[Analysis] – Was There A Cold War Avengers In The MCU?
In which an extrapolation is made based on evidence provided, and we get something fun to think about.
The MCU is a fearsome beast of continuity, and after 13 movies, 4 TV series, and 5 short films, they’ve only just managed to avoid contradicting themselves. The longer the franchise continues, the greater the chance that they’ll trip themselves up, and certainly the wider the gulf between the films and the series becomes, the more likely that things won’t line up quite right. But such is the case with any long running, increasingly complex storytelling apparatus. It is by this very nature that comics feel the need to reboot themselves every five years, to scrape the barnacles of continuity off the body of work. One of the ways they have managed to avoid needing to do this is by isolating the MCU within two remote time-frames: the 1940s and the modern day. This allows the war and post-war events to have plenty of room to dissipate, so that the actions of Agent Carter need not have a noticeable effect on the likes of Iron Man and the Avengers.
It also leaves vast amounts of time wherein we don’t know exactly what happened. This is, incidentally, true of the comics as well. Unlike DC, which has a complex timeline covering almost all of history, heroics in the Marvel universe (with specific exceptions) pretty much starts in WWII. There are no Victorian superheroes in the 616. Likewise, as the MCU began to unfold, it appeared that with the exception of Captain America’s war-time efforts, superheroes began in the early 2010s and have increased by a magnitude since. Except, as we push into Phase 3, we now know that not to be the case. In fact, little clues throughout the MCU have suggested that heroics have been occurring long before Tony Stark developed the Iron Man suit, if only more secretly and sparingly. Based on information provided in the cinematic and televised accounts, I intend to make the case that there was an older team known as the Avengers (in spirit if not in name) during the Cold War. This is, of course, entirely conjecture.
But first, some background. The Cold War is the nebulous title given to the period of American-Soviet hostilities post-WWII, from roughly 1947 to 1991, though the argument can be made for an earlier start, and for the notion that we are still in the Cold War. The term Cold War is a laughable misnomer, meant to delineate the conflict from a Hot War in that neither American nor the Soviet Union were in open declared military combat against one another. This despite the Korean War, The Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, incursions in Latin America, Afghanistan and numerous other conflicts serving as proxies for any traditional warfare. Not to mention a shit-ton of espionage. There was a brief reprieve from competition between the East and West, known as détente, from 1969-1980, which Ronald Reagan ended in no uncertain terms, and the two nations again began competing with one another until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is within this context and time-frame that I will focus.
Let us begin with Nick Fury, the former Director of SHIELD, but aside from Peggy Carter, also its longest serving living member. Established history for Fury is few and far between, as he remains the most mysterious (and enigmatic) character in the MCU. Fury’s career began in the US Armed forces, where he rose to the rank of Colonel before joining SHIELD. It takes an average of 20 years’ service to rise to the rank of Colonel in standard service, potentially less if promotions are either politically motivated or made on the battlefield. Assuming that Fury is the same age as Samuel L. Jackson, that would put him at roughly an appropriate age to have participated in Vietnam, likely garnering field promotions in the process, and providing him the combat skills he has demonstrated since (firing a rocket launcher at a moving target while on a crashing helicarrier, for instance). The lack of political acumen he has demonstrated, and his significant trust issues, suggests that it was his ability to obtain results rather than finesse that led to continued success post-war. Still and all, assuming an approximate age of 67, he likely joined the Army no earlier than 1967. Even assuming a frankly ridiculously rapid rise through the ranks, obtaining the position of Colonel could not have occurred any earlier than 1980. Given Fury’s propensity for secrecy, I believe that it is reasonable to assume he likely became involved in CIA at some point post-Vietnam. A successful Army career with espionage training would certainly have made him an attractive candidate for SHIELD recruitment, especially for leadership positions.
The bulk of what we know of Fury’s pre-Directorship comes from The Winter Soldier, where we learn that Fury was Deputy Director of SHIELD’s Bogotá station when he first met Alexander Pierce, then Undersecretary of State, and that it was on Pierce’s recommendation that Fury later obtained the Directorship. Real life American intervention/anti-cartel action in South America hit a peak in the early to mid-Nineties, with the Colombian National Liberation Army entering peace talks with Bogota in 1999, placing the events Piece describes within this time frame. This matches the photograph we see of the men, appearing roughly of the age they were in the mid-Nineties. It is also noteworthy that, at the time this photo was taken, Fury had both eyes intact, meaning he hadn’t yet – and I’m paraphrasing here – “trusted someone for the last time.” Assuming that Fury’s career with SHIELD began in 1980 at the earliest, and that he was already in a Deputy Directorship at some point in the mid to late Nineties, that leaves a 15-ish year chunk of time in which we know nothing of his career in SHIELD. Just to round things out, the World Security Council seems most likely to have been formed post 9/11, when Alexander Pierce took his seat (presumably after serving as a Secretary of State, during which time he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize). It was on Pierce’s recommendation that Fury was promoted to General, so by the time Tony Stark encounters him for the first time, Fury has likely been the Big Dog for ten years or so.
