One Small Step: Captain America and the Discourse of Fear and Security

One Small Step: Captain America and the Discourse of Fear and Security

A few months back, the first full trailer of Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released and I was extremely excited. Just to offer some context, I’m a fourth year criminology major at York University. Criminology is essentially the study of crime and criminality: I’ve spent the last four years looking at the punishment

A few months back, the first full trailer of Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released and I was extremely excited.

Just to offer some context, I’m a fourth year criminology major at York University. Criminology is essentially the study of crime and criminality: I’ve spent the last four years looking at the punishment and regulation of crime, the reasons people commit crimes ranging from theories such as Lombroso’s atavistic criminal to Rational Choice Theory, and even how crime is defined in society, just to name a few. We aren’t the criminal profilers you observe in Criminal Minds but the academics criticizing the state of the criminal justice system and crime policy, among other things.

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with Captain America? On top of being an undergraduate studying crime and criminality, I’m a huge fan of comics and superheroes. Criminology has influenced how I see things in the media; the latest Marvel movie is no different and the first official trailer for Captain America: The Winter soldier, reveals much about the current culture of security in the US.

Captain America: Winter Soldier poster

The trailer begins with Captain America and Black Widow on board a SHIELD plane. Thirty-six seconds in, and he is already presented to the audience as an outsider. Captain America comments on his dead barbershop quartet, reminding us of his status as the “man out of time,” by referring to his dead friends and the non-existent barbershop quartets of 2014. Add in that he’s “too busy” to engage in social aspects of modern life like dating, and the comment from one of the other agents that he’s not wearing a parachute when jumping off the plane, and his outsider status is solidified.

All this seems obvious, but let’s look at the more subtle aspects of those thirty-six seconds since it’s the first scene we’re shown in the first official trailer and it’s taking place at night. There’s a militaristic stealth to the scene, from the impressively futuristic plane, to the first piece of dialogue (they’re “coming up on the drop zone,)” and to Captain America’s sleeker, darker suit (clearly a suit that is meant for stealth missions) without the signature patriotic embellishments we associate with the First Avenger.

Just before the staple Marvel logo flip book appears, we see Captain America dive into the dark waters, which sets an interesting tone for the rest of the trailer and what I expect the movie itself to reflect.

On the other side of the Marvel logo is an establishing shot of the film’s setting: Washington, DC. It’s not only the United States’ capital but also home to the country’s major security agencies. We hear Captain America’s voice over the shot, saying he “joined S.H.I.E.L.D. to protect people.” Cut to the next shot, where Captain America and Robert Redford’s character, Alexander Pierce, are seated in a boardroom. Pierce says, “Captain, to build a better world, [it] sometimes means turning the old one down,” over a shot of Captain America and Black Widow are in what looks like an old S.H.I.E.L.D. gym, and another wider shot of Pierce looking out the boardroom window. There’s a momentary break in the music, and the visuals dip into black before Pierce returns to the screen still by the window, now in close up, and says, “And that makes enemies.”

Captain America wanting to help people is consistent with his Boy Scout characterization, but what’s interesting is Pierce’s reply and the images that follow. Pierce’s words reflect the real life change in the discourse around security and how it’s influencing every aspect of our lives. The proliferation of CCTV cameras in public (and some private) places and security systems in homes. Assessing our daily risks and changing our plans accordingly. And even the recent NSA wiretapping scandal in the States. All this, in the pursuit of security but what is security, and whose security are we actually protecting? Do we have to give up rights to be protected? These are questions criminologists far smarter than myself have been tackling for years. And their research has actually provided interesting answers.

Alexander Pierce: Are you ready? For the world to see you as you really are? You look out the window. You know how the game works. Disorder, war. All it takes is one step.

