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Talking Sam Wilson: Captain America With Graphic Policy Radio

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As some of you may know, the conservative media recently threw a hissy because the new Captain America comic book features Sam Wilson as a black Captain America bashes conservatives by portraying them as having a problem with a black Captain America who expresses his support for rights for the undocumented and gets attacked by the fictional equivalent of Fox News:

CAPFOX
Pictured: Marvel setting up Fox News like Lucy with the football

So Elana Levin and Brett Schenker of Graphic Policy Radio decided to invite me on their program, which will be airing live at 10PM Eastern.

So if you’d like to listen to me talk out the rough draft of an upcoming blog post about this with two awesome folks who know their comic books and their politics, click the link above.

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  • wjts

    Captain America is (and indeed always has been) a proponent of transforming American society into something very much like Salazar’s Estado Novo. I have discovered a truly marvelous* proof of this, which this comment box is too narrow to contain.

    *Hi-yoooooooooo!

    • Wait, what? I highly doubt Steve Rogers is a fascist.

      • wjts

        As I said, the comment box is too narrow to contain my proof, but two obvious clues can be found in the character’s name: “Steve Rogers” is clearly an allusion to Pope Steve III, principal architect of the Counter-Reformation, and Pope Roger IX, author of an encyclical condemning the Revolutions of 1848. And you can’t spell “Csaptaln Amerzica” without “Salazar”.

      • Halloween Jack

        I think that he’s making a joke by way of a Fermat’s Last Theorem reference.

  • Docrailgun

    Steve Rogers quit being Captain America several times over his disagreements with US politics, so should Sam decide to quit noone would be surprised. I mean, the reason he’s Cap now is that Cap has been aged up and looks like Cable.

  • CP

    Is this becoming a regular occurrence? Every few years, the conservative world seems to rediscover, to its astonishment, that Captain America is being written as a liberal, assume this is a horrifying deviation from the norm, and start bitching that a character who’s always been liberal is being hijacked.

    Cap was always the World War Two liberal to Tony Stark’s Cold War conservative. Get over it already.

  • Hogan

    Senator Calls on Captain America to Resign

    Captain America is . . . a job?

    • CP

      Yarp.

      I can think of four off the top of my head – Steve Rogers (the “real” one), the crazy McCarthy-Cap of the 1950s, Bucky Barnes who replaced him for a while a few years ago, and apparently now Sam Wilson.

      Same for his archenemy the Red Skull. There’s three of him – one an American industrialist who was secretly a Nazi spy, then the “real” one Johann Schmidt, and then a Communist one in the 1950s to go with the McCarthy-Cap of that era.

      • Murc

        Don’t you dare forget Isaiah Bradley.

        (I can talk about Isaiah for hours.)

        • CP

          My knowledge of Marvel isn’t extensive enough, obviously. (I don’t even know if that’s supposed to be a Cap or a Skull I forgot).

          • Murc

            Isaiah Bradley was the “original” black Captain America.

            Short version: the US government was very interested in replicating the experiment that produced Steve Rogers, so they did what they always did when they needed guinea pigs: rounded up a bunch of black guys and experimented on them in gross and unethical ways.

            • CP

              Must track down that comic.

              Wait… It didn’t occur to anyone in the segregated-era U.S. that turning black people into super-soldiers might NOT be a good idea (if preserving racial supremacy is one of your goals, that is?)

              Or was that program not ideologically racist, just doing what was convenient?

              • It’s called Truth: Red, White, and Black.

                Highly worth reading.

                • Murc

                  I would fucking love it if Isaiah showed up in Agent Carter, but Agent Carter (as well as Agents of SHIELD) is about as aggressively safe and inoffensive as its possible for a genre show to be and has no interest in all that highfalutin’ social commentary.

                  Because why would the people who loved CA:TWS be interested in any of that shit, am I right?

                • I have, sadly, come to the conclusion that no one at Marvel actually understands the signficance of the events of Winter Soldier. Agents of SHIELD‘s handling of the aftermath, in particular, has been nothing short of dispiriting.