Switching gears, Peggy Carter: according to her SHIELD file from a deleted scene from the Avengers, she was born in 1919, and that from 1945 to 1949, she worked for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, until she was invited to form SHIELD with Howard Stark and Chester Philips, as seen in Agent Carter and the increasingly tenuous One-Shot. Her file lists her employment from 1949-1965 as “SSR”, separate from the Strategic Scientific Reserve, so either the SSR was absorbed into the new agency, or SHIELD wasn’t publicly known until the late 1960s, at around the time that détente was beginning to take place. This is backed up by Carter’s 1953 interview seen in the Winter Soldier still listing her as an SSR agent. While Philips was likely the first Director, being a senior official and decorated General, it is also likely that Peggy followed him into the position after his retirement or death. When this occurred is unknown, though by 1989, when Peggy was 70, she was still in control, alongside Howard Stark. If Phillips was approximately the same age as Tommy Lee Jones during WWII, then it is unlikely that he would have remained at SHIELD for long after it’s founding, being at that point into his seventies. Best assumption: Peggy became director around the time that SHIELD went public, in 1965.
In 1989, SHIELD was just beginning to transition into the organization that would feature in the MCU films. As seen in the opening scene of Ant-man, construction of the Triskelion was underway, but Stark and Carter were beginning to lose control. Partly from the internal actions of Hydra, but also because of the changing political climate. In 1989, Bush Sr. was elected to a massive deficit, in part because of Reagan’s military spending against the “evil empire.” It is easy to imagine the Reagan administration empowering SHIELD and green lighting the Triskelion, and it is just as easy to imagine the Bush and Clinton administrations scaling them back, at least up until 9/11 necessitated a revitalization of the agency. But 1989 is also the only point between WWII and 2011 when we know for certain that a superhero was active in the MCU, because that is when Hank Pym resigns from SHIELD. How long he was active is uncertain. His daughter Hope was born in 1980; his wife Janet van Dyne, AKA the Wasp died in 1987. There is the implication that they had worked together as Ant-man and Wasp for some time on behalf of SHIELD, though no specific time frame was mentioned.
When Nick Fury first is revealed to both the audience and Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man, he makes an interesting claim: “You think you're the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you've become part of a bigger universe.” The events of Iron Man take place six months prior to the events of Thor, Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, so likely in late-2010 (the others taking place a year before Avengers, which occurs when the film was released, May of 2012). At this point, the only of the modern Avengers known to Fury would be Captain America – long thought dead – and the Hulk – who is viewed as a monster and menace, not a superhero. Hawkeye and Black Widow, by their own admission, are just soldiers and spies, not heroes. So who are these other heroes to which Fury refers? Well, obviously Ant-man and Wasp qualify. But a much bigger universe consisting of two people, one dead, from 20 years ago? Likewise, Fury (and Coulson, indirectly) refer to the Avengers Initiative as an “old fashioned idea.” An idea which Fury steadfastly prefers and advocates compared to the Security Council’s own “nuke everything” approach. Fury was convinced that a specialized team of individuals was the appropriate defense strategy against extraordinary attack. In the wake of mutations like the Hulk and alien invasions like the Destroyer, you can see the Security Council’s point: that sounds frighteningly underwhelming. Unless Fury knew it would succeed because he’d seen it work before.
Thus my proposal of a Cold War Avengers: following the collapse of détente and increased hostilities between the US and Russia, SHIELD under Peggy Carter and Howard Stark assembled a covert team of specialized individuals to deal with extraneous threats from the Soviets. During this period, the primary adversary of this team would have been Leviathan, the secret Soviet organization and counterpart to SHIELD, which was introduced in Agent Carter’s first season before being blatantly ignored in the second. Leviathan operated (or at least recruited from) the Red Room, creating sleeper agents and assassins like Dottie Underwood, and was still operating in the Eighties in order to produce The Black Widow. Colonel Nick Fury was recruited into SHIELD specifically to provide leadership and oversight to this team, which operated for the duration of the 1980s. The team was officially disbanded in 1992 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Due to her age and changing political climate, I would imagine that Peggy Carter was at this time forced to retire. As Howard Stark had died a year earlier, this left SHIELD without its original leadership for the first time since WWII, and allowed the Hydra infestation to grow during the relative inactivity of the Nineties. Fury, as a reward of service and leadership, was assigned Deputy Director of South America, and remained there – quieted away – until Alexander Pierce took an interest in him. However, the decade of overseeing this team provided Fury with a baseline of comfort and trust that a focused band of specialized individuals could provide cleaner and better results than broad military or diplomatic action, and thus when he realized that the world was becoming a much stranger and dangerous place in the early 2010s, he brought the idea back from the past (being one of the only remaining active agents with knowledge of the program) and initiated the second Avengers team.
That, I feel, is a reasonable assessment to make based on available data and creating a viable scenario which doesn’t contradict any established information. But if true, if begs the gratuitously conjecturous question: which heroes comprised the Cold War Avengers?