It is without question that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the biggest media franchises in the current day. According to Business Insider, the Marvel superhero franchise has made “more than $25 billion worldwide, making it the biggest movie franchise ever”. Since 2008, it redefined not only how movies are made, discussed, produced, and marketed, but also the entire popular culture of the United States. Theme parks have been built, additional “phases” of films within the series have been announced, and new merchandise releases daily in addition to the already bountiful proliferation of comic books.
In many ways, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has reborn the entire Marvel comic book industry and revitalized it to an unforeseen degree. For many persons, it has become a part of their personality and something they enjoy either discussing, collecting, or watching. Like with all pieces of media, these films, toys, and games all inform our personal and daily lives. They allow us to see and explore the world differently than before. Furthermore, they can in many cases allow us commentaries on pressing issues within society or history, such as gender, race, and power.
While there have been many commentaries and analyses on these topics, little has been said about the commentary the MCU offers on the world of intelligence and espionage.
Espionage in the MCU
Intelligence is a huge component of the Marvel universe. From the MCU’s first film, the post-credit scene from 2008’s Iron Man, intelligence entities were already becoming prominent with the introduction of Nick Fury and the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. Since then, the whole of the real-world U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), from the FBI to the CIA, alongside fictional entities like S.H.I.E.L.D and S.W.O.R.D (Sentient World Observation and Response Department) have appeared and demonstrated how they operate in the world of superheroes.
In many cases, despite being in a fictional environment, there are some very real comparisons.
Perhaps one of the most espionage-heavy films (and, arguably one of the best MCU features) is 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The film largely focuses on the reprisal of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier and Captain America’s WWII-era best friend, but also features further development of S.H.I.E.L.D in the post-Age of Ultron world while taking on a more conspiratorial flair.
One of the key revelations in the film is the infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D by HYRDA, the “authoritarian paramilitary-subversive terrorist organization bent on world domination”. According to the MCU fandom wiki on the intelligence agency, in the aftermath of the Second World War, S.H.I.E.L.D “recruited the scientists of Nazi Germany into their organization to prevent their expertise from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union” bringing Red Skull associate Arnim Zola into the organization who “used his new position to secretly rebuild HYDRA”. Much of this storyline was also greatly expanded upon in the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which has led some fans to criticize the agency as being the worst intelligence agency for repeatedly failing “to notice that its own enemies have consistently been calling the shots from within the organization” in addition to criticizing the MCU for laziness or an excessive suspension of disbelief.
However, in actuality, this has been known to happen to even the best or most professional intelligence organizations.
First, the recruitment of Arnim Zola into S.H.I.E.L.D incorporates real-life history into the MCU. Zola came to work for the U.S. government through a top-secret U.S. government mission called Operation Paperclip.
In the year before the end of the European front of the Second World War in May of 1945, “the United States and its allies launched a secret mission … to find and preserve German weapons, including biological and chemical agents”. This involved sending military counterintelligence agents and intelligence operatives from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS – the wartime precursor to the CIA) into France and Nazi-occupied European nations to search for these weapons. However, in many cases, these weapons (which ranged from the notorious V2 rocket to notes from pesticide tests) were useless without the scientist or doctor who conducted or created them.
Thus began the collecting of Nazi scientists, doctors, and researchers by the United States (and by allied and enemy nations alike) to better perfect their own missile and military scientific programs. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, near the end of 1945, “127 scientists accepted the offer [to work for the U.S. government]”, with hundreds more following and becoming highly integral in furthering the advancement of civilian and military science for the next twenty to thirty years. The U.S. government (mainly the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA) went to immense lengths to hide many of these scientists’ pasts not only from the public but from their own investigating office specifically created to hunt down Nazi war criminals.
Like Zola, who engaged in human experimentation, many of these real-life scientists were aware of the Jewish Holocaust being perpetrated by Nazi Germany, utilized slave labor, or even tested on concentration camp prisoners and POWs to create achieve their scientific goals.
Intelligence services, like the CIA, also engaged in amassing former Nazis to work for them. According to the National Security Archive, “current records show that at least five associates of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann worked for the CIA, 23 other Nazis were approached by the CIA for recruitment, and at least 100 officers within the Gehlen organization were former SD or Gestapo officers”. The FBI utilized suspected war criminals as informants and even wiretapped journalists who wrote about the Bureau’s use of war criminals in the fight against the Soviet Union. West Germany’s intelligence service, the Gehlen Organization (the predecessor to Germany’s current foreign intelligence service the Bundesnachrichtendienst) “was allowed to employ at least 100 former Gestapo or SS officers” including infamous persons like Adolf Eichmann’s deputy Alois Brunner, who was personally responsible for the deaths of 130,000 people; Emil Augsburg, a Waffen-SS officer who committed war crimes in Poland; and Karl Josef Silberbauer, the Austrian Sicherheitsdienst officer who arrested (and effectively assisted in the death of) Anne Frank and her family.