We’re bombarded with a series of images as these words are spoken. Director Nick Fury of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) is introduced in his all-black ensemble, looking like the embodiment of security. Security is not tangible but instead a state of being; it can shift and slip through one’s fingers in the same way that a spy can. Security is an ideal in the very same way that democracy and justice are, says Mariana Valverde, in her essay, “Governing Security, Governing Through Security.” We get a glimpse of the firepower in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s arsenal, which I find fascinating since a shield is a weapon of defense and yet S.H.I.E.L.D.’s approach to defense seems to be a good offense. And Captain America’s shield too, as we see many times, can be used as both defense and offense. Then the images turn into the disorder and war Pierce mentioned earlier, as bombs and guns go off and civilians are caught in the crossfire.

The next scene has Black Widow and Captain America standing outside of a surgery room, which echoes the one small step, or mishap, that Pierce is referring to. The one lapse in security measures. The one step too far in allowing civil liberties to run free without anything to reign them in, that can result in death, or the comprise of the nation’s safety. There will always be a need for some insecurity, if the pursuit of security is to continue. And by insecurity, I mean the constant vigilance that everyday people are expected to perform, like purchasing alarm systems and restricting travel to daylight hours. These activities (insecurities) feed the pursuit of security, which in turn reminds us to protect ourselves against perceived threats and risks by purchasing security products. It’s an endless cycle.

Director Fury: We’re going to neutralize a lot of threats before they happen

Captain America: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime

Director Fury: S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is not as it likes it to be.

Captain America: This isn’t freedom. This is fear.

All of the images during this exchange are either of the high tech planes and weapons of S.H.I.E.L.D. gearing up or of the disorder we saw early.

As a Criminology student, hearing Captain America say, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime,” was exciting. There’s this undercurrent to the way we approach security and even the way the criminal justice system operates: if you haven’t done anything wrong, then infringing on your rights won’t be an issue, right? Or that you’re guilty and it’s up to you to prove you’re innocent.

Remember that one small step that Pierce mentioned? It’s what is driving the justifications by those who stood behind the NSA surveillance program. Mariana Valverde states that studies have shown that the presence of security cameras actually increases anxiety: they make that space feel unsafe, crime ridden, and dangerous due to the very existence of the cameras. The anonymous gaze of the individual behind the camera adds to the anxiety. If there’s anyone monitoring it, that is. We’ve learned that studying fear of crime only increases the fear of crime, and so constantly reminding people of the risks will increase the fear of the “potential” threats. Is it freedom if we’re trapped inside of a fear bubble?

The rest of the trailer is in line with most other action-based films with action, violence and conflict. What’s interesting is yet another Alexander Pierce voice over:

Alexander Pierce: Your work has been a gift to mankind. You’ve shaped the century. I need you to do it one more time.

Captain America’s participation in the super solider project has impacted the discourse of this universe’s security culture. As the ultimate human weapon and mode of the Allied security, he defeated the Nazis and Red Skull and thus has been the springboard to the security innovations that followed him. The question now, is whether or not Captain America is willing to play the “security game” and if he really has a choice. Is this how the world is, and not as we want it to be?

In the final scene, Captain America throws his shield at his assailant, like any other time, only to have it caught in grips of the enemy. As the helicarrier crashes into the water (our symbol of modern day security measures), the Captain America shield fades in with the paint scratched off and beaten up. A sign to us that this will not be an easy journey for our fish-out-of-water hero and that the country’s future itself may come into question.

Are we Alexander Pierce or Captain America?

Shout out to Mariana Valverde’s essay, “Governing Security, Governing Through Security” which can be found in The Security of Freedom: Essays on Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Bill. I also like to give a shout out to Lucia Zedner’s essay, “Too Much Security” which was published in the International Journal of the Sociology of Law. It was great revisiting them for this particular piece and I highly suggest both if you’re interested in security.


A Criminology student by day and a book blogger by night at A. A. Omer, Ardo Omer is a huge fan of comics and a little obsessed with the Dark Knight. When she’s not mooning over Batman, you can find her writing about TV, movies and comics at Paper Droids. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardoomer.

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