                  Agent Carter clearly believes that it is making social commentary through its feminist message, and I do credit it for that. But on the other hand, it’s a particularly second-wave type of feminism, with no intersectional awareness whatsoever (the total absence of people of color from the first season was unbelievably glaring). Not to mention that no one involved with the show, or the rest of the MCU, is willing to face up to the fact that Peggy Carter is one of the people most responsible for everything that went wrong with SHIELD.

                • Murc

                  I have, sadly, come to the conclusion that no one at Marvel actually understands the signficance of the events of Winter Soldier. Agents of SHIELD‘s handling of the aftermath, in particular, has been nothing short of dispiriting.

                  Right?

                  I just imagine Cap catching up with Coulson one day and going “So let me get this straight. After SHIELD imploded because it was essentially a gang of unaccountable hooligans who had entered into an unwitting alliance with fascist crazies, you rebuilt it into an organization of even less accountability and greater hooliganism, and have recently entered into an explicit alliance with fascist crazies. Have I got all that right, Phil? I think I’m going to start hitting you now. I’m not sure when I’ll stop.”

                  Agent Carter clearly believes that it is making social commentary through its feminist message, and I do credit it for that. But on the other hand, it’s a particularly second-wave type of feminism, with no intersectional awareness whatsoever (the total absence of people of color from the first season was unbelievably glaring).

                  Hayley Atwell has at least been none-to-subtly pushing to make Peggy bi, so there’s that, but as you say the showrunners can’t even bring themselves to have some black people in New York City in the 1940s, so its unlikely they’re going to suddenly drop in an explicitly queer female lead.

                  Not to mention that no one involved with the show, or the rest of the MCU, is willing to face up to the fact that Peggy Carter is one of the people most responsible for everything that went wrong with SHIELD.

                  Eh, we don’t actually know that. I mean, it would be an interesting storyline, where Peggy and Howard make one compromise after another and don’t take care that the people they recruit are of good moral character, so by the time Howard is killed and Peggy retires they’ve built this awful amalgamation of good and evil and don’t even realize it, but I’ve always more gotten the impression that the rot was only supposed to have really set in during the Fury era.

                  Also a fact not yet dealt with: how Hydra saw Nick Fury and his combination of aggressive idealism and ends-justify-the-means pragmatism coming a fucking mile away. They must have laughed and laughed and laughed every time he had his goons kick in a door somewhere and haul people away with hoods over their heads in the service of building a better world. Laughed long and hard.

                  It would be nice if Nick faced up to that at some point. Maria too.

                • Halloween Jack

                  Not to mention that no one involved with the show, or the rest of the MCU, is willing to face up to the fact that Peggy Carter is one of the people most responsible for everything that went wrong with SHIELD.

                  I’ll go along with the rest of your criticism, but AFAICT there’s no indication that Peggy Carter was the only one in charge of SHIELD between Chester Phillips and Nick Fury (unless this was canonized in one of the TV shows).

                • Murc:

                  The problem with your delightful fanfic is that it gets Jossed (quite literally) by the end of Age of Ultron, in which Steve seems perfectly fine with the notion of unaccountable hooliganism, even recruiting some of the people who let SHIELD go so very wrong (Maria Hill, Nick Fury) to run his new version of it.

                  More and more, I think that superhero stories are inherently incapable of facing up to the problems of an organization like SHIELD, because let’s face it, unaccountable hooligans are what most superheroes are. The baseline approach of most characters in a universe like the MCU is “there’s nothing wrong with the unilateral use of force so long as the right people are doing it.” If you ever acknolwedged the problems with that way of thinking (or tried to ask why the wrong people keep getting put in charge) the whole edifice would come crumbling down.

                  I’ve always more gotten the impression that the rot was only supposed to have really set in during the Fury era.

                  I don’t think so. Winter Soldier makes it clear that Hydra infiltrated SHIELD very near the start, under the guise of Operation Paperclip, and the finale of Agent Carter S1 hints very strongly that that infiltration is nigh. So Hydra got its foot in the door under Peggy’s leadership, and as a result of decision that she, at the very least, didn’t overrule.

                  (Also, the 1982 flashback at the beginning of Ant-Man shows us Peggy being circumvented by yet another one of her lieutenants, who stole Hank Pym’s suit design and deployed it without his or her knowledge. It’s made very clear that this character is not Hydra, and only allies with them near the end of the movie, in 2015. So once again we have this attitude that our heroes are super-smart, super-moral, and super-capable, and yet it’s never their fault when the institutions they create become corrupted.)

