Aficionados often refer to comic books in terms of eras: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age. The same may now be true of the comic-book movie. Judging from last year’s mega-hit Iron Man 3, and the brand-new mega-hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the comic-book movie has entered the Commie Age.
The great villain in these two movies isn’t an evil alien, or a dastardly villain, but “Fear.” You remember Fear. Fear is what leftists began telling us we were being peddled after 9/11 to advance the corporatist neoconservative agenda to take over the world. There was no real Islamist threat, according to this line of argument; it was ginned up to induce Fear. This was and is the favored line of argument on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” and of the activist journalist Glenn Greenwald, the front man for Edward Snowden.
In Iron Man 3, the world was driven into paroxysms of fear by a mysterious character called the Mandarin, designed to look and sound like Osama bin Laden. It turns out that the Mandarin is a fiction—that he is a character being played by a drug-addicted cockney actor hiding out in a pirate TV studio in Miami. The real villain is, of course, the billionaire head of an evil corporation who is using the Mandarin to sow Fear.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes this all to a new level. (Spoilers from here on out.) The plot is a weird amalgam of WikiLeaks and The Boys from Brazil, the 1976 Ira Levin potboiler about the discovery of Hitler clones in South America being overseen by Josef Mengele. In Winter Soldier, it turns out that the global hero running the planet’s security is secretly a Nazi, and that the hidden agency he runs has actually been a Nazi front since before the end of the Second World War.
In the first Captain America movie, we saw the title character defeat the Nazi bad guys and their organization, Hydra, in the midst of World War II. Now it turns out that he didn’t destroy Hydra after all, and that it has been responsible for all the world’s disorder ever since. It has made everything bad so that the world’s people would willingly surrender their freedoms for security. Given that it’s almost 70 years after the end of that war, you’d have to say this was a pretty dumb scheme. But then, such are the workings of Fear.
As the movie begins, Hydra’s plot is coming to fruition. The secret agency has collected all the world’s metadata, and its computers have figured out how to predict which people on earth are going to do Bad Things in the future. It is about to launch three spaceships that will kill every possible bad person—about 20 million or so—all at once. It’s like the Death Star from Star Wars with 20 million drones.
So the good guys are the bad guys, or the good guys are unknowingly working for the bad guys, or the bad guys might actually be the good guys, depending on what they’re doing—or something. The only hope of saving us all from this dastardly inside job is to put every state secret out on the Internet.
Captain America, newly freed from the block of ice in which he has been frozen since the end of the war, must now deal with his failure to rid the world of the Nazi threat. As one character asks him, “How does it feel to know you died for nothing?”
That’s quite an interesting message for a superhero movie. Since coming into existence as a genre of its own with Superman in 1978, the comic-book movie has served as the successor to the classic Western—a moral pageant in which a classic white-hatted hero faces off against a black-hatted villain who has upset the moral order. The white hat sets things right and then rides off to do more good deeds.
In the late 1940s, after a generation in which more westerns were made than any other kind of movie in Hollywood by a factor of two, directors and writers began to tire of the formula and looked to broaden it. They made villains out of characters who would have once been heroes, like Henry Fonda’s martinet officer in Fort Apache (1948). And they made heroes out of former villains, like the Indian warrior Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950).
The superhero movie is Hollywood’s dominant fare. And now its makers—in this case, the gentlemen behind Marvel Studios, the Disney-owned behemoth—have had enough, in the same way that John Ford and Howard Hawks and other western-makers had had enough by the late 1940s. Those men incorporated liberal themes like tolerance and a more complex view of the uses of violence. In keeping with the more radical tenor of our times, Marvel Studios has bypassed that kind of mushy liberalism and gone straight to far-left radicalism.
It isn’t hurting at the box office; Iron Man 3 was the most successful movie of 2013 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier set box-office records its opening weekend. So get ready for next year’s blockbuster, Noam Chomskyman—the perfect hero for the Commie Age.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.