“If They’re Shooting at You, They’re Bad”: Genre Theory and Ideology in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

By Jack Mansfield

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014) is the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a shared universe of films containing characters from the world of Marvel Comics. The Winter Soldier continues the story of World War 2 soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he adapts to present-day life while discovering dark secrets about the espionage agency SHIELD and facing a mysterious super soldier codenamed the Winter Soldier. Where most of the MCU films that came before also experimented with other established genres within a predominantly ‘superhero’ narrative, The Winter Soldier feels different tonally due to its hybridisation of the superhero genre with the spy thriller. This detachment from directly staying within the superhero genre is something which Marvel Studios has recently begun to explore; not only does The Winter Soldier do this, but also other MCU films such as superhero/heist film Ant Man (Peyton Reed, 2015) and high school comedy Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017) put the superhero element of these films behind their respective genres. Moreover, The Winter Soldier uses its ‘political spy thriller’ genre to impose an ideology that causes the audience to consider both contemporary and historical political topics. In this essay, I will be looking at both of these factors with regards to the film; I will explore both the semantic and the syntactic aspects of genre theory as I believe the relationship between the two to be important in the context of The Winter Soldier. Moreover, I will also consider ideological theory and its practices in relation to various instances throughout the film to ultimately argue that The Winter Soldier is the least ‘superhero film’-like of all MCU films, and that this works greatly in its favour.

There has been a discussion for some time about how long the superhero genre will last as the danger of the genre becoming irrelevant or repetitive is an apparent possibility; Steven Spielberg was famously quoted as saying, “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns.”[1] Of course, there is no way that the MCU and superhero movies can continue forever and uninterrupted as audiences are certain to move on at some point in the future, but with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently stating that there are over “twenty movies on the docket”[2] to come after the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2018), there seems to be no sign of Marvel stopping any time soon: “By choosing the films it would patronise, the audience revealed its preferences and its beliefs, thus inducing Hollywood to produce films reflecting its desires.”[3] The only way that these films will continue to feel fresh and new is the combination of the superhero genre with other genres, and The Winter Soldier proved this after eight MCU films that were more firmly planted within the former than any sub-genres that were also present.

Genre theory has more recently been divided into three different sub-categories: the semantic, which “classifies movies according to themes, setting, heroes”[4]; the syntactic, stressing “configurations and relations of represented participants”; and the pragmatic, which “stresses the impingement of the movie upon the audience” (Zuska, 481). With regards to The Winter Soldier, the semantic approach is most appropriate for understanding its successes as both a superhero film as well as a spy thriller. It is safe to say that, despite the inclusion of some futuristic technology among other aspects of the film, The Winter Soldier is the entry in the MCU that is most grounded in reality; there are no outright fantastical elements to the narrative, which lends greatly to the realistic nature of its spy thriller genre. Captain America is a superhero who, despite being genetically enhanced in a laboratory in the Second World War to become a super soldier, has no otherworldly superpowers like flight for example; while he is still a ‘superhero’ by definition, he is a hero to whom audiences can more closely relate because of his core beliefs, and perhaps The Winter Soldier  falls more into the superhero category in that respect.

When using Vlastimil Zuska’s breakdown of the semantic approach (themes, setting and heroes) with regards to The Winter Soldier, its categorisation as a spy thriller is as a result of three key aspects: the main themes of the film are intelligence and surveillance; the primary setting of the film being present-day Washington, D.C.; and the three main heroes – Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) – all work for SHIELD without knowing about the secret threat of World War 2-era Nazi organisation HYDRA growing within it. The semantic approach also encompasses aspects of how these characters are presented; for example, we can tell the three aforementioned characters are the main heroes because of their costumes, their dialogue, their attitudes, even their leitmotifs in the musical score. Compare this with the villains of the film: Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), brainwashed by HYDRA into becoming Soviet sleeper agent the Winter Soldier, and the duplicitous head of SHIELD Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford in a stark call back to the 70s spy thriller era, having starred in the genre-defining Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975)). Barnes’ long dark hair and dark outfit along with his metal arm emblazoned with a Soviet star provides a strong contrast to the more heroic aesthetic surrounding Captain America. Moreover, having Pierce at the head of SHIELD shows how deep HYDRA’s infiltration goes.

