The Marvel Cinematic Universe is without a doubt a fantastic media achievement. At the time of this writing, it spans thirteen films, with eleven in development, and four TV series, with four more also in development. One thing immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the series is that it is never afraid, like its comics origin, to provide commentary on contemporary events, politics, and cultural and social trends. Between characters, plots, villains, and more, Marvel films do not cease to provide metaphors for viewers to chew over, even as they deliver bombastic films that are whirlwinds of entertainment. I would like to propose a new vehicle through which to examine a Marvel commentary on force and power: the SHIELD Helicarrier. A gigantic craft that serves various functions throughout its cinematic career, the helicarrier and the events surrounding the titanic ship and her Insight sisters provide an unique look at the appropriate uses of force and might in the resolution of ongoing international crises and even interpersonal conflict through individual lens.
For reference the three primary sources for this piece are the films The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Also, Spoiler Alert for all three of the above films. This is your official Spoiler Alert. The above films use the helicarriers as major locations and/or plot points, and as such, I can’t really skate around spoilers. These films have all also been out for at least a year (or nearly so in AoU‘s case), so my sympathy is limited.
The helicarrier’s first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is in The Avengers. This helicarrier bears the hull number 64, the same number as the real US Navy Kitty Hawk-class supercarrier, USS Constellation, and for the sake of brevity (and my own personal headcanon), I will be referring this ship hereon as the Constellation. Constellation is seen as a primary command and control unit for the agency Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, or SHIELD. An absolutely massive ship, measuring some 1100′ stem to stern by visual reference in the film, it is first seen floating in the ocean, before ascending into the air on four massive ducted fans, and engaging a visual cloaking system to render it invisible. Throughout The Avengers, Constellation serves as a base of operations for Director Nick Fury and the proto-Avengers team, as well as their SHIELD allies. Quinjet gunships, German Alpha Jets, Harrier jumpjets and advanced F-35B (a presumption based on the ability of SHIELD F-35s to hover in mid-air on a central lift fan and a vectored main engine, an arrangement identical to the real F-35B) fighter jets sortie from the carrier on missions on behalf of SHIELD. (I’ll choose to ignore that SHIELD’s F-35s have their internal cannons mounted in the engine intakes…) It is of note the ship itself is not depicted as armed, instead relying on stealth and its escorting fighters and gunships to protect it. The ship also contains advanced science and holding facilities, as well as unparalleled access to SHIELD’s international espionage network, and exceedingly advanced prototype SHIELD weapons systems derived from the Tesseract.
However, Constellation is about as removed from the battle as the real United States Navy aircraft carrier fleet. Its Quinjet gunships and F-35 fighters prosecute SHIELD’s wars around the globe with near impunity, with the Constellation herself a veritable floating armory, containing heavy weapons, a nuclear arsenal, and SHIELD’s prototype Tesseract weapons. The ship itself is even the scene of a battle, as Loki’s allies disable one of the ship’s fans with explosives and another with an electronic attack to cause the “flying fortress” to fall from the sky, even as Loki makes good his escape. The huge warship also participates in the Battle of New York, as the staging point for the F-35 sortied by the SHIELD Council sent to destroy the Chitauri portal with a nuclear weapon. Constellation serves as an unassailable base of operations, removed from consequences, even as her power is used to influence world events, with a ruthless calculation. She serves as an offshore hub, enabling the conflict, while maintaining an appearance of impartiality and distance, arguably arrogance and superiority, even as her forces fight with a dispassionate lethality and little regard for potential civilian casualties in the name of the greater good. What’s New York against the whole planet? (Answer: a city of human beings, you sociopathic killers.)