                  It would be nice if Nick faced up to that at some point. Maria too.

                  In my fanfic version of the MCU, Nick and Maria have plenty of time to contemplate these matters from the comfort of their jail cells. Tony Stark and Phil Coulson too.

                • Halloween Jack:

                  What we’ve seen in the MCU is that Peggy was one of the founding members of SHIELD, with Phillips and Howard Stark (cited in multiple sources, including Winter Soldier, Agents of SHIELD, and the Agent Carter one-shot), and that she was still in charge in 1982 (Ant-Man). So, as I said to Murc, the Hydra infestation happened, and entrenched itself, under her watch.

                • CP

                  I have a general impression that the MCU isn’t very deeply thought out beyond “if it looks/sounds cool, do it.” The vibe I’m getting, I don’t think it’s even occurred to the powers-that-be that putting Peggy’s story and the rise of SHIELD/HYDRA together undermines their protagonist, like, A LOT.

                  Having recently rewatched Winter Soldier, I also don’t think they see the same “significance” to it that a lot of the fans do. “PSYCH! The secret Good Guys, Inc. organization is really being controlled by the BAD Guys, Inc. organization!” has become a standard plot device to add drama by leaving your protagonist alone against the world – G. I. Joe did it the same year, James Bond is about to do it again if the spoilers are true. I don’t think they put much thought into it beyond that.

                  To be fair, the MCU seems to have carved out a place for itself as the superhero franchise that’s more lighthearted, fun, pulpy and not-taking-itself-too-seriously in contrast to its X-Men and Dark Knight counterparts. So that might just be a deliberate decision by the filmmakers.

                • Murc

                  The problem with your delightful fanfic is that it gets Jossed (quite literally) by the end of Age of Ultron, in which Steve seems perfectly fine with the notion of unaccountable hooliganism, even recruiting some of the people who let SHIELD go so very wrong (Maria Hill, Nick Fury) to run his new version of it.

                  More and more, I think that superhero stories are inherently incapable of facing up to the problems of an organization like SHIELD, because let’s face it, unaccountable hooligans are what most superheroes are.

                  Well, the thing is, that circle is usually squared in two ways.

                  The first way is that superheroes, traditionally, have concerned themselves with apprehension rather than punishment. Batman doesn’t have a secret prison located underneath the batcave where he tortures information out of people and then throws them in a hole to rot for decades. Captain America doesn’t ship people to Guantanamo. People who actually start dispensing justice on their own account are usually portrayed either as anti-heroes (Punisher) who are not to be emulated, or straight-up supervillains (Lock-Up).

                  The second way is by establishing themselves in universes where there really are threats that conventional law and military enforcement straight cannot deal with, and you more or less have to adapt to the unique super-powered freak model of policing in order to keep a lid on things.

                  It is unclear if Cap is establishing the Avengers as an unaccountable gang of hooligans in the same way that SHIELD is. In the comics, the Avengers usually operate openly. It’s part of why they live in a public landmark and wear brightly-colored costumes; they want people to know who they are and what they are doing, and their lawbreaking is tolerated because the property they destroy is generally a preferable outcome to them saying “sorry, vigilantism is illegal” while a city is destroyed. And when they’re done punching someone they turn them over for a fair trial in front of a jury.

                  SHIELD on TV doesn’t work like that. SHIELD kidnaps people and then imprisons them secretly without trial. They hide in underground bases nobody knows about and come out to do secret, illegal things without any government oversight in service of an agenda they, themselves, have created.

                  I view that as fundamentally different than what the Avengers are up to.

                  I don’t think so. Winter Soldier makes it clear that Hydra infiltrated SHIELD very near the start, under the guise of Operation Paperclip, and the finale of Agent Carter S1 hints very strongly that that infiltration is nigh. So Hydra got its foot in the door under Peggy’s leadership, and as a result of decision that she, at the very least, didn’t overrule.

                  Okay, I think we might be talking past each other here.