While S.H.I.E.L.D has their own interesting and complicated history, not unlike real intelligence entities, other organizations within the MCU have showcased their current activities in a similar way. As an example, consider WandaVision and the new federal agency introduced, S.W.O.R.D.
S.W.O.R.D’s official mission stood to “[protect] Earth from both extraterrestrial and extra-dimensional threats” having been created at some point after 1995 and headed up by CPT Maria Rambeau of the U.S. Air Force. The primary difference in S.H.I.E.L.D and S.W.O.R.D is that, where S.H.I.E.L.D focuses on internal (or domestic) threats on Earth, S.W.O.R.D focuses on threats that are extraterrestrial or foreign in origin (again, similarities to the FBI and CIA respectively are clear).
Under Rambeau’s leadership, the agency predominantly focused on the prevention of sensitive and potentially weaponized versions of AI, nanotech, and other sentient weapons; however, upon her supposed death in 2020, S.W.O.R.D’s new director Tyler Hayward begins working to utilize and create such AI and sentient weapons in order to, presumably, better combat extraterrestrial or interdimensional threats. To a degree, this is the same logic used in the development and posture of the United States’ nuclear programs “as a leading means of deterring strategic-level biological weapons activities”.
However, Hayward’s desire to effectively defeat extraterrestrial threats effectively went beyond the bounds of his agency’s mission and violated international and U.S. law, developing Project Cataract “which involved disassembling Vision’s corpse to study it and eventually reactivate him to serve as S.W.O.R.D.’s sentient weapon”. Throughout the course of WandaVision, Hayward’s ulterior motives become more apparent, resulting in his eventual arrest for violating the Sokovia Accords.
According to his official biography on the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki, Hayward “is a well-meaning yet immoral and corrupt individual [seeking] to do the right thing and to protect humanity [but] often takes extreme measures to achieve his goals … He is also accusatory and hasty, immediately blaming Maximoff for the catastrophes at Lagos and Germany and explicitly pointing out her past as an enemy of the Avengers … [and] twist events to fit his own agenda … [exhibiting] heightened aggression towards super-powered individuals and anyone who would defend them”.
To intelligence and espionage historians, or those familiar with spycraft, Hayward is a, sadly rather common, individual within the IC. Perhaps the best counterpart to Hayward is J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime Director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972.
Hoover, it can be argued, was well-meaning in his own twisted, self-serving way and had only one ultimate goal; protecting the United States from any and all threats as determined by him.
He engaged in a multitude of illegal actions, including the arrest and deportation of persons without proper warrants or regard for their criminal culpability, engaged in illegal “surveillance and information-gathering powers to collect damaging information on politicians throughout the country” while using these files to blackmail persons into performing a variety of duties for him and the Bureau, and oversaw “efforts to infiltrate and dismantle left-leaning political organizations, and his tactics – burglary, inciting criminal activity, secret wiretaps, planting false evidence and interception of mail without a warrant”. Hayward’s own biases against superhero figures and persons who support them can clearly be seen with Hoover’s own racist dislike of Black individual (e.g., Martin Luther King) and Black movements which outlined King’s goals (e.g., the Black Panthers targeting by COINTELPRO). Hoover also repeatedly utilized statistics while asking for federal funding in government hearings or to justify his agency’s mission, doing so effectively and persuasively. However, as documented Curt Gentry in his book J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets, Hoover would alter statistics, reports, or their meaning accordingly to justify a larger budget, downplay criminal activity, or bolster the Bureau’s record.
Quite clearly, Hoover is the quintessential example of a senior executive who is too entrenched within their own bias, is willing to perform any operation if it (in his own view) benefits or otherwise preserves the security of the nation.
Other examples of intelligence operations which Project Cataract specifically could be compared with include the Iran Contra Affair of the 1980s, Operation AJAX in 1953 Iran, and the Guatemalan coup d’etat in 1954, all of which violated either U.S., international law, or both and involved heavily biased intelligence assessments or were heavily formulated by personal political and economic sentiments.
