Unlimited Power and No Supervision: the subtle cold war aesthetic that drives Captain America Civil War.

‘’I knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times’’: Early Days

The colours red, white and blue have been used in the flags of many nations many nations but have become synonymous with the United States. They are the colours of liberty; bold, clear and undeniable. In World War Two this was exactly what the world need to see, a strong force joining the good fight. Naturally any character adorned in these colours would share their attributes. This very linear logic is the reason that Captain America was so popular upon his initial release under Timely Comics (before becoming Marvel Comics). He was the strength of America personified, a rallying unstoppable figure that fought for the allies. He was an easy vessel for people to place their hopes for victory in. More importantly, Cap’s brand of fighting was simple and effective, you punched the bad guy he went down (Bellotto 2014). There was no vast enemy army, no insurmountable odds – just the American Supersoldier who knew exactly who to hit.

Naturally as WW2 drew to a close the Captains popularity began to wane. He resurfaced briefly during the Cold War as a bizarre mouthpiece for McCarthyism. This was all retconned and tinkered with in the 70’s reboot. Stan Lee decided to relaunch the Captain as one of Marvel’s aces. However Captain America now had a problem, the glory days of America’s military as a force of global liberation were over. Years of convoluted foreign policy (Parmar, Miller, and Ledwidge 2009) and a growing belief in American Exceptionalism, an ideology that the U.S. views itself as unique and views the globe’s safekeeping as its mission (Finegold and Kenneth 1996), had left a sour taste in the mouths of other nations, particularly in the middle-east.

What was once bold, clear and undeniable had become brash, murky and uninvited.

Just like before Captain America became the embodiment of it.

The all American Steve Rogers, much like Superman, became the boy scout of his universe. He was everything that was (once) great about America. As times progressed Rogers did not. He simply couldn’t become a rounded character. His nature as a Soldier and more importantly as an American Soldier meant that he would always seem little more than propaganda in a superhero suit. This is perhaps one of the reasons that Captain America: The First Avenger was not the hit that Marvel wanted it to be, it was simply too American, and like most origin stories, it simply lacked relevance to a modern audience.

‘’You must miss the good old days’’: A Captain for the 21st Century

Enter Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar, both these writers took the character in a radical new direction. In The Ultimates (Millar, 2011), Millar showed us the classic man out of time angle but this time the reverence for Captain America was lacking. Rather than have each character in awe of Rogers they often look upon him as antiquated and stuffy. His old school morality and gung ho attitude are openly mocked by others. More importantly was the revelation that the WW2 of this Captain was far grittier and that his time in it was not smooth and effortless as his original 40’s run portrayed. In The Ultimates Captain America was usually just another grunt, one who could somersault through gunfire but not the God-like figure who could lead the charge and not lose a single life on the allied side. Brubaker (Brubaker, 2012) took the Captain in an even more radical direction, changing him from the in the spotlight symbol to a shadow operative. His run included retconning much of the characters history and having it become much darker in his version. The Winter Soldier arc and character is entirely his creation.

The Russo Brothers clearly took a great deal of inspiration from Brubaker’s run for their sequel to The First Avenger. Captain America: The Winter Soldier introduced a darker more effective Captain America to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Steve Rogers is faced with the moral dilemma of serving his country in a world that deals exclusively in grey. This is a far cry from the simple black and white times that birthed him. In his own words:

‘’ Yeah we compromised, sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well, but we did it so people could be free.’’ (Russo’s, 2014).

The second installment of the franchise did what most good stories do; it reflected the most pressing concerns of the environment it came from, the brothers themselves have admitted to as much;

“All the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience…That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant. So [Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined. And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president’s kill list, preemptive technology”(“‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Is Actually about Obama’s Kill List, Say the Film’s Directors” 2016)

They didn’t seem to stop at kill lists though. The whistleblowing of Edward Snowden was the primary headline found in most news, especially in the western world. He had revealed a world where trust came second to security, and each nation (mostly the US) were spying on their neighbours. The NSA defended spying on their own citizens by claiming it was necessary in the preemption of possible terrorist attacks. When challenged on the issue many US officials defended their actions claiming that the actions not only kept Americans safe but the rest of the world as well;

