a hero of the people.

It would be a waste of a movie to just have Steve Rogers face off against some supervillain all by himself. Even in The First Avenger, he was backed up by Bucky, Peggy and the Howling Commandos. Before that, his first mission as Captain America was as a propaganda icon, a foundation for his later role as an in-universe historical/comicbook hero. Basically, Cap is public property. Even his origin story is all about collaboration, with Dr Erskine and Howard Stark working to build a supersoldier, rather than Steve's powers being an accident of birth, magic, or science.

Cap is pretty unusual in that his battles aren't personal so much as idealogical. Most supervillain/hero conflicts are a combination of personal rivalry (Lex Luthor/Superman, Thor/Loki, Tony Stark/Obadiah Stane, etc.) and the supervillain Doing Something Evil That Must Be Stopped. In the MCU, Captain America doesn't really have an arch-enemy in that sense. He just fights bad people, which he'd already been trying to do before he got the supersoldier serum. This attitude is why it makes sense for Steve to be working for SHIELD in CATWS, while Tony Stark stays on the sidelines. Steve wants to help, and he feels that SHIELD is the place where he can most effectively put himself to good use.

This also ties into the way Steve straddles the line between human and superhuman, meaning that it's still ethically acceptable for him to be going toe-to-toe with normal people. Captain America can be surprisingly indiscriminate in the kind of bad guys he decides to take down, because unlike Superman (who can kill more or less anybody without breaking a sweat) or Tony Stark (who is richer than god and can blast you out the sky with his near-indestructible robot suit), it doesn't feel like overkill to have Steve go up against someone like Batroc. Sure, he's stronger and faster than an ordinary human, but he's not so strong and so fast that you see him having to rein himself in. His enhanced physical abilities are a tool rather than a weapon of mass destruction.

In The First Avenger, Steve's battle with the Red Skull only becomes personal after Bucky dies. CATWS mirrors this because Cap's plan to defeat HYDRA is all very strategic and practical until he discovers that Bucky is the Winter Soldier, at which point all bets are off. All those comparisons between CATWS and spy thriller movies are apt, because the story structure isn't particularly superheroic: Cap goes out of his way first to identify the enemy, then to investigate what's going on, and finally to gather a team and face up to that threat. This is a perfect fit for Steve Rogers' characterisation as a commanding officer and as a guy who always goes out of his way to do the right thing, and it also highlights the significance of him risking everything to keep Bucky alive at the end.

The disaster movie genre has been around forever, but recently there's been an uptick in the number of summer blockbusters that illustrate their impact with colossal infrastructure damage. This may be Michael Bay's fault, and I don't find it very effective because with a PG or PG-13 rating in mind, no amount of toppling skyscrapers will feel meaningful.

This feels particularly bizarre when you consider America's obsession with urban terrorist attacks. Hollywood movies regularly include disasters that are ten or even a hundred times more devastating than 9/11, but they zoom out until all you're experiencing is grey concrete dust, tiny people running around like ants, and the distant vibration of a dramatic bass soundtrack. The true impact of such a disaster quickly becomes bloodless, distant, and sanitized.

