04/08/2014 12:19 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

We Don't Need Any More Superheroes


Breaking the April box office record with a $96 million opening weekend, Captain America: The Winter Soldier shows that the American public is hungry for tales of heroic resistance against an overly intrusive and pre-emptive national security state. Indeed, the present historical moment offers us a chance to alter the relationship between our democracy and our intelligence services. Recently we have had revelations of data mining of the Internet and our handheld devices on a massive scale, NSA spying on allies such as Germany, the use of torture in interrogations, and even CIA investigation of its own Congressional oversight committee. These excesses of post-9/11 national security are now coming to light and therefore an historic opportunity exists to ensure they do not take place in the future.

These events are at the center of The Winter Soldier, which artfully combines the superhero and spy genres to create a film that pleasing to both Tea Party Patriots and card-carrying ACLU members. Captain America's demolition of SHIELD, the film's Washington-based "global intelligence community," is easy to cheer for as a victory of individual liberty over the security state. However, my research on superhero comics and films from 1940 to the present indicates that tales like The Winter Soldier only perpetuate our reliance on superpowered individuals and bureaucracies to protect us. And indeed, when Captain America's ally (Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson) testifies before the U.S. government, she is threatened with prison for her Julian Assange-style uploading of national secrets onto the Internet. Her chilling reply -- that she is untouchable because superheroes protect us in a hostile world -- should give us pause. It is exactly the response given by intelligence chiefs to public criticism of their extra-legal practices. Superhero films tell us, repeatedly, that the only way to secure our families is by investing extra-legal authority with the ability to do whatever it takes. The friendly face of Captain America slowly morphs into the faces of the CIA torturers in Iraq.

Superhero films have been box office gold for a long time, and superhero comics have been around since before World War 2. It is no coincidence that this is the period in which the United States has exerted its own "superpower" in the world. The Winter Soldier purports to be a populist tale of the little guy against the military-intelligence complex, but like all superhero stories it is really a story of the powerful maintaining the world as it is. This is a problem if "the world as it is" is one in which the intelligence community is disconnected from the democracy it purports to serve.

Intelligence agencies have a unique way of turning their historic failures into increased funding and new levels of secrecy (see: 9/11) in a way other government agencies can only dream about; there is no reason to believe change will occur without sustained public pressure. We seem to think we can't get by without the security they purport to provide. Nor can we rely on "heroes" like Edward Snowden to bring democratic accountability; he too easily fits the mold of the extra-legal vigilante, undermining faith in the rule of law (as his critics note), even as the crimes he revealed undermine faith in the justice of law (as his supporters note). Rather, we have to seize the moment, and start to tell new stories -- ones in which security and liberty are not at odds, but rather work together to produce a more democratically-accountable intelligence community.

Jason Dittmer is the author of Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics.