Most people associate superhero movies with the action genre, and while flicks like Iron Man (2008) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) certainly fit the bill, there’s actually quite a bit of genre diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For example, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was a World War II period piece. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a space opera, Ant-Man (2015) was a heist movie, and the upcoming Spider-Man (2017) will be some sort of homage to John Hughes.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) took inspiration from the films of yesteryear. Only in The Winter Soldier’s case, it was paying tribute to a very particular sort of movie: the 1970s conspiracy thriller. Steeped in paranoia and suspicion, the 1970s conspiracy thriller usually featured a lone protagonist (oftentimes a reporter or low-level government agent) who discovers his world is a lot more nefarious than it first seemed. Over the course of the film, the hero will uncover a labyrinthine conspiracy involving a shadowy government agency or all-powerful corporation. Sometimes, he’s forced to go on the run (with a love interest, of course)…or at the very least, keep an eye out for anyone wearing a suspicious-looking trench coat.
Some of the most famous 1970s thrillers include films like The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976). These movies were drawing on America’s newfound distrust of Big Brother, a paranoia that was largely thanks to the Watergate scandal, the Kent State shootings, and the ongoing war in Vietnam. These films were all about powerless loners trapped in vast conspiracies, outgunned protagonists up against omnipotent bureaucracies. Basically, the moral here was the guys in charge were out to get you. Hey, Richard Nixon was president after all.
At first, these themes all seem a little grim for a Captain America movie. After all, in the first film, Steve Rogers was the very embodiment of the U.S.A. He was a star-spangled superhero who represented the very best America had to offer—you know, truth, justice, and all that jazz. Sure, we all know this vision of America—even back in the 1940s—is a more than a bit simplistic, but when you’re up against the Nazis, pretty much any nation is perfect in comparison. So why the sudden shift from patriotism to paranoia? What was Marvel producer Kevin Feige thinking when he decided to go this route?
Well, a lot has changed since the ‘40s. In addition to the Watergate scandal and Vietnam, Americans have grown pretty skeptical thanks to a nasty combination of Middle Eastern wars, NSA spying, and the eerie idea of drone strikes and kill lists. And let’s not forget the tumultuous ‘60s when a string of influential leaders (the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr.) were gunned down by enigmatic assassins or the decades-long Cold War that kept average Americans on the edge of their seats…or ducking beneath their desks.
Now imagine falling into a coma during the glory days of Americanism and waking up in a much more cynical age. You’re suddenly in a world where the government spies on its citizens, where the most powerful intelligence organization on the planet has created all-powerful weapons to assassinate its enemies, and you don’t know who to trust. That’s where we find Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it’s the perfect setup for a modern-day conspiracy thriller.
Fortunately, the directors thought so too. Joe and Anthony Russo “grew up on ‘70s thrillers” and were quite excited to pay homage to the films of their childhood. The duo was particularly inspired by the previously mentioned Three Days of the Condor, a film where a government agent is forced to go on the run after stumbling upon a CIA conspiracy. Sound familiar? Because it’s almost the exact same plot as Winter Soldier. While he’s slightly stronger than the average conspiracy thriller protagonist, Steve Rogers is the hero plunged into a dark world of cloaks and daggers, where his allies might be enemies, and there’s a conspiracy under every rock. Also, Steve is being hunted by a master assassin (the titular Winter Soldier) similar to how the hero of Condor is on the run from a mysterious hitman.
Of course, Marvel’s biggest nod to the conspiracy thriller genre was casting Robert Redford. If there’s any actor associated with the cinema of the ‘70s, it’s this guy. Not only is Redford one of Hollywood’s most legendary leading men, he also played the main character in two of the most famous conspiracy thrillers of all time: All the President’s Men (a movie about Nixon and Watergate) and, you guessed it, Three Days of the Condor. However, by casting Redford, the Russos were also subverting genre expectations. (Spoilers ahead.) Instead of casting Redford as the overpowered protagonist (like reporter Bob Woodward), the actor instead plays the head honcho villain, the puppet master pulling all the strings. It’s a nice little twist, especially for fans of Redford’s films.
However, if you pay close attention, there’s another little nod to both Redford’s career and the paranoia of the conspiracy thriller genre. Since S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is located in Washington D.C., we’re treated to several shots of the capital’s landmarks, such as the Washington Monument. Look closely though, and you’ll notice that S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ is standing right beside the Watergate Hotel, the very building where the 1970s conspiracy thriller began.