The second aspect of genre theory, the syntactic, looks more at the structural aspects of film and how different genres are matched. There is a connection between the two approaches, as out of the semantic elements of the genre comes a syntactic relationship, as Rick Altman suggests:


            While there is anything but general agreement on the exact frontier separating semantic from syntactic views, we can as a whole distinguish between generic definitions which depend on a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets, and the like-thus stressing the semantic elements which make up the genre-and definitions which play up instead certain constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders-relationships which might be called the genre’s fundamental syntax. (Altman, 10)


Thinking back to the Western, Altman suggests that the genre grows “out of a dialectic between the West as Garden and as Desert” (Altman, 10), which is to say that the genre of the Western is born out of a syntactic relationship between various lexical elements; this does not mean the vocabulary itself, but instead the vocabulary generated by diametric oppositions such as “culture and nature, community and individual, future and past” (Altman, 10, 11). When applying the syntactic approach to The Winter Soldier, however, “it is important to remember that every MCU film is a hybrid between the demands of a superhero film and the demands of whichever other genre(s) the film is playing with.”[5] Like the Western, there are many different diametric oppositions in The Winter Soldier that are tropes of both the superhero film as well as the spy thriller: good and evil, hero and villain, and more specifically in this case oppositions such as democracy and dictatorship, patriotism and treason. We see the imagery for the basic good and evil and hero and villain struggles in the fight between Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier (who, when is revealed to Rogers to be his childhood friend Bucky Barnes creates another moral diametric opposite in itself), whereas the other oppositions are a product of the narrative that HYDRA, a secret Nazi organisation from the Second World War, has been hiding inside SHIELD for 70 years. Of course, having Nazis as the villains of the film, there is no question about who are the heroes and who are the villains in that respect: the trope of the genre is instead the double-cross, the idea that any of Captain America’s allies could, in fact, be working for HYDRA.

This idea is expressed at its strongest in the third act after a sizeable proportion of SHIELD agents are revealed to instead be working for HYDRA. In order to prevent Project Insight from killing potentially millions of people, Captain America, Black Widow, and Falcon must defeat the Winter Soldier and stop the three Helicarriers from launching. When they land on one of the Helicarriers, Falcon asks Captain America, “how do we know the good guys from the bad guys?”, to which Captain America replies, “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad”: while this could easily be disregarded as simply a humorous moment in the film, I would argue that this brief interaction acts as a synecdoche for the film’s plot in its entirety. Falcon’s uncertainty as to who are the heroes and villains can be examined with the semantic approach to genre theory, as it echoes the characters’ concerns in the film and the themes of espionage and double-crossing, thus cementing the film in its spy thriller aesthetic. Furthermore, through looking at this interaction with the use of the semantic approach, we can start to look at how this film uses politics and various other ideologies to support its categorisation as both a superhero film and a spy thriller.

This is one of the main examples in The Winter Soldier of a political ideology undercutting the superhero/spy thriller genre hybrid. Ideology is generally described nowadays as “the system of ideas that define a culture”[6]; this definition suggests a sense of realism behind an ideology, and this is still the case for The Winter Soldier despite being set in a universe that contains superheroes. The ‘reality’ is not produced by the setting, but instead is “an expression of the prevailing ideology”[7], and the prevailing ideology in the case of The Winter Soldier is a political one. With a narrative about a soldier from the 40s being thrust into the present day, a secret Nazi organisation, and a Soviet super soldier who was formerly the best friend of the protagonist, The Winter Soldier expresses different ideologies concerning the dangers of heightened nationwide surveillance and intelligence, Nazism and Neo-Nazism and how there is little to no change in the ideology of these far-right organisations over 70 years, and, on the other side of the spectrum, American patriotism and treachery.