                  SHIELD was certainly infiltrated and began to be subverted by Hydra under Peggy and Howard’s watch, but the thing is, you can run that as “Peggy and Howard are good at their jobs but sometimes the bad guys are better at it.” They’re ultimately responsible, in the same way Nick is, because their names are on the door, but there’s a huge difference between “Peggy isn’t good enough at counterintellgence to have caught Hydra” and “Peggy started off as an idealistic reformer and by the mid-eighties she was sending people to black sites in Syria to be tortured, and the road from where she started to where she ended up was composed of so many tiny steps she didn’t even notice.” Those are two very different things and they reflect very differently on Peggy.

                  That’s what I meant about it seeming most likely that the rot probably only really set in during the Fury years. Peggy would most likely not have approved of a lot of the bullshit Nick signed off on as a matter of course.

                  In my fanfic version of the MCU, Nick and Maria have plenty of time to contemplate these matters from the comfort of their jail cells. Tony Stark and Phil Coulson too.

                  I don’t know that up until his post-TWS antics Nick and Maria had actually done anything illegal. One of the things about SHIELD that’s supposed to be awful is that it was actually given the full color of law to do most of what it did.

                  I’m willing to cut Tony a lot more slack than SHIELD because Tony doesn’t do shit in secret. He explicitly flies around in bright multicolored armor and he didn’t build a secret prison in Stark Tower. He’s far from being not problematic but I’m not sure he deserves jail time.

                • CP

                  SHIELD was certainly infiltrated and began to be subverted by Hydra under Peggy and Howard’s watch, but the thing is, you can run that as “Peggy and Howard are good at their jobs but sometimes the bad guys are better at it.” They’re ultimately responsible, in the same way Nick is, because their names are on the door, but there’s a huge difference between “Peggy isn’t good enough at counterintellgence to have caught Hydra” and “Peggy started off as an idealistic reformer and by the mid-eighties she was sending people to black sites in Syria to be tortured, and the road from where she started to where she ended up was composed of so many tiny steps she didn’t even notice.” Those are two very different things and they reflect very differently on Peggy.

                  My only thing with this is that it’s not simply “HYDRA infiltrated SHIELD by being better at spying than Peggy.” The Operation Paperclip backstory would mean that Peggy welcomed known Nazi/HYDRA operatives into her organization, knowing exactly who and what they were, and then failed to properly monitor them to ensure that they weren’t subverting the Western intelligence apparatus for their own purposes.

                  It’s one thing if HYDRA infiltrated SHIELD through standard intelligence work, and much more forgivable, but it’s something else if the infiltration was performed by people who were sitting right under her nose and that she already knew had that connection.

                  Your explanation, if I’m reading it right, is that Peggy DID keep them in check, but that once she left her successors weren’t as zealous? That could actually work.

                • CP:

                  I think the reason I ended up expecting so much more from the aftermath of Winter Soldier than the MCU turned out to be willing to deliver is that the film itself is actually surprisingly subversive. It’s highly critical of “the good guys” and the powers that be, unambiguous about the fact that these powers are doing evil in the name of an amorphous greater good, and draws connections with historical events both distant and recent (Operation Paperclip, the War on Terror) that seem to clearly indicate that its true bad guys are us, not the Bad Guys Inc. who have infiltrated us. And to be honest, I think it’s precisely the lightheartedness of the MCU that allows it to say such things – because it isn’t as trapped by fascist modes of thought that dominate works like Nolan’s Batman films or Man of Steel.

                  It’s hard for me to watch Winter Soldier and not take it as a given that it realizes that after 70 years, SHIELD and Hydra are the same thing, and that there is no way to separate them into good guys and bad guys. But as subsequent treatments of this topic in the MCU have shown, I was apparently meant to take away exactly the opposite lesson.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  It’s hard for me to watch Winter Soldier and not take it as a given that it realizes that after 70 years, SHIELD and Hydra are the same thing, and that there is no way to separate them into good guys and bad guys.

                  MCU=ManiChaean Universe?

