[Note: This article includes a discussion of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It doesn’t have any spoilers that couldn’t be worked out from the trailers or a basic knowledge of the Marvel Universe, but to be on the safe side, I’m putting this disclaimer here to fill up the Facebook preview space.]
One interesting trend I’ve noticed in the Marvel cinematic universe is the characters whose backgrounds have moved toward a military/espionage origin. In the case of Rhodey from the Iron Man movies, he’s gone from a retired Marine pilot in Vietnam who became Tony Stark’s personal pilot to an active Air Force Lt. Colonel who acts as the military liaison to Stark Industries. It’s a shift of emphasis in the character, but also one that has a purpose in the plot. Captain America has also stayed close to the US government in the form of SHIELD rather than being a free agent.
In the case of Hawkeye and Falcon, they’ve gone from carny-turned-minor-criminal and street-hustler-turned-social-worker to SHIELD agent and Pararescuer-turned-VA employee, respectively. One reason for this is that the cinematic universe is closer to Ultimate Marvel than regular Marvel-616, and SHIELD was a big part of Ultimate Marvel from the get-go. In the case of Hawkeye, that character arc would have required more setup to be plausible in the movies than time allowed, so making him a SHIELD agent was a major shortcut.
Apart from the meta-reasons for this shift in backgrounds, I can see other storytelling benefits:
- A military background automatically justifies the character having a wide range of skills that make them a good superhero/action hero. There’s no need to set up a radioactive spider bite turning someone into a master of krav maga; any skill they exhibit in combat, tactics, etc. is already implicitly explained.
- Likewise, a military background allows a character who isn’t a billionaire to have access to expensive advanced technology–not just the War Machine/Iron Patriot armors and Falcon’s flight pack, but also Captain America’s shields (the movie version apparently not being an indestructible one-off). Of the movie Avengers, only one has mutation-induced superhuman powers, one is at the extremes of human potential due to scientific treatment, and one is an extradimensional being with sufficiently advanced technology. The others have varying degrees of training and technology. (This is in contrast to the non-MCU Marvel franchises, such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, which fall heavily on the side of innate powers, and interestingly also on the side of characters operating in secret outside the law.)
- Perhaps most significantly, making the characters agents of an official organization gives their actions an aura of implied legitimacy, as long as they’re behaving as the heroes. (Villainous or traitorous members of these same organizations lose this aura once their villainy is revealed.) Casting policemen or soldiers as action heroes isn’t of itself new, of course. It’s also interesting to consider how this aura applies even when the character is acting explicitly against authority to do what’s portrayed as the right thing, as in the case of Dirty Harry and his ilk, regardless of how this would be perceived in the real world, and for that matter how the organization itself might be perceived in the real world. That’s another article, however.