I find it quite unpleasant to watch this kind of movie that implies vast amounts of civilian casualties, but cleanses that loss by removing its bloodshed and viscerality. I'd rather have a supervillain cause the meaningful death of one character we actually care about, than have him destroy fifty skyscrapers full of nameless civilians whose deaths are reduced to a silent, PG-rated nonentity. I'd rather have Obi-Wan Kenobi say "It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced," than watch another CGI shot of buildings falling like dominoes, with no sign of who was inside. CATWS wasn't perfect in this regard, but it had three things counting in its favour:
  1. Whenever action scenes took place in a public space, it was a situation where the heroes had no choice but to stand and fight -- or drive wherever there was still space on the road. There were very few situations where the good guys could have caused the deaths of innocent bystanders, which is more than you can say for Man of Steel.
  2. The inevitable "huge things crashing into each other" scene was when Team Steve took down the Helicarriers, and there was an actual reason for them to be crashing, unlike the endlessly disaster-prone skyscrapers I keep seeing in other movies. Also, the people in the Helicarriers were explicitly shown to be enemy combatants, and Steve already gave them every opportunity to leave their posts.
  3. The scene where Natasha desperately yells at civilians to get to safety. (Which, incidentally, is one of the very few scenes where one of the heroes actually has a chance to do something to help nearby civilians, because most of the time they're already running for their lives as well.)
Take a look at Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel. All three include scenes where major population centres are heavily damaged by attacking alien forces, but Avengers is the only one that attempts to humanize the situation. Captain America is on the ground, coordinating police to get civilians to safety, while the rest of the Avengers keep the Chitauri attackers inside a five-block radius to avoid more buildings being damaged. In Man of Steel and STID, buildings collapse and thousands of civilians die invisible offscreen deaths that in the case of MoS, are at least partly the fault of Superman himself. Meanwhile in the Marvel universe, an entire movie (Iron Man 3) was dedicated to the trauma of that attack, with Tony Stark exhibiting classic PTSD symptoms and building hundreds of Iron Man suits in an attempt to shield himself from (possibly imaginary) threats.

Superhero movies often seem to use civilian casualties as a kind of points system: "Choose between saving a schoolbus full of children, or saving your girlfriend!" The goal of superheroism is to protect the helpless from superpowered threats, but I feel like The Avengers is the only recent urban-warfare example that does this in an practical fashion. In the MCU, the main characters interact with the rest of the world in an organic and believable way, and CATWS was the most ambitious example of that so far.

This genre is always going to require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. For example, the concept of secret identities has always been kind of ridiculous, and is now even less plausible than it was before. Given the level of surveillance technology now available, Spider-Man and Batman would have been unmasked within days of becoming public figures. However, for those stories to keep being told in any recogniseable fashion, the issue of secret identities must simply be ignored. And personally, I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when a hero repeatedly defeats various supervillains in a very public and dangerous way, and everyone else just keeps... living on as normal.

Character-wise, one of the most significant worldbuilding decisions in the MCU was to make all of their heroes completely public. Steve Rogers is famous enough that Sam Wilson could recognise him in the park. Tony and Pepper are already celebrities, of a sort. All of the Avengers are now mythologised with in-universe memorabilia. In fact, the only characters with anything remotely resembling secret identities were SHIELD agents like Hawkeye, Fury and Black Widow, who are the least "super" of the main Avengers team. Following CATWS, even Black Widow is a public figure, appearing on TV to testify about the SHIELD/HYDRA document leak. She is now the Edward Snowden of the MCU.

The MCU doesn't really require the kind of suspension of disbelief needed to continue watching Spider-Man movies, where New York cops continually fail to shoot the Green Goblin out of the sky. First of all, the scope of the MCU allows us to get a closer look at things like SHIELD, which explains how superhuman/alien phenomena have stayed secret for so long. SHIELD also shows how normal humans react to the sudden appearance of people like Thor and Captain America. Secondly, the hero/villain conflicts in the MCU are not confined to just the hero and the villain, but have a solid foundation in the world "outside." Even Malekith in Thor: The Dark World (probably the most two-dimensional villain so far) was shown in terms of the real consequences of his actions, with that tear-jerking Asgardian funeral scene.

Most importantly of all, the human characters in the MCU are just as significant and powerful as the superhumans. Nick Fury is undoubtedly more powerful than any of the Avengers: he's their boss. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark helped found SHIELD, an organization that spent decades shaping the way the world would react to people like Thor and Iron Man. Pepper Potts and Jane Foster both have an ongoing impact on the world around them. Phil Coulson is the catalyst that brings the Avengers together in the first place.

In CATWS, we see this expand to its greatest extent so far, with Agent 13 and crowds of other SHIELD agents making the decision to ignore their orders and fight alongside Cap. By elevating the importance of human/civilian characters, the MCU creates a more complex and believable world than most other superhero movies -- and all without disempowering its heroes.

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Continued in:

Part 6: Costuming and design: Steve & Bucky
Part 7: Costuming in CATWS: Nick Fury, Black Widow and S.H.I.E.L.D.


