The Marvel movies have an interesting relationship with Stuff and Things.
Steph and I went to go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend, and loved it. (I’ve whited out all spoilers in this essay, by the way, unless you consider the fact that Cap uses his shield in this movie, the Black Widow uses her sting, and the Falcon uses his wings to be spoilers. Which you shouldn’t.) As we walked to the train afterward, Steph mentioned an aspect of the action scenes I’d missed—the care with which the action directors made sure we knew where Cap’s shield was at all times. She’d pointed this out after we saw Thor: The Dark World as well—how the action scenes were shot so clearly that we knew at every moment, without fail, where Thor’s hammer was.
Back when we saw Thor, I believed this was a sign of the high quality of action direction in the MCU. And the direction is excellent: nice long cuts, coupled with coherent cinematic storytelling. I’m a huge Thor movie fan, but even if you aren’t, you have to admit that the final action sequence in The Dark World—in which Thor, his adversaries, and his helpers are using cracks in the world to jump seamlessly between London and a couple alien worlds—holds together miraculously. And I do mean miraculously: scenes like that are built to make no sense, yet this one did. In order for an action sequence starring Thor to hang together, we have to know where his hammer’s hanging. (So to speak.) But seeing the pattern repeat itself in Captain America has me thinking there’s more at work here.
All of the Avengers of the MCU movies so far have objects that stand in for them, items they literally or figuratively become. Tony Stark is the most obvious: I am Iron Man, he proclaims at the end of the first movie, identifying himself with the armor in his own eyes and the eyes of the world. And he repeats the claim in the third movie, despite having spent most of the film outside of the suit. Odin’s magic even reifies this association for Thor, via inscription: “Whosever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Thor’s attempt to earn his own identity—his kingship—back is synonymous with his attempt to earn the right to bear his hammer again.
Captain America was transformed by the super-soldier serum, sure, but that transformation made him super-Steve. The shield makes him Cap—as is repeated over and over in the comics, where the shield stands metonymically for the entire Captain America identity. When Steve stops being Cap, he’s said to be putting down the shield; when he starts being Cap again, he’s taken up the shield once more. “When you’re going to war,” as Steve says in Winter Soldier, “you have to wear a uniform.”
Even supporting heroes in the Cinematic Universe have their own objects: the Widow’s stings, the Falcon’s wings, Hawkeye’s bow. (And Darcy’s camera! And my axe!) The Hulk is the one great exception to this rule, though I think he actually supports the argument in a twisted way: because his power is internal, it’s presented as confusing and terrifying, and Hulk himself as only a borderline hero. Also, the Hulk itself is (in movie and comics alike) presented as a sort of psychological object for Banner: an entity on which Banner hangs his own damage.
Heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe identify themselves with a totem—and action sequences spin around this identification. The shield is Cap on a basic level; when he sets it aside he’s setting aside much of his own power, even if he’s still super-Steve without the shield. When the movie wants to establish that the Winter Soldier is badass, it doesn’t have him beat Captain America in a fight—it has him grab the shield. In Iron Man 3, we follow the destruction and reconstruction of Tony’s armor with baited breath. In Thor 2, the hammer’s location matters. Sure, these characters are still strong without their stuff—but the movie cares when the stuff goes away.
Marx discusses a concept called “commodity fetishism,” which (and I’m pretty shallow in Marxism, so I’m probably going to get some of this wrong) is the process in capitalism whereby social relationships among people become coded as economic relationships among things: we say oranges or oil are becoming more valuable, or that craft beer’s cheaper than it used to be, when in fact we mean that people need more oil or there was an orange blight or there are a ton of folks smallbrewing in our neighborhood. We talk of investments as “growing,” when that simple word actually refers to a complicated social reality. Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America discusses how societies that come into contact with capitalism for the first time tend to find this fetishistic process pretty weird, and associate it with magic and sorcery—Columbian rural farmers, when introduced to capitalist agriculture, developed myths about how one could, by dealing with the devil, plant money in hope that this money will grow, a practice which only strikes outsiders as strange because the would-be devil worshippers weren’t going about it the right way, using savings accounts, mutual funds &c.
I wonder if something like this is at play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s focus on objects and on heroes’ relationship to them. (Batroc, in Winter Soldier: “Is there a man behind the shield?” Or Tony Stark’s “I am Iron Man” at the end if IM3. Or the question of who Thor is when he doesn’t hold the hammer.) Heroes project themselves onto symbols. But are the heroes more, or less, than their symbol? To what extent have human beings allowed themselves to be coded into symbols—and to what extent can they reclaim their own identities from the symbols into which they’ve been coded? Steve’s actions at the end of the Winter Soldier’s final fight try to show us that Steve matters, with or without the shield—by setting aside his symbol, he tries to show the Winter Soldier that he (WS) is more than the symbol into which he’s been shaped. Of course, Steve takes up his shield again at the movie’s end, for all the… well… the other stuff that happens with shields, the Shield, and SHIELD. (Though in a sense I suppose *SPOILER* Steve’s demanding that Fury give up his SHIELD….*END SPOILER*)
Actually, now that I think about it, this loose theme unites the Second Phase of the Marvel Universe. Phase One movies were all about the creation of symbols: armor, hammer, shield. Phase Two movies, on the other hand, tend to be about reclaiming the human properties from these objects. When Tony’s suit’s disabled, he must learn to re-apply the same ingenuity that created Iron Man—reclaiming himself from the suit. Thor doesn’t need to reclaim himself from the hammer, but he does have to walk away from Asgard and his throne in order to follow his heart. And Steve, Sorry, SPOILER ALERT AGAIN decides that to connect with Bucky, he must set aside his shield and all defenses—and, not coincidentally, disband SHIELD at the same time END SPOILER.
Alyssa Rosenberg’s written eloquently about the MCU’s engagement with the drone program—with the degree to which the movies turn on the distinction between human heroism enabled by technology, and raw drone warfare. The Iron Man suit at its worst is dronelike, and the climax of IM3 involves an awful lot of Iron Man suits that I can’t refer to as anything but drones. Thor’s hammer is a similar tool of wielded but nevertheless semi-autonomous technological destruction; so’s the technologically-enhanced super soldier, seen from a particular light. The drone’s a special case, I think, of this larger issue: how we put ourselves into things, then forget that those parts came from ourselves to begin with, and struggle to recapture them without a clear sense of what’s been lost or how.
These movies, in addition to all their sweet action, chart the ever-more-complicated line between human and machine, between tool and wielder, between creator and created world. I don’t know if the Marvel filmmakers intended to build a seven-picture cycle on commodity fetishism, humanity’s alienation from heroism and its attempt to reclaim that lost ground, but I think they’ve done so.
(And then there’s Zola! The bad guy who actually became a thing! Aaaaaah it’s all coming together!)
There’s more to write here—a lot more—but if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I have to go buy the Trouble Man soundtrack.