                • Murc:

                  I agree that there are fundamental differences between the Avengers and the TV version of SHIELD, and that the visibility of the former accounts for a lot of them. But I’m not persuaded that the Avengers organization we see at the end of Ultron (and a little bit in Ant-Man) is really nothing more than a galactic fire-station. If nothing else, it employs Nick Fury, who we know is going behind Steve’s back to recreate SHIELD, and is in contact with Coulson (so at the very least, Steve is making exactly the same mistake as Peggy and Nick before him, recruiting someone with an agenda and wrongly assuming that he can control them). But beyond that, the sense I got was that this new Avengers organization was intended to function as the new SHIELD, the world’s policeman where superpowers and aliens are concerned. Only this time, it’s privately funded. Much as I trust Steve, it’s hard for me to see this as an improvement.

                  That’s what I meant about it seeming most likely that the rot probably only really set in during the Fury years. Peggy would most likely not have approved of a lot of the bullshit Nick signed off on as a matter of course.

                  As CP says, Peggy would, at the very least, have had to have approved recruiting ex-Hydra members into SHIELD. But I do think it’s worth distinguishing that (extremely unfortunate) choice from all the things that “good” SHIELD did, like secret prisons and human experimentation, and which may indeed have started under Fury’s command.

                  I don’t know that up until his post-TWS antics Nick and Maria had actually done anything illegal.

                  That may be strictly true, but to me Project Insight on its own justifies locking them both up and throwing away the key. They were both perfectly willing to turn the entire world into their personal police state.

                  I’m willing to cut Tony a lot more slack than SHIELD because Tony doesn’t do shit in secret.

                  He created Ultron in secret, and Ultron very nearly destroyed the entire world, which Tony isn’t being called to account for. In such extreme cases, I think even a near-miss warrants punishment.

                  (By the way, if you want to keep this going, would you like to move it downthread so we can have nested comments? Goes for CP too.)

                • CP

                  Sure. I’ll move downthread should anyone else be interested.

                • Murc

                  If nothing else, it employs Nick Fury, who we know is going behind Steve’s back to recreate SHIELD, and is in contact with Coulson (so at the very least, Steve is making exactly the same mistake as Peggy and Nick before him, recruiting someone with an agenda and wrongly assuming that he can control them).

                  Oh, boy. Isn’t this a can of worms.

                  The short version here is that as far as Whedon, the guy writing and directing AoU, is concerned, the TV series doesn’t exist. And he wrote without considering it one bit, and is proud of that fact.

                  I’d have to dig up the interview, but there’s one out there where someone starts asking him about how AoU interacts with Agents of SHIELD, and you can see him visibly get angry. His statement was basically along the lines of “Phil Coulson is dead, there is no more SHIELD, as far as I’m concerned. None of that happened.”

                  It’s refreshing that the same whiny bawling that the comics writers get into whenever someone steps on their toes has transferred itself to the big screen. No, wait, not refreshing. The other way around.

                  But beyond that, the sense I got was that this new Avengers organization was intended to function as the new SHIELD, the world’s policeman where superpowers and aliens are concerned.

                  I’m cool with it as long as they aren’t employing SHIELD’s methods and haven’t been granted the rights and powers SHIELD had to toss people in a hole after kidnapping them. If the new Avengers organization wants to beat up supercriminals and then remand them for trial, I’m down with that.

                  As CP says, Peggy would, at the very least, have had to have approved recruiting ex-Hydra members into SHIELD. But I do think it’s worth distinguishing that (extremely unfortunate) choice from all the things that “good” SHIELD did, like secret prisons and human experimentation, and which may indeed have started under Fury’s command.

                  I’d like to know more about how much of a choice Peggy had. It might have boiled down to “Either SHIELD takes them, the Russians take them, or the DoD takes them. Pick one.”

                  In that situation I’d have chosen to take them for my own organization as well.

                  That might just be my trying to not have a Peggy who is really, really bad at her job, tho.

                  That may be strictly true, but to me Project Insight on its own justifies locking them both up and throwing away the key. They were both perfectly willing to turn the entire world into their personal police state.

                  That’s a moral justification for throwing the book at them, certainly, but Project Insight was signed off by an enormous multinational alliance of nations. You can’t really get more legal than that in the current international order. Which I think was sort of the point.

                  He created Ultron in secret, and Ultron very nearly destroyed the entire world, which Tony isn’t being called to account for. In such extreme cases, I think even a near-miss warrants punishment.

                  … wait, what?

                  So you’re saying people should be held criminally liable for the shit their children get up to?