  1. These aren't so much about CA:TWS, but other stuff raised in the article.

    One of the things I liked in THE AVENGERS is that they very pointedly made it clear that nobody had a person on the ground in the big public set pieces. It would really just have been Pepper and Jane, but it's made very clear that both of those characters are off safe somewhere, so protecting loved ones isn't an additional factor in the mission for our heroes.

    In comparison, there's this weirdness in MoS where literally tens of thousands of people must have died in Metropolis before Superman shows up to intervene and he has this oddly upbeat reunion with his love interest and her friends before getting into the final fight with Zod, which ends with him so anguished about having to kill this one genocidal maniac. It's such weird tonal shift between how unconcerned Supes seems to be about the abstract deaths of strangers versus this one Kryptonian.


    I don't know that I've ever bought the necessity of Coulson's "death" in terms of bringing the team together, no matter what Joss wants to argue he was going for there. Hawkeye doesn't even know about it, but certainly Hawkeye would have wanted revenge on Loki anyway, Thor also had his own reasons for wanting to stop Loki, Cap was going to do the right thing because he's Cap, Banner wanted to prove that he's not just a monster and Black Widow wanted to atone for her past sins. Arguably, the only person who maybe got some kind of real bump from it was Stark and there is an aspect to the film in general that THE AVENGERS could have worked as the conclusion to the IRON MAN franchise if there hadn't been an IM3. So, that's fair, but I never saw it as that strong a motivation for anybody else.

    Even before Coulson's death, the team seemed to be working together just fine, if in smaller groupings, when they had an active fight in front of them and a lot of the final battle involves people working solo at Cap's direction or pairings or trios that you would expect to work just fine together (Cap and Black Widow, Black Widow and Hawkeye, Cap and Black Widow and Hawkeye, Thor and Cap). It's just when things calm down and they have time for conversation that personalities clash, but I assume that aspect has never gone away in the comic canon either.

    You could just as easily argue that Fury's guilt-tripping exploitation of Coulson was more effective as a method of temporarily diverting the team's attention away from the justifiable concern they (sans widow) had over SHIELD's weapons program and other tactics, a fundamental conflict between him and the Avengers that ultimately results in Cap bringing down SHIELD in CA:TWS.

    I mean, I just kind of feel like this is a Whedony thing he likes to do to give people personal motivations and I didn't think he justified it well enough here.

  2. typo alert: "only people effected" affected! sorry, i'm that jerk.

  3. Dusty, I have to agree with you on that. I don't think the Avengers needed Coulson's death as motivation. No matter how at odds any of the team were with one anothers while being manipulated by Loki's sceptor, they weren't people who would sit idly by while aliens attacked their planet.

  4. Re Stark, you could also note that, while he's rather despondent at Coulson's death, he really gets motivated by realizing that Loki is going to use his tech to create the portal. So that interferes with his overall mission in the series to get out of weapons and into something more benevolent as a way of atoning for his and his father's sins. So, yeah, even Stark being driven to avenge Coulson is a bit of a stretch.

  5. Very interesting thoughts! I'm more of a DC girl, so I don't know too much about Captain America beyond the movies. But I like this idea of Captain America as a "public property" hero. Or, to put it another way, a national treasure. No wonder the poor man's so desperately lonely! No one quite sees the real Steve, do they?
    However, I don't
    quite agree that MoS had destruction without humanizing it.
    You had Pete Ross standing in total shock in the middle of his IHOP. You had Jenny trapped under debris and Perry and what's-his-face refusing to leave her, even after it was clear they couldn't do anything to save her. A year before MoS came out, I was in the middle of an EF4 tornado that passed 100 yards from my front door. My street was in ruins, bits of my neighbor's houses scattered across the road. And in the theater I was having a rough time during the jenny scene...because in the middle of all that destruction, here were three characters I'd come to care about, looking and acting like me and my neighbors on the worst day of my life. IDK, maybe it's different perspectives. But I thought MoS did just fine with humanizing all that CG destruction.
    Also, Superman was relatively untrained in combat, going up against a life-long warrior who was his physical equal. Expecting him to control the situation is a bit "unrealistic". Yes, people died because he didn't stop Zod sooner. But more people would have died if he hadn't stopped Zod at all.