As we will see in the other examples, Constellation serves as a foil, and in this case dark mirror, of the Avengers themselves. The Avengers Initiative, as originally intended by SHIELD, has a lot more in common with the ship than the eventual team. Certainly SHIELD intended for the Avengers to do good in the world, but had less interest in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as inspirational superheroes and independent do-gooders than as a pinch-hitting strike team on the toughest assignments for SHIELD itself. SHIELD didn’t want the team for the team’s sake, but rather as another tool in their box of tricks. In that manner, the Avengers were intended to be much more similar to Constellation, an unreachable power, able to intervene in conflicts around the world with impunity, shaping events to SHIELD’s aims. Constellation achieves this with her agents and her aircraft; the Avengers accomplish the same independently, not in the least through the generosity of Tony Stark and their own individual abilities.
It is not clear where Constellation was during the Fall of SHIELD in the events of Captain America:Winter Soldier, but she does not make an appearance. However, her three Insight sisters do, hull numbers IN-01, IN-02, and IN-03, or 65, 42, and 88 respectively in the cinematic trailers. The Insight Helicarriers mark a dramatic change from Constellation. Now lifted by four repulsor drives Director Fury claims Tony Stark developed after nearly being killed kickstarting one of Constellation‘s fans shortly before the Battle of New York, the Insight ships need never return from their lofty perch high in the atmosphere. Unlike our introduction with Constellation, the Insight craft we first encounter under construction, in a super-secret drydock facility underneath the river in front of the Triskelion, SHIELD headquarters. Each ship is also quite different from Constellation for another reason: they’re individually and outwardly armed, to the teeth. Where Constellation carried no (apparent) weapons herself, and her aircraft all carried theirs internally, the Insight vessels make no bones about their warlike purpose. Over a dozen large triple gun emplacements line each one, some in deck level turrets, others in large gimbals along the lower hull, clearly intended to allow the ship something of a battleship role, while a massive suite of satellite-guided guns grace the underside, along with a massive new sensor suite. Even the SHIELD Quinjets being loaded onto the flight decks bristle with missiles slung on underwing hardpoints.
This change is not purely cosmetic either. The new helicarriers are part of Project Insight. Together with a new suite of spy satellites and a special big data algorithm, Insight promises to allow SHIELD the force and might required to enforce order and protect peace around the world, with a distinctly pre-emptive flavor. Director Fury comments on preventing crime by engaging criminals before they ever have the chance to cause harm. In fact, the real Project Insight, led by HYDRA’s moles within SHIELD in fact intended to pre-empt all those that would resist a new HYDRA world order. The algorithm, written by Red Skull colleague Arnim Zola, would allow the Insight ships to engage superheroes, known and unknown, and potential leaders of a resistance against the new world order, enforced by the three flying battleship-carriers.
Their sinister purpose aside, the Insight helicarriers are the purest warships of the evolution of the helicarrier concept. While they do also carry powerful sensors, they are not shown with the science capabilities of Constellation, nor her cloaking device. Instead, the ships rely on brute firepower, combined with the technological edge of SHIELD to reach out and touch opponents before they can effectively strike back. As foils to the Avengers, particularly Captain America, the Insight ships pose a fundamental question: how much is too much? There is no question in the right hands the Insight helicarriers could do some good. What Captain America finds himself challenging, is whether or not that method of conflict resolution, shooting first and asking questions later, and that presumption that matters will always end in violence, are correct. Should he assume Insight’s ships will always be in the “right hands”? Where do heroes like him draw the line between protecting the public and controlling it through fear, and how much destruction is acceptable in the name of peace? Captain Rogers of course destroys the Insight ships, turning their guns against each other in a whirlwind of destruction he is caught in, but the questions the ships raise do not end when they crash back down in Washington DC. Had it not been HYDRA but SHIELD, would the Insight units have been justified? What about SWORD, or if the ships were merely built to fight in a way Constellation was not built to and was not able to, without the Insight algorithm? These are questions only the viewer can answer; is the sword corrupted by the knight who wields it, or can it be redeemed?