The film sets out its main themes of surveillance and heightened intelligence early on with the introduction of Project Insight: three heavily armed Helicarriers (a technologically advanced aircraft carrier in the Marvel Universe) all linked by a satellite with the intention of wiping out potential threats before they happened. Having been introduced to this by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Steve Rogers voices his concern about the Helicarriers, saying he “thought the punishment usually came after the crime”, and that “This isn’t freedom, this is fear”. These sentiments regarding surveillance (particularly in America) are mirrored in daily society, albeit not on the mass-murdering aircraft carrier scale: “The concern is that information collected for one purpose is used for something entirely different down the road”[8], which is in fact a key plot detail in the Winter Soldier, as former HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) developed an algorithm that took personal information from everyone around the world and determined whether or not they would be a threat to HYDRA in the present or in the future. The narrative surrounding the dangers of heightened surveillance is present throughout the film, and this is supported when it turns out that HYDRA has had control over the project all along; the algorithm is fed through the Helicarriers and begins to target all the threats to HYDRA, which would kill hundreds of thousands of people on the east coast of America alone. In the present-day setting, the film uses this evil plan very effectively to illustrate the concerns over all-encompassing surveillance in the real world and how, in the wrong hands, this could prove dangerous.

            The Winter Soldier uses political ideology to incorporate a narrative about Nazism and Neo-Nazism after the Second World War and in the present day respectively. HYDRA was the secret Nazi agency during the Second World War, much like the USA had SHIELD (or, as it was known then, the SSR). In The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers is shocked to find that he had not completely defeated HYDRA in the 1940s and that they had secretly infiltrated SHIELD to the point where Project Insight could be hijacked and used to control the world. J. Richard Stevens writes, “the film links this philosophy [of strength as defence] to the conspiracies of HYDRA, the organisation that originally grew (in the first film) from the excesses of Nazi totalitarianism”[9]; this is where the film’s narrative is flawed in my opinion, as although this plot twist is shocking to the audience, it actually shies away from making America the villains of the film by laying the blame on HYDRA for the backfiring of Project Insight.

Where this could have been used as a powerful moment to place the American intelligence system at the heart of this anti-surveillance ideology, instead the film chooses to use HYDRA and the Nazis as something of a scapegoat in order to preserve the patriotic ideas already established in the film and bring the diametric opposite of good and evil from the Second World War explored in The First Avenger into the present day. HYDRA can be described in the context of The Winter Soldier as “a fig leaf for a real-world disillusionment with the growing security state and the reckless foreign engagement of the years since 9/11”[10]. Despite this inclusion of Nazis as villains in the present day creating a commentary on Nazism and Neo-Nazis in the real world, I feel that, while this is both an important ideology to stress and the fight against HYDRA is a key part of Captain America’s character, it either could have been executed more efficiently or should not have been included at all.

Naturally, in a film with the protagonist being a superhero called ‘Captain America’ who is pitted against a secret Nazi organisation, there can be no doubt that patriotism will play an integral part in the narrative of The Winter Soldier. Where the first Captain America film The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) explored the patriotic ideology within a World War 2 setting, The Winter Soldier also looks at patriotism in a nostalgic sense, while in addition exploring what it means to be American in a present-day surveillance-heavy state. Both the semantic and syntactic approaches to genre theory help to explain this patriotic ideology: in The First Avenger, there was a strong amount of patriotic imagery, from Captain America’s bright red, white, and blue uniform, to Captain America punching an actor playing Adolf Hitler in an advertisement for war bonds. It is well established in The First Avenger that the “unfailingly righteous” (Phipps) Captain America fights for the desirable American values, but this was established in wartime: The Winter Soldier asks the question of how these values and Captain America’s own ideology hold up without the backdrop of a World War, and even if his ideals can withstand a changing political climate at all.