“I would argue, by the way, if the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping Champagne corks. It’s a good thing. It keeps the French safe. It keeps the U.S. safe.” (Rogers, 2013)

Meanwhile the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, would frequently add his own insight;

‘’These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.’’(“Edward Snowden’s ‘Open Letter to the Brazilian People’ – in Full” 2013)

It’s not hard to identify the source of the Russo brothers’ inspiration for Hydra’s resurgence and the Machiavellian Alexander Pierce. Winter Soldier remains one of my favourite Marvel films primarily because of the way in which their plots are character driven. This something I have always felt was missing from some of their other major franchises. Naturally directors who put so much time and effort into making good films could never be content simply churning out blockbusters according to a formula. This probably explains why Captain America: Civil War is one of their best yet.

‘’If I misplaced a couple of 30 megaton warheads, there’d be consequences’’: Negotiating Superweapons.

Civil War took the themes of Winter Soldier and evolved them, in doing so they created a brand new aesthetic for the franchise:

‘’We needed to go in a radical direction if we were gonna do another Captain America film, so we were strongly advocating for the Civil War storyline.’’ (Brothers in Arms – Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Featurette 2016)

This is from an interview with the Russo Brothers explaining their choice to adapt the Civil War storyline. In many ways he makes a lot of sense if you look at the way in which Marvel films are being produced of late. There are many heroes featured in the film which reflects the current trend of ‘’ the more the merrier’’ that seems to be steering the direction of most comic-book films. This pitch was sure to satisfy the studio mandate for an inclusive universe.
However looking at the evidence already provided in this essay another reason for the Russo brothers’ success may be down to the fact that they manage to tap into the aesthetic of events that have actually happened in our world. Drawing on such events gives them a series of themes, motifs and references allowing audiences to connect to their stories with relative ease. More than that it gives their movie a far more cohesive style, making it stick in the mind of the audience and branding it with a clear identity. For Winter Soldier it was the world of deceit and shadows that the US found itself at the center of but for their new ‘’radical direction’’ it’s no surprise they chose a completely different theme.

The premise of Civil War is simple; having grown tired of the way in which superheroes operate, in General Ross’ words ‘’with unlimited power and no supervision’’, as a response to this the governments of various nations have decided to reign them in with bureaucracy. This comes in the form of The Sakovia Accords and divides the heroes of the MCU. Each is pitted against each other and the entire affair ends in a kind of stalemate. It could be argued that this reflects the tendency of governments to tackle problems with legislation. Examples of such tactics can be seen in the current European Migrant Crisis. Such work often fails to effectively deal with the strategies treating a symptom as opposed to the problem.(“Has EU Immigration and Asylum Policy Failed? Can It Ever Succeed?” 2014). The notion of corralling beings like superheroes with laws makes about as much sense.

More parallels could be drawn to the character of Zemo. The effects of conflict are rarely limited to the place in which the fighting is taking place. The migration crisis has been pushed to new extents due to the events in Syria also giving rise to extremism. Spawned from the consequences of US Foreign policy much like Zemo is spawned as a consequence of the Avengers actions.

It may seem like a stretch but the comparisons are there. The reasons they are not overt is simple; to adopt such a raw issue would simply polarise, divide and likely offend audiences. Rather than depend on the present and risk a similar film, the Russo Brothers reached into the past using the last time the world stood still for Superpowers: The Cold War.

On the surface it is a simple adaptation. ‘’Superpowers’’ is a word that was just as relative between 1950 and 1966 as it is within this film. They are spoken about with fear. During the Cold War it was mutual fear of the atomic bomb that kept each nation in check; In Civil War it is no coincidence that Ross frequently refers to heroes as ‘’superweapons.’’ No country at the time could be allowed to have such power and in many ways Ross is a mouthpiece for the era, he is also the Russo’s most obvious reference.

In contrast to the simple manifestation of the theme, the brothers spend the rest of the film harnessing the tension of the Cold War, thus lending it to their own story, in a far more subtle way.

They do so by engaging in copious amounts of intertextual referencing. The Cold War itself had a huge effect on American cinema, the government of the time used it as a means of subtle propaganda for audiences (“The Cinema: American Weapon for the Cold War on JSTOR” 2016). Russia had it’s own propaganda and both types heavily affected aesthetic of their time. The Russo Brothers reference the intertextuality of Cold War cinema in three key ways.