                  Tony created an AI, an independent person. That AI decided it was going to be super evil and do a lot of murders. Tony has no more moral or legal culpability for that than my parents would if I blew up a school bus.

                  (By the way, if you want to keep this going, would you like to move it downthread so we can have nested comments? Goes for CP too.)

                  We are still technically nested. Any other thread would have the same “problem.”

                • I’m having trouble reading this without any kind of indentation, so I’ve moved my response to Murc downthread.

                • Halloween Jack

                  It’s refreshing that the same whiny bawling that the comics writers get into whenever someone steps on their toes has transferred itself to the big screen. No, wait, not refreshing. The other way around.

                  But Whedon has always been that way. One of the first interviews with him that I read, in the AV Club, was mostly an exercise in grudge-settling with various people who “ruined” scripts that he’d worked on; he goes to some pains to take Halle Berry to task for the way she delivered a single line in the first X-Men film. And it really doesn’t matter to him if it’s something that he created or work-for-hire with someone else’s franchise, as with the X-Men, Alien, or the Avengers. Killing off a popular and appealing character (in this case, Coulson) in order to force-feed some gravitas into his work is that one weird old trick that Whedon never seems to get tired of, and Marvel was right to reverse it, but Whedon acts as if it’s some unforgivable outrage. I’m kind of glad that he’s off the franchise.

                • Be fair: Whedon is far from the only fanboy to complain about Berry’s reading of that line. Though in his case I suppose he’s also trying to pass the buck, since it’s a pretty bad line to begin with.

                  Also, I’m pretty sure I read an article claiming that the order to kill Coulson came from above, and wasn’t something Whedon wanted to put in the movie. He may feel that he wrote a moving death scene that has now been cheapened by bringing Coulson back, but I think the plan to do this (and thus launch the TV series) came from Marvel.

      • Manny Kant

        You’re forgetting John Walker, a.k.a. U.S. Agent

        • dr. fancypants

          I was beginning to think I was the only person who ever read U.S. Agent…

          • Halloween Jack

            Oh, hardly. I was a big fan of the late Mark Gruenwald’s work for Marvel in the eighties; he never graduated to big-name writer status, but he did some really interesting things in Captain America and Squadron Supreme.

      • DocAmazing

        When Steve Rogers quit in the 1970s (and briefly became Nomad), a kid called Roscoe found his outfit and just a s briefly became Captain America (before being beaten to death by the Red Skull).

    • Murc

      In the Marvel Universe? Yes.

      It’s comic-book origins are much as you’ve seen in the MCU, if you watch the MCU: they built a super-soldier as part of a pilot program, it turned out they could only get the one, and so they turned him into both a propaganda tool and a frighteningly effective force multiplier: Captain America!

      Then he died, and became part of America’s mythology.

      Only he didn’t die. He came back. And it turns out he has opinions. Oops!

      The comics, which the movies haven’t really dealt with because these are good stories but not really all that cinematic, have periodically done things where Steve hands off the title to someone else, or other people had it for a time while he was in the ice. In that sense, yes, it is job. It’s usually done as a metaphor for the best part of us as a country, as Steve himself is: that anyone can be Captain America, sort of a trope of the old “anyone can grow up to President” saying. This isn’t always the case (sometimes someone else has the job just because Steve is being dead or something) but it usually is.

      But… yes, being Captain America is a job. It’s not, you know, a normal job. But that’s what it is.

      Cap has layers as a character and a concept. He’s difficult to write well because of what he’s a vehicle for.

    • Less of a job, and almost more of an office.

      In the comics, it’s often referred to as a “mantle” – similar to how the status of being “the” Batman is taking on the mantle.

      And Steve Rogers resigned twice when he disagreed with the government’s policies, and both times had to reclaim the mantle from a right-wing Captain America who “goes wrong.” Notably, both times, Rogers tries to redeem the right-wing Cap rather than kill him.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Throw off the mantle, you’re the goddamn Batman!

  • gets attacked by the fictional equivalent of Fox News

    Here is a fictional case of a propaganda network that masquerades as a news network, while promoting narrow-minded anti-intellectual chauvinism! It must be a reference to Fox News! How dare the writers portray Fox News as a propaganda network that promotes narrow-minded anti-intellectual chauvinism!