The Ethics of Intelligence in the MCU
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are clear and important lessons from how both S.W.O.R.D and S.H.I.E.L.D have acted or engaged in covert action, intelligence collection, technological advancement, or entire activities as a whole.
In S.H.I.E.L.D’s case, the intelligence organizations which collaborated with Waffen-SS, Gestapo, or other Nazi entities were beholden to their own paranoias and fears, allying themselves with persons who have committed illegal crimes or unspeakable actions all in an effort to try and outperform a nation-state with a different political ideology. Out of this hyper-politicized and tense environment, agencies like the CIA, MI6, and their allies, contributed to the perversion of justice by hiring and contracting these war criminals and enabling them to escape justice for their past crimes. They denied justice to survivors and, in a way, every person in the world given the act of genocide is a threat against all humans, no matter the race, ethnicity, religion, or creed.
S.H.I.E.L.D is no different from the CIA, FBI, or MI6. They, in an effort to work against the Soviet Union and other foreign terrorist organizations, made alliances with individuals who later use their power and influence within the U.S. government to achieve their own ulterior goals. While nothing like what is depicted in The Winter Soldier occurred within the CIA, the FBI, or other agencies, this does bring up certain questions as to what is ethical in the fight against an adversary and at what point a person’s past activities becomes irrelevant or as serious when considering the potential that person brings to the overall mission.
Should an intelligence agency join forces or allow someone who has committed a crime to assist in operations that are of a sensitive or clandestine nature? If so, what kinds of crimes are allowed? Can someone’s worth, either in tactics, technical know-how, or academic understanding, outweigh the crimes they did commit if they are absolutely integral to a military or national security mission? How seriously does this person’s past harm current, unrelated operations? What kind of system needs put in place to ensure this person’s past does not harm current missions? These are all questions that any intelligence operative or executive needs to ask before taking on a resource with a blemished background.
With S.W.O.R.D, Hayward is the product of the intelligence system. While little is known of his background prior to S.W.O.R.D., if he was a bureaucrat or came from a prior agency, the MCU wiki seems to indicate he was there at S.W.O.R.D from the beginning and was a close associate of both Rambeaus, meaning his behavior was a learned one embedded within the culture. In an intelligence setting, others’ behaviors, especially those of superiors, impact how operatives and analysts go about garnering sources, gathering and analyzing information, or conducting missions in the field.
With Hayward, the behavior is most likely learned, not an aberration. This happens rather quite often, with J. Edgar Hoover being influenced by his superior A. Mitchell Palmer, the rabid Communist-hating Attorney General and CIA Director Allen Dulles influenced by his superior William J. Donovan, who was incredibly protective of his agency and disdained parochiality. Both of these directors, Dulles and Hoover, influenced the agents, analysts, and operatives who came later, damaging the entire IC through their actions and fostering a culture in which intelligence sharing was uncommon, intelligence fiefdoms were arranged, and there was always inter-agency competition.
Defeating this kind of behavior in any work environment is difficult, but it starts with having essential safeguards and watchdog authorities to police the agency or industry itself. Ensuring that operatives are not engaging in unethical or illegal behavior in the field, instituting bias training and proper analysis methods, and ensuring all persons are familiar with both U.S. law and international policies is essential. Most essential, however, is having a leadership which takes these problems and issues seriously and works to ensure their agency is acting within prescribed guidelines and regulations.
In both cases, S.H.I.E.L.D and S.W.O.R.D, this is apparently not the case as the leadership “like Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and Hank Pym” apparently “never suspected their enemy was working alongside them all along” or approving of engaging in illegal activities for the seeming “greater good”.
The world of intelligence is never black and white, the decisions and choices made in the moment always deal in a grey void. These are complex situations which must not only be determined by what is needed and appropriate in the moment, but also what is appropriate going forward, from a historical perspective.
Most likely, without Wernher Von Braun’s technical expertise, general leadership capabilities, and superior engineering skills, NASA would have been severely lacking in their ability to reach the moon. Yet, NASA now must deal with the stain of having collaborated with a person who personally benefited from the perpetration of one of the worst crimes in human history.
The MCU’s depiction of spycraft serves as a reminder to both intelligence professionals, policymakers at all levels, and the general public to be mindful of history. The past informs upon the present and, in this current era where dictatorships are plentiful and can fall at a moment’s notice, leaving hundreds of persons potentially involved in serious crimes displaced and crouching for employment, intelligence entities must be careful of what kinds of persons they bring into decision making and sensitive operations.