  6. I have always been of the opinion that the only real "motivating" that Coulson's death caused was the Avengers being "motivated" not to keep criticizing Fury and SHIELD's decisions. It's caused a related problem for me watching the T.V. show, as I see no reason why Coulson was so important that he gets to be raised from the dead. The show seems to have dropped that mystery for the time being, but I wouldn't mind getting a more concrete answer than "his death gave Fury the sads."

  7. I haven't see MoS, but I agree that the bloodless mass violence is disturbing and I appreciate that the MCU has at least made steps to countering that trend (while still letting us enjoy our explodies). There was one scene you didn't mention in CA:TWS that really stood out to me (I haven't seen any other reviewer mention it, so maybe it's just me): when the Winter Soldier ambushes Cap., Widow and Falcon while they're transporting Sitwell, Cap gets tossed off an overpass and into a bus. When the camera returns to him, the first shot you see is a close shot of a clearly injured woman being helped off of the bus by other civilians - the shot then pans around to Cap getting up and returning to the battle. I thought the scene did a great job of actually showing collateral damage, admittedly still pretty bloodless, but more explicit than the screaming dots.

  8. Just wanted to say that your analyses of CA:TWS made me enjoy and appreciate this movie so much more! :D

  9. brilliantmistake29 April 2014 at 18:20

    I'm so glad you wrote this; Coulson's death has always bugged me for exactly those reasons. In Dark world, you can argue that Frigga's death was needed to motivate Loki because he's a bad guy (or at least give cover for his machinations), but the Avengers are heroes. I'd like to think they'd suck it up, cooperate, and save the world despite their differences. Before Coulson dies, Tony and Cap have already started cooperating to save the helicarrier, there's no reason to think they wouldn't continue to save the planet. Plus, once Loki's sceptre was gone, you'd expect there to be less rancor.

  10. You wrote: "Steve Rogers
    is famous enough that Sam Wilson could recognise him in the park."

    Well, I'm pretty sure Sam knew who it was from the fact the guy passing him was running, like, 30 miles an hour! Seeing the guy's face afterward wasn't really necessary by then.

  11. We need to distinguish between the battle in Smallville, which you reference, where few if any civilian casualties occurred, and the mega-battle in Metropolis, which was the site of the civilian major carnage in a densely populated urban center. It was the latter that raises the issue.

    As for Superman's culpability, it's not an issue of IF he fights Zod, but rather WHERE he fights Zod. Zod isn't knocking down Metropolis for it's own sake, but only because that's where he happens to be when the battle with Superman begins. Once the two joined in battle, had Superman gone out over the ocean to continue, Zod would have followed. That fight was about the two of them.

    Zod didn't care where he was fighting. He only cared whom he was fighting. So yes, Superman, on the other hand, should have cared that their fight was slaughtering thousands, and he could have moved the action away from the center of Metropolis.

    Didn't mean to hijack this away from KATNISS (oops, that's Hunger Games). I mean, CATWS. Sorry.

  12. Jenny was in Metropolis. And Superman tried to take the fight into space. Zod forced it back to Metropolis.

  13. Dwight Williams7 May 2014 at 18:03

    Critics of MoS do seem to keep trying to ignore these specific points. There were Reasons why Zod was raining bits of WayneTech commsat down on New Troy Island.

  14. ["Zod didn't care where he was fighting. He only cared whom he was fighting. So yes, Superman, on the other hand, should have cared that their fight was slaughtering thousands, and he could have moved the action away from the center of Metropolis."]

    If Superman's combat abilities were the same as Zod's, I would have agreed with you. But since Zod was a more experienced fighter, I don't. As the more experienced fighter, Zod managed to keep the fight in Metropolis, despite Superman's efforts.

  15. Rush Blog, Hannah: Yes! Exactly this!

    As to Coulson's first death - not going to be his last, though! - I thought of it as more of a call to focus on something they'd already started moving toward in the first place. A final straw kind of summons.

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