Captain America and Commodity Fetishism in the MCU

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.

9 Responses to “Captain America and Commodity Fetishism in the MCU”

  1. Paul Weimer

    Or the question of who Thor is when he doesn’t hold the hammer

    Thor 1 explores that. He is a rambutuous, boisterous bruiser who eventually learns better but a New Mexico town gets leveled for him to learn that.

    As you say. Iron Man 3 teaches us this, too, with its own plotline and Tony’s relationship to the ARC reactor and the suits.


    You are, to quote a friend referring to Loki, a thinky thinker, Max.

  2. Adam Strong-Morse

    Interesting points, but I think you’re underestimating the degree to which the Captain America movies directly engage with this idea. You note both the sequence where Batroc asks if Cap is just a shield, and he puts the shield down and fights anyway, and the bits at the end where Cap worries about the person and not the item (which incidentally strikes me as a nice inversion of Cap’s actions at the end of Secret Wars 1, which always bothered me–given god-like power, Cap restored his broken shield, instead of, y’know trying to resurrect his dead partner). Yes, Captain America can protect a group from a grenade by putting his shield over it to contain the blast. But Captain America is a hero precisely because if he didn’t have a shield, he would without hesitation use himself to contain the blast and protect other people. I think one of the core points of both Captain America movies is that the serum makes him a super-soldier, and the shield makes him “Captain America,” but Steve Rogers being Steve Rogers makes him a hero. (Note also the bit in Avengers where he’s arguing with Iron Man over precisely this point–would you be a hero without your suit?–setting up the ending of Avengers where Iron Man does things that rely on his willingness to be self-sacrificing, not on the power of his armor.)

    • max

      Good points that fill out my argument—though I still think the first Captain America movie still stands out as a process of assembly, with the heroic human being of Steve Rogers being fit into the Captain America role. In The Avengers, Cap raises the question of who Tony is without the armor, and, in one of the most interesting character beats in the movie, Tony both fails to answer that question to his own satisfaction, *and* shows that Steve can’t answer it to his (Steve’s). (Also that “Billionaire genius playboy philanthropist” line is hilarious.) That’s the turn—and after The Avengers, all the second phase Marvel movies have dealt with the heroes questioning who they are without their totem. (Thor 2 is a little complicated in this regard, but that’s another essay.)

      I think you’re absolutely right that the point of Steve being Steve is that, even powerless, he’d still try sacrifice himself to help people—but I think the first act of WS shows him not exactly having *forgotten* his inner heroism, but having stumbled / been guided into a situation in which his identity *as Steve* isn’t a huge part of what he’s doing. He operates as super-soldier and super-hero, but not as Steve. That amazing competence-porn invasion of the boat shows us Captain America acting as a super agent, but not as Captain America specifically. Batroc’s “I always heard you were more than a shield” is the beginning of the process whereby Steve starts reasserting, or rediscovering his Steve-itude. The process of rediscovery brings Steve through trauma back to the base camp where he threw himself on that grenade—and, ultimately, to Bucky. Reclaiming the self from the image, or the identity from the totem. (There may be an essay in here about Cap and Proust, but I need to brush up on my Proust to write it, if by “brush up on” I mean “read more than the first half of Swann’s Way.)

      • Anise Strong

        So, I think you’re not making enough of the shield/S.H.I.E.L.D. connection. To wit – S.H.I.E.L.D. is founded by Cap’s 3 closest friends and allies after they lose him – that is to say, all of S.H.I.E.L.D. collectively is intended as a replacement for Cap. Widow more or less explicitly makes that clear in her mourning of the betrayal in this film as losing her moral compass – and then to some extent re-finding that compass in the original. Cap at the beginning of this film is lost because he is just a shield – just another agent, albeit an esp. competent one. At the end of the film he reasserts his peer/superior relationship with Fury – claiming a position as the head of the group and a right to destroy the corrupted image of him and his protective force. Put another way – S.H.I.E.L.D. turns into a force for order; Cap is a force for good. To think of things in _The Dark is Rising_ terms, as I did at several points through this movie, Fury is terribly Merrimanesque in MCU Phase 1; the end of the Light winning justifies nearly all means. Cap’s purpose is to reject that idea in favor of a sparrow’s fall ideology – to protect everybody beneath his shield.

  3. M. L. Brennan

    This is a fun idea — it has some really good meat on the bone to gnaw on. The shield also seems to make Steve more overtly a superhero — a bullet goes toward Thor, he’s a god so he’s cool. Goes toward Stark, he’s got a big suit that bullets bounce off so he’s cool too. Goes toward the Hulk and really, why are you bothering? But even with his super-soldierness, Steve has vulnerabilities — except when he has his awesome shield that blocks grenade blasts, gunshots, and even road-rash.

    My husband sees all these movies for me — he’s not a comics guy, and mostly suffers through these films. But that SPOILERMOMENT at the end, with Cap letting the shield get dropped to focus on Bucky? My husband GASPED in the theater. Suddenly Steve was immensely vulnerable, and it also reinforced just how serious everything was.

    This also makes me think of that moment in Thor I when Thor tries to reclaim his hammer from the crash site, but can’t remove it from the rock. Forget the moment that the Destroyer temporarily squishes him (though that “so take mine” gives me chills) — THAT was Thor’s biggest emotional low and moment of vulnerability of the film.

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  6. Peter Erwin

    (I hope you don’t mind this terribly late comment; I only discovered your blog a few days ago…)

    That’s a very interesting discussion, though I can’t help thinking that “commodity fetishization” is probably the wrong starting point. Instead, I’d suggest that when it comes to “objects and … heroes’ relationship to them”, the MCU objects are modern exemplars of a rather older, pre-capitalist phenomenon: the existence (and fetishization and/or anthropomorphizing) of unique — and often magical — artifacts linked to great heroes and religious figures. E.g.:

    The point of a commodity is that it’s something anonymous, mass-produced (or mass-grown, or extracted en masse), and interchangeable — in particular, something bought and sold in markets, with a value determined by the exigencies of the market.

    Things like Iron Man’s suit and Captain America’s shield (and probably the Falcon’s wings), on the other hand, are unique, one-off items, not mass-produced output. They also don’t participate in markets: they are never bought or sold. Thor’s hammer is probably the ultimate in anti-commodities (over and above the fact that it’s directly taken from mythology), since it has a unique name and only he can use it. (In contrast, anyone strong enough could pick up and use Captain America’s shield.) Tony Stark’s suit is, in a different way, also the opposite of a commodity, because it’s made by and for Stark himself. (Stark thus avoids the alienation-of-labor problems inherent in the production of commodities. Of course, he can get away with this only because he’s both a genius and a billionaire.)

    If there’s a sense where any of these artifacts threatens to become commodity-like, it’s probably in Iron Man 2, where the US Government clearly wants the IM suit to be more like a commodity: something mass-produced, interchangeable, for which the actual producer and the details of production are largely irrelevant.

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