Interestingly, there seems to have been little attention paid to perhaps the most interesting use of 9/11 imagery in the film, namely the collision of an aircraft with the tallest building in the city, destroying both. In many ways this is an inversion of the normal depiction of 9/11, in which both the airplane and the building are filled with innocents, but evil people caused the plane to crash into the building. By contrast, the Helicarrier is part of Shield’s plot to control the world, which in turn is a front for Hydra’s plot to control the world, while the Triskelion is equally a center of Shield and Hydra corruption. Notably, the Triskelion is literally above the law–the view from the glass-walled elevator positions it directly across Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway from the Watergate Hotel, which is to say within D.C. city limits, and at 41 floors it is therefore in violation of federal law limiting the height of buildings in D.C., specifically the Height of Buildings Act of 1910. Debatably, the sub-orbital position of the Helicarriers also puts them literally above the law in the sense of being outside any nation’s airspace; however, they never actually reach that height.
Examine more closely, however, and the imagery isn’t quite so clearly a reversal so much as it is a reclaiming. To understand this, consider the hydra. In the movie, the significance of the hydra is in the organization’s motto: “destroy one head, and two grow in its place.” In regards to the Hydra organization itself, the hydra represents the futility of violence as a long-term solution to terrorism; even where a military response succeeds in stamping out a terrorist organization, it breeds the conditions of poverty, resentment, and powerlessness in which terrorist organizations grow. But there is one enormous difference between Hydra and real-world terrorism: Hydra is a single organization that is behind everything.
It is thus very easy to give Hydra, and by extension the film, a paranoid reading. Already fan speculation is rampant on whether the villains of the previous Iron Man films might have been Hydra members or splinter groups. The problem with this reading is that the film is clearly concerned very much with the real-world issues of government secrecy, surveillance, and authoritarianism, and a too-literal paranoid reading of Hydra leads to “9/11 was an inside job”-style conspiracy theorizing.
More interesting is to consider the other major feature of a hydra: that it is multiple independent entities which, deep under the water, connect in a single body. Shield does not know that it is a branch of Hydra; it believes itself to be an independent creature. This is key, because in real life, al-Qaeda and the NSA do not believe that they are part of the same phenomenon, and the suggestion that they are fundamentally connected, that they need one another to survive, is generally seen as absurd.
But both are organizations that thrive on fear. Terrorist organizations are Hydra in its overt mode, killing people and spreading panic and destruction. The security sector is Hydra in its subtle mode, watching, collecting data, silently and without legal or moral restraint taking out key individuals, all of it justified under the mantra of “protecting” people. Without overt Hydra, subtle Hydra has no justification for its surveillance and attacks; without subtle Hydra and the establishment it represents, overt Hydra has no autocratic powers to target. The difference between the movie and real life is that Hydra knows it is a single beast, and so coordinates the fighting between its heads in a grand show designed to keep the populace docile. In real life, the heads of the beast are fighting in earnest, and there is no conspiracy to dupe into people joining terrorist cells or voting in favor of more “security”. That’s what makes conspiracies so popular; it’s more comforting to imagine that someone is deliberately manipulating the system than to acknowledge that there are problems inherent in the system itself.
Ultimately, the movie rejects the conspiracy theory model and acknowledges that the system is the problem. Black Widow emerges as the real hero of the movie, striking the most important blow out of all the characters by exposing both Shield and Hydra–both the security sector and the terrorists–to the light, destroying secrecy and thereby breaking the power of fear. That this is the most heroic act in the movie is made clear by two factors, first that it is framed as a major personal sacrifice on Black Widow’s part, and second that she is the single character who changes the most over the course of the film.
Of course the ending of the movie shows that the system still endures. A blow has been struck against it, certainly, but it is not yet destroyed; the CIA still exists, as does at least one Hydra cell. The threat remains; cut off one head and two grow in its place. But lives were saved, and for now at least, those who put themselves above the law have been brought crashing down to Earth.
I have little doubt that the next several Marvel movies will fail utterly to pick up this particular ball. It’s simply not an appropriate topic for a silly CGI-fest space romp or a big crossover superhero “epic.” But it would fit well with a Black Widow movie, and Winter Soldier‘s writers and directors are already confirmed for Captain America 3, so there is hope that a couple of years down the line we will see a bit more of this kind of revolutionary impulse and anger.
Hopefully by then a little will have spread out into the real world. Don’t hold your breath.