“I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from”. Apparently, killing stereotypes is not Captain America’s (or Marvel’s) priority, either.
Captain America is not just any superhero. He is the nationalist superhero with a perfect physique baked within the military-industrial complex. Yet, most importantly, he is an exemplary man. Indeed, scrawny outcast Steve Rogers is not selected for the soldier enhancement program of the US military for his strength. Rather, it is for his morals, courage, and patriotism. Rogers is encouraged by Dr. Erskine – the inventor of the super serum – not to be a perfect soldierAmerica’s place in the world is but a good man (subtext: one fit to represent America).

The tropes mobilized in the Captain America trilogy cannot be merely considered a statement of fact but an active production of meaning and truth of what America’s place in the world is and what it means to be American. The saga spatializes international politics and populates it with particular places, communities, and narratives, providing viewers with a moral vocabulary and metaphors to explain the world. These potent symbolisms influence society’s mental maps and policy preferences. Hence, in what follows, I will explore the geo-political implications of the trilogy through discourses on national security, Orientalism, and militarized masculinities.

The storyline

In the first movie of the Marvel trilogy, The First Avenger (2011), Steve Rogers is a scrawny outcast wishing to fight Nazis for his country during World War II. After many failed attempts at enlistment, he successfully enrolls in an experimental military program and is injected with a super soldier serum. Once enhanced, he saves the world from nuclear annihilation, deflecting the atomic bombs directed toward US territory by a Nazi paramilitary organization, HYDRA. To save humanity, he sacrifices his own life by crashing the plane carrying the warheads and himself into the Arctic.

Preserved by the frozen environment, Rogers thaws out in the XXI century in the second movie, The Winter Soldier (2014). Upon awakening, he is co-opted by S.H.I.E.L.D., an American para-governmental counterterrorism and intelligence agency. Captain America discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. was infiltrated and controlled by surviving HYDRA members, who planned to enact a global program of mass surveillance, using Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ resuscitated and brainwashed childhood friend, against him. Nonetheless, the Captain successfully defeats the conspiracy, sparing his old friend (the titular Winter Soldier), and saves the world once again.

In the last movie, Civil War (2016), Rogers leads the Avengers, an independent team of superheroes formed to defend the planet. Their global adventurism, whilst contributing to preserving world peace, had caused so much collateral damage to prompt the United Nations to pass the Sokovia Accords, imposing governmental oversight on their operations. An ideological controversy breaks out and leads to an internecine conflict within the team: Iron Man, who supports the accords as an advocate of accountability, faces Captain America, which opposes them, valuing individual freedom.

Geopolitical imaginaries

To produce an American national identity in a time of post-9/11 cultural trauma, the trilogy is constructed on the basic dichotomy homeland/rest of the world. The movies promote a recurring Manichean morality where Captain America represents Order and virtue, whose duty is to tame a disorderly and repugnant Other (itself constitutive of the American collective identity). Following a geographically-determinist logic, the United States is peaceful, democratic, and rational. Conversely, Europe and ‘the Orient’ are essentialized as violent, barbaric, irrational and underdeveloped, and the identities, cultures and lives of their inhabitants considered less grievable. These performed imaginary geographies provide moral backing to the extraterritorial exercise of military power by the United States. Thus, Captain America is obliged to enter World War II and intervene abroad to counter supervillains, as the US had no other choice to eradicate terrorism and (made-up) nuclear proliferation but to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. The violence wielded by Captain America is therefore legitimized because it is necessary, altruistic, and good for the world. When the liberal order is under attack (see 9/11), the expectation created is that the United States has the right and duty to intervene extraterritorially. As avenging is the core business of this cinematic franchise, Captain America contributes to portraying retribution as an innate principle of American foreign policy.

In the third movie, Captain America perfectly embodies another key feature of US national security discourse, namely exceptionalism and unilateralism. Rogers is against the Sokovia accords, which would leash the Avengers. By analogy, they would harness American sovereignty, depriving it of the entitlement to intervene militarily whenever and wherever it pleases, also in defiance of international law. To pursue and justify this desired geopolitical script, the trilogy applies a selective approach to history, reversing, and picking and choosing the events to portray. For instance, the US’ special relationship with the UK is emphasized in the first movie via Rogers’ crush on Agent Carter, a British official. Concurrently, the USSR’s crucial contribution to the Allied effort is invisibilized. In a reversal of history, the second movie negatively introduces tropes of Orientalism and the communist fear by making the Winter Soldier the brainchild of mad Russian scientists. Moreover, the first movie shows the Nazis directing nuclear weapons towards the US. These scenes compact the viewer around the fear of an attack against the homeland, silencing how, paradoxically, the only country actually to use nuclear weapons was the US in Japan.


