September 6, 2016
September 6, 2016
December 10, 2016
December 10, 2016
January 5, 2016
On Howard Stark
From Captain America: First Avenger to Captain America: Civil War
With all the super-powered action, new characters, and relationship crumbling events of Captain America: Civil War, there was an important character in the MCU who we barely saw. Important, and I think heartbreaking, information about him was revealed (and not the information you are thinking). There was virtually no attention called to it in the film. We see it (multiple times) but no comment is made on it. After 49 years Howard Stark finally recreated a successful Super Soldier serum.
After Howard and Maria’s “accident”, Bucky rips over the car trunk and finds a case containing 5 bags of a new Super Soldier serum which he turns over to Hydra to create five additional Winter Soldiers. The new Soldiers seem erratic, but I believe this is due to the Faustus Brainwashing they underwent. Bucky says that the issue the scientists had was in controlling them, but as can be seen in the sparring match against the veteran Winter Soldier, they certainly exhibited enhanced strength. It is unclear if the new serum enhanced the subjects’ personalities in the same way Projects Rebirth and Master Man did, but as they were already an elite killing squad before their transformation, it could be that their added aggression towards the scientists was due to this. If so, this new serum was certainly the closest ever to recreating the results that gave birth to Captain America.
This development of Howard Stark closes the arc that began in 1942 with his work in Project Rebirth. However, far more interesting to me than the mere quest to duplicate the results of the Project are Howard’s motivations for doing so.
Howard came from nothing to create a vast weapons empire. He grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. His father sold fruit and his mother sewed shirtwaist. Though he went on to earn two PhDs from MIT, he struggled to attain the respect of the upper class. He tells Peggy Carter in Agent Carter that
You don’t get to climb the American Ladder without picking up some bad habits along the way. There’s a ceiling for certain types of people based on how much money your parents make, your social class, your religion, your sex. And the only way to break through that ceiling sometimes is to lie. So that’s my natural instinct…to lie. (AC 104, “The Blitzkrieg Button”)
Howard was a man who made his fortune by crossing ethical lines. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. On occasion, a person will inch past the limits of their personal integrity. They tell themselves it is just once—that the ends will justify the means and that they will make better choices next time. But when that next time arises they take another small step over the line. Gradually and step by step the entrepreneur will push the boundaries of propriety further and further. Always telling themselves that they are still a good person. Always telling themselves that they can go back to the ethical standards they held when they began. But over the course of years, those minute, incremental steps into the grey area have led them into darkness and the location of that original line is so far behind them they have no hope of finding their way back to it again. Their new ethos has become normative for them and without a defining event they may never recover the part of themselves they have lost.
This was the state of Howard Stark when we first meet him. Perhaps he felt remorse over the compromises he made. Maybe he really did just think more about fondue than fatality. Regardless, he worked on the Manhattan Project, Project Rebirth, earned at least one massive defense contract…he built an empire.
In addition, many of his inventions, even the most benevolently intended ones, brought more pain than blessing. His attempt at a massager would break the bones of its user. The body armor vest intended to keep soldiers warm in freezing temperatures would kill them instead (AC 107, “SNAFU”).
Then, in 1944 while Captain America and the Howling Commandos were taking down Red Skull, Howard had his defining moment…or a redefining one. He had created a formula, Midnight Oil, to keep soldiers awake and ready for battle. It was being stored in his lab until one General John McGinnis stole the Midnight Oil and dropped it over a troop of 250 Russian soldiers in Finow, Germany in hopes of giving them an edge in an upcoming battle with the Nazis. Unbeknownst to McGinnis, the deployment of the gas had terrible consequences. When inhaled, Midnight Oil causes symptoms similar to severe sleep deprivation including psychosis and hostility. The Russian soldiers turned on each other. They ripped each other to pieces. There were three known survivors. One of these was Johann Fennhoff who escaped the massacre only because he had a gas mask to protect himself. His brother was not as fortunate. When Fennhoff recovered his body, the eyes had been ripped out and his flesh had been bitten off.
When Howard discovered this, he flew to Finow and inspected the site himself…then attacked McGinnis in front of his own men and walked away from a seven-figure military contract. This spurred Howard to build his vault and store away his “Bad Babies” to protect them from misuse and malevolent intent. He felt tremendous remorse over what had happened, but he still lived the lifestyle to which he was accustomed. He still slept with random women—from movie stars to waitresses. He still strutted like a peacock. He still lied. Maybe all this was a distraction from his guilt. Perhaps he thought his karmic balance was intact as long as Captain America was battling evil. And then Steve Rogers crashed the Valkyrie in the Arctic and was lost. Howard clung to the possibility that he was still a decent person, but the best thing he was ever a part of was gone. Howard was faced with the idea that the great legacy he would leave the world was merely one of death and chaos.