    1. Setting
    2. Framing
    3. Aesthetic/ Design.

Winter Soldier was primarily set in locales that reflected the modern threats of its day. The U.S. itself was the primary setting as it seemed that much of the threat to the American way of life came from within.

Civil War chooses a very different setting. The majority of the action takes place in Europe and Russia. While it’s true that America and Russia were the predominant factions in the Cold War, Europe itself was the battleground. This was the primarily due to the division of Berlin, with the Eastern part of the city belonging to the Soviets and the Western part belonging to the US. The entire situation was coloured in shades of grey and the films of the era embraced this especially Noir.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Ritt, 1965) starring Richard Burton is one such example. The Film focuses on Burton’s character, a British Spy, who wishes to continue his work in espionage even though the cold war is drawing to a close. The Film is famous for its depiction of the reluctance of certain parties to end the cold war and come home (the similarities in motivation between Burton and Bucky are glaring here.) but the film also served to show the state of Berlin both architecturally and domestically at the time. There is a particularly tense scene in which Burton raids an apartment. Both the apartment itself and the raid bear a striking resemblance to Bucky’s home in Bucharest.

Fig1: Top CA:CW Bottom TSWCIFTC

There are strong similarities between the framing of both scenes but the most striking parallel can be seen in the décor. Both apartments are wood panelled and even the wallpaper of TSWCIFTC seems to be echoed in Civil War.

This is not the only instance of setting being drawn from the past within this film. When watching Civil War it becomes apparent that character motivation and development are what the Russo Brothers are really focusing on. From the break up of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts’ relationship, to the death of Agent Carter, different motivations for characters are slowly revealed and built upon. The most effective way this is done is through dialogue.. Civil War stands apart from most Marvel films because of its focus and purposeful dialogue, as opposed to snappy one-liners,between characters.

One of the most significant scenes to use such dialogue takes place between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers directly after Rogers’s initial capture in Bucharest. One of the most important factors of the scene is it’s setting. It takes place entirely in a glass office and consists of vigorous debate between the pair.

CapTony Debate

 There are a number of elements at play in this scene. From blocking to costume , numerous factors have been manipulated to mount tension between the pair. Throughout the scene the wardrobes of both men are juxtaposed against each other. At the beginning Tony stands shirt opened, tie loose, he mimics Steve’s laid back demeanour. As tension mounts between the pair the tie is straightened and suit jacket donned as the scene closes, tony has become the figurehead for authority, standing in stark (sorry) opposition to the ever casual Rogers.

The blocking of the scene serves to further the tension even more. In the beginning whilst Tony has the moral high ground, due to extolling the virtues of the legislation and the necessity of it, he stands while Steve sits. As their conversation progresses

both men hint at agreement, meeting at eye level;hope is teased. Stark then makes the fatal flaw of mentioning Wanda . Steve is reminded of exactly what it means to be free. He tells Stark as much and we see Tony concede, taking a seat. Rogers leaves the room, with Stark seated , having wrestled the high ground from him.

The final layer of tension is added by the setting; the glass room in which both men are standing. It is the confined space in which their aggression can only ferment. The room serves two functions. Firstly it shows that even though this is a nationwide issue , the two most important sides are Captain America and Iron Man. They will decide the fate of America. Secondly it is reference to the myriad cold war films that took place in taught, smoke filled rooms, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964). These war room debates are a staple of the genre and utilised by the Russos to great effect.

B. Framing.

Both comics and films are both visual mediums. Often this leads to moments of delight for fans of both when directors take their favourite panels, pull them from the gutters, then immortalise them on the silver screen. The Russo Brothers do this frequently but rarely for the sole purpose of fan service. The final confrontation between Captain America, Bucky and Stark takes place in an abandoned Soviet bunker and showcases the way in which a scene can be used for more than just showing the audience a story. This scene does more than just show it’s audience tension by showing them physical violence.

captain america beatdown (1)

The action is impressive for its fluidity alone and does a wonderful job of evoking just how much of a toll this plot has taken on it’s characters, but again the Russos are more fond of layering.