    • If you have any Fox News watching relatives or co-workers, be sure to point out that Fox is part of the entertainment division of News Corp.

      That’s always good for a laugh.

  • CP

    [cont’d from upthread conversation with Murc and AN]:

    In general: I admit that Winter Soldier was more subversive than standard Marvel up to that point with the direct references to Operation Paperclip or the drone/NSA measures of recent times. I suppose I’m just not sure where they wanted us to go from there. The MCU’s response seems to have been the standard “well, you can’t trust these people because they’re all crooks, but you can trust our vigilante heroes because, well, they’re the heroes!”

    And I don’t find that to be incompatible with Winter Soldier at all. That movie basically ends with Black Widow explaining exactly what’s going to happen next, when she tells a congressional committee that 1) you’re not going to touch us, 2) you need us too much, 3) neener-neener. And Nick Fury taking off to continue his own war against HYDRA, with no implication that he’s got anyone watching over him or giving him orders. The aftermath of WS fits pretty well with WS itself.

    In re Ultron: yeah, I have to say that movie was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of “Stark belongs in prison.” The first movie was fine. The second movie began with him assuring the world that his privatizing world peace was totally fine because no one could catch up with his tech anyway. And yet that movie, the following movie, and Ultron all immediately contradict that when the bad guys either steal his tech, replicate his tech, force him to improve their tech, or in the last case ARE his tech (that’s not even counting his involvement with the Project Insight helicarriers that Fury mentions offhandedly). By AOU, it’s become ridiculously obvious that the man causes more trouble than he resolves, especially since most of the problems he does resolve wouldn’t even exist without him in the first place.

    • Owlbear1

      Yeah the next time we see Tony Stark on screen he better be destitute from all the personal injury lawsuits.

    • I don’t find that to be incompatible with Winter Soldier at all

      In hindsight, clearly not. Even before the Black Widow scene that closes out the movie, the very choice to make Hydra the ultimate bad guys tells you what to expect – is there, after all, a more buck-passing storytelling device than “all the bad things we did aren’t our fault, it was the secret Nazis“? I suppose that, when watching the film, I was so struck by the boldness of even gesturing towards a subversive message, even if the film ended up undercutting it, that it was hard not to read more into it than anyone at Marvel intended.

      Having said that, I still maintain that, for a time, Agents of SHIELD had the capacity to be even more subversive than Winter Soldier. The first season of the show repeatedly showed us SHIELD – actual SHIELD, not Hydra-in-SHIELD – as a sinister, lawless, amoral organization doing genuine evil. And the main character who turned out to be a Hydra spy was also the one who most fully embodied SHIELD’s ideals of unquestioning loyalty and mindless obedience. Going by what I’ve read about the second season, it’s clear that if SHIELD wanted to, it would take the merest nudge to turn it into a story about what a truly terrible idea it is to rebuild the organization. It just… doesn’t seem to want that.

      • Murc

        The first season of the show repeatedly showed us SHIELD – actual SHIELD, not Hydra-in-SHIELD – as a sinister, lawless, amoral organization doing genuine evil.

        I’ve more and more come to think that this was an accident rather than by design.

        I mean… look at the first episode. Phil Coulson kidnaps a homeless young woman out of a van, literally puts a black bag over her head extraordinary rendition style, and then emotionally manipulates and violates the bodily autonomy of one of his agents in order to gain her trust.

        That’s awful, but I don’t think the show realizes it is awful. I think the awful is entirely accidental and we’re just supposed to think Phil Coulson is one cool-ass super-spy.

        • To me, the worst scene in the pilot episode is the one where Coulson gives Ward information about the Rising Tide, and Ward asks “do you want me to take them out?” As in, do you want me to assassinate a group of non-violent hackers whose sole crime is exposing information that everyone should have? And instead of being scandalized, Coulson just smirks, like, get a load of this guy, isn’t he a go-getter. It was chilling. (In hindsight, this scene also tells you a lot about how much SHIELD is responsible for Ward. It’s not as if no one on the good guys’ side was unaware of the fact that he was an amoral psychopath. They just thought he was an amoral psychopath who took his orders from them.)