Fennhoff, meanwhile was obsessed with revenge for the Massacre at Finow and for his brother’s brutal death. He concocted an elaborate scheme to punish Stark…not to kill him, but to make him suffer. He confronted Howard with the horrors he had unleashed. Howard said he was not a bad person. When Fennhoff said Stark was, in fact, a bad person, Howard no longer argued. Later that night, Howard told Peggy Carter “All I’ve done my whole life is create destruction. [Captain America] was the one thing I’ve done that brought good into this world” (AC 108, “Valediction”). This was why Howard wouldn’t stop hunting for Steve Rogers—even after the energy signature of the Valkyrie stopped where the Tesseract was located and even after the trail of debris ended. Howard kept looking. And this was why, when he was asked to think of his moment of greatest shame, Howard remembered his failed attempt to find the body of Steve Rogers. The only good he ever brought into the world slipped into ice and oblivion. His Legacy was, again, only a Legacy of Death.
Confronted with his own culpability in the killings of so many, Howard became increasingly concerned with this Legacy. He knew what a good man was. He felt he was not that man. It may be that this was why he helped create SHIELD. It was an attempt to counteract all the evil he had been a part of—not just at Finow, but from years of deceit; from profiting from the feeding of the machines of war and violence. Maybe SHIELD was an attempt at atonement. But I believe Howard did not feel like that was enough. I believe Howard felt the world needed a Hero—and Howard felt he could never be that hero. He needed to recreate Captain America. He was determined to recover his only vial of SR-53, Steve Rogers’s blood, when it was stolen from his vault in 1946.
Peggy Carter suspected Howard was only concerned with using the blood sample to make money. In a bitter confrontation, Peggy condemned Howard
I think you’re a man out for his own gain no matter who you’re charging. You are constantly finding holes to slither your way into in the hope of finding loose change, only to cry when you’re bitten by another snake. (AC 104, “The Blitzkrieg Button”)
This was a harsh critique and it seemed to cut Howard to the quick. Perhaps it hit too close to home for a man who had become so wealthy creating so much destruction. Perhaps it reminded him of his own failings in light of all the good Steve Rogers had done. Perhaps it reminded him of what the world thought of him and what he feared to be true. Howard countered Peggy by saying that he actually wanted the blood sample because it could hold the secret to new vaccines and medicines. Peggy did not believe this, but I believe Howard was sincere. If he could not recreate Captain America, maybe he could still find a way to allow him to continue to defend humanity.
But there was more at stake for Howard—he sought to restore his Legacy and redeem his own soul which was so deeply marred by death and destruction. Howard was just a man…and a very flawed man. He never felt he could be a hero himself, so he was determined to create one. He tried for almost 50 years. Even after he declared that his son, Tony Stark, was his greatest creation (IM2), Howard continued striving to bring Captain America back to the world. Interestingly, through his son he did have a hand in creating a Hero to serve mankind—Iron Man. Unfortunately, Howard never got to see this. So throughout the early years of Tony’s life, Howard continued to work on developing a new Super Soldier Serum in hopes of restoring Captain America to the world. Imagine the late nights in the lab, the bickering with scientists at SHIELD, the tormented nightmares of Steve Rogers slipping into freezing waters to be entombed for all time in the darkness of the Valkyrie.
But then, one day in 1991 he did it. After 49 years he had successfully recreated a formula he hoped would, if not bring back Steve Rogers, may bring to the world someone new to wield the mantle of Captain America. His son was home from MIT for the holidays. Howard prepped for a trip out of town with his wife, Maria. They were going to make a quick stop, probably to SHIELD HQ to deliver the precious serum. He loaded the case containing the samples in his car trunk and drove down the road from his home. But he never reached the airport. He was within moments of redeeming his Legacy, of atoning for a lifetime of perceived personal failings, and of restoring Captain America to the world. And then he lost him again.
And to add to the heartbreak, he stumbled from the wreckage of the car, begging for help for his wife. He looked up to see the face of a former friend…the best friend of Steve Rogers…the man who would be his murderer.
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