Wherever Constellation may have spent the events surrounding the Fall of SHIELD, we can be assured she was not destroyed. Instead, she was rescued by Agent, now SHIELD Director Phil Coulson, and restored to flight-worthy condition from mothballs as the Theta Protocol in an undisclosed SHIELD bunker. She makes her grand reappearance in Age of Ultron, once more with Nick Fury at the helm, aiding the Avengers in the Second Battle of Sokovia. This time, however, Constellation plays little part in the combat, the Avengers instead taking all of the fight to Ultron. She has no Quinjets or F-35s. Unlike her Insight sisters, she is still unarmed. Throughout the film, the Avengers rely on their own aircraft and base facilities, as opposed to ones provided by SHIELD in the first film, including Constellation herself. Instead, in this film, the helicarrier plays a support role. As Ultron lifts the city of Sokovia into the sky, Constellation arrives and uses her lifeboats to collect civilians trapped in the city when Ultron activated his anti-gravity device. Protection for the helicarrier and its minions is provided by James Rhodes in his War Machine persona, aided by Iron Man. This is a radically different role for Constellation, summed up by Captain America’s comment to Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff, “This is what SHIELD is supposed to be.”
Now, to be fair to Constellation, she was very badly undermanned in Age of Ultron, flown with a skeleton crew put together for the mission by Director Coulson. Even if all her systems were fully operational, no one had the time nor the manpower to fully take advantage of them. Instead, the ship is used for roles only she can fulfill, such as evacuating a flying downtown section of a city all at once. This is the opposite end of the spectrum on force from the previous film we saw helicarriers participate in, from the active combat the Insight ships were designed for, and the central base of SHIELD’s operations, defensive and offensive around the globe. In Age of Ultron, Constellation does the one thing she was supposedly always intended to do: save people. She is the literal extension of the SHIELD oath we know from the Agents of SHIELD TV show, that she is the shield between innocent people and the forces in the world that intentionally or otherwise move to cause them pain and destruction. This Constellation though is incredibly reliant on her allies, specifically James Rhodes as War Machine and Tony Stark’s Iron Man, to protect her so that she can accomplish her mission and get everyone home. This is a far cry from the active, even aggressive roles the Insight ships and Constellation‘s former life showcased, and perhaps a commentary on the nature of offense and defense of life, and how people can combine resources to create ends greater than the sum of their parts. Remember, before Constellation made her grand appearance, the Avengers had resigned themselves to their own sacrifice, but had no way to rescue the civilians who never had the option of making that choice themselves.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a very long way to go yet. We have no way of knowing what, if any, of the upcoming films will feature action on or with a helicarrier, be it the old lady Constellation herself, or another, newer ship; such a ship has not featured in the promotional work for Captain America: Civil War. (For reference, by the equivalent of now, the keen eyed observer already knew Constellation was returning for Age of Ultron.) There are literally dozens of motifs, themes, and continuing traditions that permeate the expanse of the MCU. Any exploration of themes in the MCU is bound to be incomplete, even if compiled into a book; frankly this examination of the parallels between the helicarrier and evolving notions of force is little better than cursory. It is however intriguing and thought-provoking in my opinion to have such a ready-made symbol for the use of force in defense of freedom and peace in such a diverse literary landscape as the MCU. Where should citizens, and by extension, their governments and their agents, draw the line between acceptable uses of force, and abuse thereof? Should the United States Navy aspire to the Constellation of AoU, just as USS Ronald Reagan did in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake off Japan? What of the Constellation of Avengers, a notion rather similar to how our aircraft carriers operate today, and the popular mindset of the power and use of American military power around the world? (A view in my experience rather optimistic on both ability and outcome.) Where might the helicarriers of Project Insight find modern parallel, from the needs of the War on Terror, to the high-flying, ever-lethal precedent of the American armed drone programs throughout Middle East, or perhaps to recent rhetoric on the American presidential race to Nov. 8, 2016? These are questions the MCU has never shied away from asking, whether through Constellation or other motifs, and they are questions the world at large cannot afford to answer, to its own peril.
As always, thanks for reading and feel free to share and comment below. – GP