Beginning with their choice of setting, the Soviet Bunker. On the surface it’s Russian; Russian = Cold War, simple. The architecture of the building itself however is like a love letter to Cold War architecture. The huge concrete monolith seen above bears a resemblance to hundreds of similar buildings constructed during the Cold War, both in the US and Russia. The reason they are so huge and imposing is simple; people though the world was going to end:

‘’The landscape of the United States was forever altered by the Cold War. The dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in1945 decisively ended WWII and marked the beginning of a newworld order that was under constant fear of nuclear destruction.In the United States, bunkers and designated fallout shelters werebuilt almost everywhere, creating the impression that anywherecould be a target of nuclear attack at any time.’’ (Schneider 2016)

The threat was constant and so in response to this people began to design ways to defend themselves. Again there is nothing too significant about this choice by the Russos, it’s a bunker, it’s very dramatic and it ties nicely into the backstory of the Winter Soldier. If the Cultural Landscape theory is utilised however then the choice becomes one with far more complex reasoning.

“landscape denotes the interaction of people and place: a
social group and its spaces…all human intervention with nature can be considered as a cultural landscape.”.In a visual and historical analysis of the everyday landscape, information about the appearance, production and control of space can reveal both present and historic information about society, in times of peace and war.’’
(Schneider 2016)

This is Erin Schneider again, explaining the way in which buildings can soak up the tensions and anxieties of a certain period in time. She goes on to write about the way in which such influences remain in buildings as a kind of cultural hangover, inflicting the fear and anxiety that created them on modern societies.

By referencing the Cold War, the Russos call back to a time when America felt particularly vulnerable. Their society was shifting and events like McCarthyism ( a movement driven by unfair and predatory legislation) were tearing their society apart from the inside. Their choice to use it in Civil War shows the vulnerability and seismic shift that the Sakovia accords in bringing back now. Innocent superheroes, much like the innocent citizens of the 1950s, are to be locked up for no real reason.

Lighting has always been used to alter and manipulate the mood of a scene. Probably one of the most famous of the Cold War era is Carol Reed’s, The Third Man (Reed, 1949). Even then the framing of the film drew both praise and criticism for it’s off kilter angles and murky lighting. Reed said of it that it was his intention to ‘’make the audience uncomfortable.’’(Reed, 1974)

The Russo’s use light in a very different fashion here, particularly at this moment:

Fig. 2: CA:CW.

The lighting here is used to reveal all. It shows us the conflict and more importantly it shows us the clear lines of the structure. It draws the audience’s attention to the bold geometric forms and clear sharp lines that may as well be a calling card for the design consensus of the cold war, particularly within its propaganda posters.

Figures 3 & 4

The attention to symmetry and clear lines send a clear uniform message of solidarity and order in these state propaganda posters from the era. As a foil to this the Russo Brothers have placed all three protagonists in a furious melee directly in front of what should be a similar symbol of order and solidarity. Such an action reflects both the deceit of the Cold War ( a supposedly civil stalemate, that was in fact furiously fought on both sides) and the current fractured state of the MCU.

c. Aesthetic

Deciding to use intertextuality as a resource for telling your story will usually affect the overall look and feel of your text/film/ piece. Civil War is no different – below are some of the smaller, more subtle ways in which the Russos remind their audience of the Cold War. There’s not much deep symbolism here but rather a nod to the era from which the pair draw inspiration.

As with many Marvel films, the plot of Civil War takes place in many different countries at many different times. When this is a central aspect of a film, good scene transitions become essential. They are the easiest way for your audience to keep track of what is going on. In Winter Soldier the Russos utilised a very sleek, spy style scene transition complete with latitude and longitude:

Fig 5: CA:WS

It was subtle, almost unnoticed like much of the film’s themes. For Civil War however they’ve opted for something a little larger:

Fig 5: CA:CW

For anyone who is an old film buff they’ll notice a striking similarity between these plain font transitions and the show card style opening sequences of the films of the 40’s and 50’s.

Fig 6:(Ray, 1950) Fig 7: (Carvalho 1951) Fig 8: (Huston,1950)

Finally there are the props, some nods are so small that it’s a blink and you’ll miss it kind of moment. One of the best in my opinion was Captain America’s getaway car upon escaping from S.H.I.E.L.D.

