How Captain America Made the Leap From the Museum to the Front Pages

Filmed at the Smithsonian, the smash hit prompts curator Amy Henderson to ponder the real world anxieties underlying our superhero fictions

Several scenes in this month's box office smash Captain America: The Winter Soldier were filmed at the National Air and Space Museum. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Smithsonian is a Hollywood hotspot? It’s true that many of the collections are sprinkled with stardust, including the Ruby Slippers, Miss Piggy and Katharine Hepburn’s four Academy Awards; and yes, the exhibition “Dancing the Dream” at the National Portrait Gallery rolls out an Oscar-worthy Red Carpet. It also turns out that the Smithsonian has been featured in nearly two dozen movies, beginning with the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still. Starring Michael Rennie and directed by Robert Wise, the classic sci-fi film opened with an alien spaceship flying over the Smithsonian Castle and landing on the Ellipse in front of the White House to warn Earthlings about warlike behavior in the Atomic Age.

Currently, the National Air and Space Museum is taking its cinematic bow. Several scenes in this month’s box office smash Captain America: The Winter Soldier were partially filmed there, although true to Hollywood form, the museum’s movie role is both real and reel (with apologies to Frank Sanello, author of the seminal 2002 work, "Reel V. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction.)

The filmmakers portrayed the museum’s real “Milestones of Flight Gallery” in the movie and last summer, curator Margaret Weitekamp was among those tasked with keeping a watchful eye over the crew as they worked after hours one evening. The crew used a crane-mounted Busby Berkeley-like boom camera that swooped from Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis on one side of the gallery to the sleek, stubbed-wing X-15 on the other. Weitekamp told me that she firmly warned the crew that they were working around real national treasures. But caution ruled because the crew was equally concerned about their very expensive equipment. So for about three hours the film camera swung arc-after-arc over the Milestones Gallery to film what emerged as a couple of seconds on film.

The movie’s Hollywood depiction of the museum gets more screen time, and features an ersatz exhibition on Captain America and his World War II unit. At one point, Captain America is seen strolling through the exhibit in civilian clothes; at another, he “borrows” his WWII costume from the exhibit for a whiz-bang climax (SPOILER ALERT) that saves civilization and ends the film.

Most of the story unfolds with both real and reel Washington, D.C. scenes. Action central takes place within a CIA or NSA-like agency “across the river” in Northern Virginia. Unlike its real-life secretive counterparts, SHIELD—characterized as “an international peace-keeping agency”—is not hidden in the backwoods of Langley, Virginia, but brazenly planted in full view across the Potomac from the Kennedy Center.

While this movie focuses on Captain America (Chris Evans) with some help from The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), SHIELD is also home turf for all of the Marvel Comics action superheroes, including Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor. These characters appeared together in 2012’s The Avengers, after which Marvel peeled off films devoted to specific action figures in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, movies celebrated pure comic book superheroes like Batman, Superman and Spiderman. But with its sequential strategizing, Marvel has now launched the comic book genre into a new stratosphere.

A calibrated system of sequential rotation has allowed Marvel Studios to turn the slam-bang action adventure genre into a wildly successful Hollywood franchise. Marvel’s comic universe provides a ready pool of superheroes that generate blockbuster after blockbuster, sometimes together—as in The Avengers, which was 2012’s highest grossing film—but otherwise as a showcase for a specific superhero. This year’s megahit, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has earned a whopping $224.9 million in its first four weeks at the domestic box office. Forbes Magazine media critic Scott Mendelson recently asked, “Can Diversified Superhero Films Save Mainstream Genre Movies?”  Marvel Studios (owned by Disney) has created a strategy that aims at dominating “big-scale blockbuster film-making by offering a franchise” that releases several films a year; their box office success is so huge that it boosts mainstream moviedom as a whole.

Along with strong production values and good screenwriting, Marvel’s box office appeal is nurtured by A-List actors. Captain America’s great nemesis in The Winter Soldier turns out to be Robert Redford, who makes quite a fine impression as a profoundly soulless evil-doer.

The other thing Marvel has done is to inject Captain America with a strong dose of topicality—a “topically relevant subtext” attracts viewer attention, Forbes suggests, as much as “fantasies…wrapped in tights.”

Weitekamp, who studies the social and cultural dimensions of spaceflight, agrees that Captain America’s narrative contains a “darker sophisticated cultural critique.” HYDRA, a nasty group that has infiltrated SHIELD, ultimately plans to use every manner of dragnet surveillance to kill off millions of people. It’s a Terror Watch List run amok.

The movie’s co-director Joe Russo told Mother Jones that “Marvel said they wanted to make a political thriller,” so he and his co-director brother Anthony decided that “all the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience…That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant.” They looked at the issues and decided to work on civil liberties issues like “preemptive technology.” He had begun filming when the first Edward Snowden/NSA leaks came out.  “It was all in the ether,” Russo said, “it was all part of the zeitgeist.”

As it happened, Captain America topped the box office the same week that the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service was awarded to the Washington Post and the Guardian for their reporting on the National Security Agency’s massive phone and Internet surveillance programs.

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