While the imagery in The First Avenger was overt, the Cold War-esque narrative of The Winter Soldier leads to somewhat more subtle imagery, apart from one scene in the war museum. Steve Rogers walks through the Second World War exhibition at the Smithsonian museum reminiscing about his adventure seen in The First Avenger, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s president can be heard over the loudspeaker saying “A symbol to the nation, a hero to the world. The story of Captain America is one of honour, bravery, and sacrifice.” The vocabulary used here by Ellis is strongly associated with patriotism; “honour” and “bravery” are part of a syntax that is often related to the idea of what it means to be American.

The patriotic ideology is perhaps best encapsulated in The Winter Soldier in the scene where Captain America, Black Widow and Falcon first infiltrate one of the Helicarriers, and Captain America delivers his speech over the intercom, saying:

            SHIELD is not what we thought it was. It’s been taken over by HYDRA…I know they’re in the building. They could be standing right next to you. They could be standing right next to you. They almost have what they want…If you launch these Helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way…I know I’m asking a lot, but the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay.


This speech is one of the most important pieces of dialogue in the film for establishing the fact that Cap’s personal ideology has not changed since the Second World War. His willingness to pay “the price of freedom” suggests that Cap sees the fight against HYDRA as a present-day war regardless of nationality. Not only that, but the speech also inspires the remaining SHIELD agents to fight back against their infiltrators who believe in Captain America and what he stands for. It is moments like this in The Winter Soldier that lend to its success: “What the film captured and integrated into the Marvel cineverse is Captain America’s dedication to American ideas. These ideas are the same one[s] held by the common man”[11].

            When applying genre theory and political ideology to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is unavoidable that the two theories overlap. Captain America will always be a politically driven superhero – both his comic book arcs and more recently his MCU films have cemented this fact – and this drives the political ideologies of the creators, which ultimately underpins the semantic and syntactic approaches taken when looking at how The Winter Soldier fits into its certain genres. Of all seventeen MCU films released so far, none subvert the superhero genre quite as radically as The Winter Soldier; even if there are supposedly twenty more MCU films to come, I believe that The Winter Soldier’s successful uses of the paranoid thriller genre and political ideology made a film that will take some beating in the years to come.



[1] McMillan, G. (2015). Steven Spielberg Says Superhero Movies Will Go “the Way of the Western”. [online] The Hollywood Reporter. Available at: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/steven-spielberg-predicts-superhero-movies-819768 [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

[2] Anderton, J. (2017). Marvel has 20 Movies Planned for After Avengers 4. [online] Digital Spy. Available at: http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/the-avengers/news/a844105/marvel-post-avengers-film-plans-20-more-movies/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

[3] Altman, R. (1984). A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre. Cinema Journal, 23(3).

[4] Zuska, V. (2000). Towards a Cognitive Model of Genre: Genre as a Vector Categorisation of Film. Theoria: An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science, 15(3).

[5] Burt, K. (2017). Why ‘The Avengers’ Movies Will Never Be the MCU’s Best. [online] Collider. Available at: http://collider.com/avengers-best-mcu-movies/#thor [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

[6] Parsons, E. (2011). Keywords for Children’s Literature. New York [N.Y.]: New York University Press, p.13.

[7] Braudy, L. and Cohen, M. (2016). Film theory and Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] Vlahos, J. (2009). Surveillance Society: New High-Tech Cameras Are Watching You. [online] Popular Mechanics. Available at: http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/a2398/4236865/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

[9] Stevens, J. (2015). Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence. Syracuse University Press, p.287.

[10] Phipps, K. (2014). The all-American disillusionment of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. [online] The Dissolve. Available at: https://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/495-the-all-american-disillusionment-of-captain-americ/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

[11] Chambliss, J. (2014). An Avenger for All Seasons: Captain America, Identity, and the US Experience. [online] PopMatters. Available at: https://www.popmatters.com/an-avenger-for-all-seasons-captain-america-identity-and-the-us-experience-2495666454.html [Accessed 14 Dec. 2017].


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