Differently from his colleagues, Captain America does not wield shiny weapons, but simply a shield and his own muscles, which is a metaphor for his approach to violence and is in line with his old-fashioned, self-reliant persona. He reluctantly engages in fistfights unless provoked; he stuns, but does not kill; and the level of harm he inflicts depends on his physical ability alone. Through the shield symbolism (which recurs in the eponymous security agency), the franchise aestheticizes Rogers as a defensive fighter – recalling the US doctrine of pre-emptive defense – making his activity look righteous and civilized. The quasi-total absence of bloodshed promotes a liberal illusion of the US army fighting a ‘clean war’ – differently from its oriental, brutal foes – to achieve particular foreign policy goals marketed as universal ends. Were it not for this rebranding, Captain America would just appear as an unelected, law-transcending individual, enacting fascist vigilante justice ad libitum. Yet, his intervention is made necessary because of the suggestion that security can only be ensured by exceptional, unchecked entities, like superheroes (or the US military), rather than other inane security providers. To promote this militarist narrative, Marvel sugarcoats the dehumanizing violence of militaries with heroism and righteousness. Overall, Captain America – hence the US army – is constructed as disciplined, unerring, and lethal (but only against those who asked for it). A prime example of militainment, the trilogy makes war an object of consumption, creating a climate where “militaries slip away from public accountability, and citizens are asked to trust in them”.


Captain America is the cinematic embodiment of militarized masculinity, sprinkled with cowboy ethics and retro-gentleman flavors. Through his character, the movies suggest that manhood is tied to fighting for one’s country, and that in wars there is no place for girly niceness but only for guts. Soldiering is the means for social emancipation, and Rogers’ initial frailty is an obstacle to this. Once enhanced and enlisted, Rogers becomes a mascot for the US Army’s recruitment and fundraising campaign but remains a laughingstock for fellow conscripts. Although Captain America epitomizes the ideal male body (strength, beauty, and sexual magnetism), and ethic (confidence, leadership, and self-sacrifice), these attributes are not enough, if they are not spent in battle. While ‘real men’ are dying in Europe, he is touring US theaters in tights, singing and dancing. Hence, Rogers’ anabasis from marginalization towards true manhood is completed only after his baptism in violence during World War II.

The dichotomy between Captain America’s militarized masculinity and femininity is clear in his relationship with Black Widow, a Russian-spy-turned-American superhero and main female character. As an Eastern woman, she sports the full paraphernalia of Orientalist and sexist stereotypes. She is brutal and unprincipled in her combat techniques; impulsive, selfish, and deceitful in her relationships; irrational and irresponsible when holding power. On one occasion, Black Widow jeopardizes a mission by indulging in unassigned tasks instead of following orders. On another, she uses torture to extort information. Both times, Captain America intervenes righteously and bravely. Accordingly, he protects not only her as a woman, but by extension, protects the helpless and feminine nation. Concurrently, a sexual undertone characterizes Black Widow (and other female characters, like Agent Carter and the Scarlet Witch). While she is equipped with an insatiable carnal appetite and mysterious allure, Rogers is instead an idealized ‘old-fashioned’ lover. By comparing Rogers’ gallant style with Iron Man’s libertine love life, the movie also proposes two alternative male approaches to romance, arguably preferring the former.

Superheroes make worlds

Across this saga, viewers consume places, people, and events through the interpretive filter of an itinerant American demigod fighting evil. The sci-fi genre allows superhero movies – at once vividly lifelike and utopic fantasies – to blend reality and imagination while evading the scrutiny faced by historical or realistic drama. Therefore, it grants them outstanding narrative and world-making power. In the Captain America movies, the imaginaries produced relate especially to national security, Orientalism, and militarized masculinity. As this content can mesmerize publics, contributing to the formation of specific perspectives on violence and the use of military force, it is best to remember that even the most trivial cartoon may conceal and (re)produce a society’s values and goals.