For those of you that don’t remember it, this is it:

Fig 9

The original Volkswagen Beetle. Not really the car you’d expect to see Captain America driving, but if you were looking for spy in a Cold War era espionage film that would be your first red flag. The car became the most prolific one to be found on the streets of Europe during the Cold War era:

‘’Volkswagen’s most famous product has been called upon as a symbol of the Federal Republic with such frequency and regularity that it seems superfluous to Germans to spell out how exactly this automobile stands for the postwar order. Former West Germans in particular see in the Beetle much more than yet another car. To them it is a much-loved, multi-layered and uncontroversial icon of the Federal Republic.’’(Rieger 2009)

Naturally this omnipresence transcended from reality to film. The car was used by many directors because it was affordable and ubiquitous.

Ultimately Captain America: Civil War is a film where a new kind of weapon, which happens to have a pulse, is threatening the way of life of an established society, yet that was exactly what set the Cold War in motion. The Russo Brothers have given a master class in modern intertextuality, referencing a similar event in the past to enhance a fictional one in their present. Having read the evidence in this essay I’ll hope you agree that they do so very successfully and in a way that lets their viewer feel a tension, even though they may be unsure why.

Further Reading:

Huston, John, 1950. “The Asphalt Jungle (1950).” IMDb. May 23. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042208/.

 Bellotto, Adam. 2014. “74 Years of Captain America: A History of Marvel’s America-Iest Superhero — Film School Rejects.” Medium. April 1.


Brothers in Arms – Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Featurette. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K5QY8X91vI.

 Brubaker, Ed. 2012. Captain America by Ed Brubaker Vol. 1. Marvel Entertainment.

“‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Is Actually about Obama’s Kill List, Say the Film’s Directors.” 2016. Mother Jones. Accessed May 28. http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/04/captain-america-winter-soldier-obama-kill-list-politics-drones-nsa.

Carvalho, Claudio. 1951. “Ace in the Hole (1951).” IMDb. June 29. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043338/.

Ray, Nicholas. 1950. “In a Lonely Place (1950).” IMDb. May 17. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042593/.

 “Edward Snowden’s ‘Open Letter to the Brazilian People’ – in Full.” 2013. The Guardian. December 17. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/17/edward-snowden-letter-brazilian-people.

 Finegold, Kenneth, and Finegold Kenneth. 1996. “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. Seymour Martin Lipset.” The American Journal of Sociology 102 (3): 872–74.

“Has EU Immigration and Asylum Policy Failed? Can It Ever Succeed?” 2014. Migrationpolicy.org. June 18. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/multimedia/has-eu-immigration-and-asylum-policy-failed-can-it-ever-succeed.

Ritt, Martin. 1966. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).” IMDb. January 21. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059749/.

 Millar, Mark. 2011. Ultimates Vol.1: Super-Human. Marvel Entertainment.

Parmar, Inderjeet, Linda B. Miller, and Mark Ledwidge. 2009. New Directions in US Foreign Policy. Routledge.

Rieger, Bernhard. 2009. “The ‘Good German’ Goes Global: The Volkswagen Beetle as an Icon in the Federal Republic.” History Workshop Journal: HWJ 68 (1). Oxford University Press: 3–26.

Schneider, Erin. 2016. “Apocalyptic Architecture: Cold War Bunkers, Reuse and the Everyday Landscape.” Accessed May 29. https://www.academia.edu/440251/Apocalyptic_Architecture_Cold_War_Bunkers_Reuse_and_the_Everyday_Landscape.

“The Cinema: American Weapon for the Cold War on JSTOR.” 2016. Accessed May 27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3815230?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

“Website.” 2016a. Accessed May 4. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/books/review/Chua-t.html?_r=0. . 2016b. Accessed May 27

 .Sorlin, Pierre. “The Cinema: American Weapon for the Cold War.” Film History 10, no. 3 (1998): 375-81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3815230.

Reed, Carol. 2007. “Carol Reed on Directing Orson Welles in THE THIRD MAN.” Wellesnet | Orson Welles Web Resource. May 29. http://www.wellesnet.com/carol-reed-on-directing-orson-welles-in-the-third-man/.


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