          Having said that, I don’t think any of this is unintentional. I just think the show is operating under the fallacy that merely acknowledging SHIELD’s flaws is enough to make the show complex and sophisticated, because you’ve opened up a debate. No one involved with the show seems to have realized that at some point, after your heroes have done enough horrible things, the debate is over, and that failing to acknowledge this makes you less sophisticated, not more.

          (I would, by the way, have been totally open to a show that presented SHIELD as an evil, but a necessary one. But again, that is not the show being aired.)

          • CP

            Probably a dead thread, but…

            I think at least part of this is that twenty or thirty years’ worth of police procedurals (not to mention shows like “24”), idolizing the Rough Men Who Stand Ready To Do Violence On Our Behalf So We Can Sleep Soundly At Night, have pretty well shaped the landscape in terms of what’s considered normal behavior from such characters. To the point that we don’t even pause to wonder how really fucked up moments like that are. At this point, even writers who aren’t right wing nutjobs pick up these things by osmosis.

            • That is certainly part of it, though SHIELD (and most of the rest of the MCU) comes in at so late a stage in this process that it no longer even feels the need to make the argument. Coulson, for example, is not a Rough Man by any measure, and there’s very little angst over the ethically dubious things he does or counteances. It’s taken as a given that things like illegal prisons, human experimentation, and super-powerful drone programs are inherently defensible in the right hands.

              That said, the political osmosis that I notice even more in modern TV – and superhero shows in particular – is less fascist and more neoliberal. The kneejerk distrust of institutions, at the same time that these shows posit that the best social policy is a group of unaccountable, privately-funded vigilantes, can only be explained if you assume that the writers take it as a given that nothing could ever be worse than government oversight.

  • [this is in response to Murc’s comment here]

    I’ve seen Whedon’s comments about AoS, though I’d have an easier time taking them seriously if he were not credited as the show’s creator, and hadn’t written the pilot episode in which Coulson is brought back to life. In general, I take everything Whedon has to say about the MCU post-Ultron, and particularly while promoting the movie, with a grain of salt – it’s clear that he was so burned out by the experience that he couldn’t wait for the door to hit him on his way out.

    Beyond that, there are obvious problems squaring Ultron with the rest of the MCU – not just AoS (which in fact makes a desperate stab at relevance by providing answers to some of the least urgent questions raised by the movie, like, how did the Avengers find out about the Hydra stronghold at the beginning of the film? And, who paid for the hellicarriers at the end?), but Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3, both of which leave their main characters in a very different place than Ultron finds them. As you say, it’s a can of worms, but my feeling is that a) the canon is the canon, and if Marvel didn’t want me to think of Nick Fury as the guy secretly rebuilding SHIELD under Captain America’s nose, it should have put a leash on the Whedon-Tancharoens, and b) there’s enough shady about how Fury behaves in Ultron that even without that knowledge, it’s clear that he isn’t under Steve’s control.

    I’m cool with it as long as they aren’t employing SHIELD’s methods and haven’t been granted the rights and powers SHIELD had to toss people in a hole after kidnapping them.

    I think to me it runs deeper than that. I have a friend who is a lot more pro-SHIELD than I am because he’s genuinely put off by the notion of giving superpowered individuals the kind of power and authority that the movies – and particularly the end of Ultron – grant Steve and Tony. The ethical implications of that strike him as so objectionable that he still prefers SHIELD, even in its present, completely unaccountable and unethical form, simply for being an institution rather than an individual. I obviously don’t agree, but I still think the implications of Steve and Tony effectively setting up their own, privately-funded global police force are dodgy whether or not that force is running another Guantanamo.

    So you’re saying people should be held criminally liable for the shit their children get up to?

    Well, the parents of school shooters do get sued by the families of their kids’ victims, so I’m not sure that that’s a great analogy.

    But aside from that, Tony did something incredibly rash and stupid, which very nearly caused the extinction of the human race. If he hadn’t acted, the danger wouldn’t have happened. And, it’s not as if his actions were as morally ambiguous as having a child. He created an incredibly dangerous and powerful AI. It’s a case where I feel that the severity of the consequences merits applying extreme moral and legal culpability – almost causing genocide is not the sort of thing that any society should just let slide. Especially since, as CP notes, Tony has a demonstrated history of acting unilaterally and creating problems which he then has to solve.

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