Now that Age of Ultron is upon us, the Avengers will be smashing, hammering, and zapping a few more cities into rubble with the help of a rogue robot force. And while it’s been made clear that the public within the movie universe is aware of the Avengers’ presence in the grand scheme of things, you have to wonder… how much do they actually know? Yes, Black Widow published all of SHIELD’s secrets on the internet in Captain America: Winter Soldier, and the world has known that Tony Stark was Iron Man since he gave a fateful press conference and ignored his notecards… but what else does the average MCU Joe know about this team of mighty heroes?
Probably a lot less than we assume.
(NO SPOILERS for AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON)
It is easy to forget that the world the Avengers are saving is technically not our own, no matter how much it may look like it. Following the Battle of New York, the film showed us a multitude of television screens, each tuned in to a different news station; people getting Captain America tattoos and shouting “thank you!” at cameras, one excited woman telling Thor that she loved him, and a kid spray painting gratitude along a wall. But not everyone was so complimentary. Politicians wanted to know who was going to take responsibility for the rubble made of Manhattan (the answer turned out to be, at least in part, some guy named Matt Murdock). And another couple stared into the camera in confusion: “It just seems like there’s a lot they aren’t telling us,” the woman said.
And she can’t be the only person who thought so, right? For New Yorkers, it makes sense that many of them were feeling warm and fuzzy toward the super team; they were there, watching the Avengers take down a mighty and unforeseen enemy. Or at least, that’s what it looked like to them. The rest of the world probably looked on New York in puzzlement; why was this happening? How did this odd team of strangers band together to save the day? What were their credentials? Where did they come from?
If we parse it out, we come to realize… the world probably doesn’t know a lot about these people. Or they didn’t for quite some time.
Let’s start with Tony Stark because he opened this rodeo. Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist spends his early years doing all of that stuff just mentioned, and also inventing useful things. His avoidance of general responsibility comes to a halt when he is kidnapped, ransomed, and finds his weaponry among the very people he had assumed it was being used against. He builds a suit and gets out. He perfects the suit and uses it to take out the people who gained access to his weapons, and also an old family friend who turns out to be a traitor. The general populace likely knows nothing about Tony’s forays into the Middle East to take out the Ten Rings. (Rhodey knows and probably tells his superiors at some point, so the military is eventually clear on what’s going on.) But his fight with Obidiah Stane gets mass attention because it occurs in the middle of LA, and one of his factories kind of blows up in the process. He holds a press conference to quiet everything down, but being a showboating self-aggrandizing angst muffin with daddy issues, decides that he would rather the world know he’s Iron Man. Boom. The new superhero mythos is born.
It is very unlikely that the public knows about that first suit of armor, that the Iron Man persona actually came into being as a means of escape when he was kidnapped. They also don’t know about the arc reactor in his chest… wait, what? But they must! Well, Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, and SHIELD (and later the Avengers) know about it, but outside of that general circle, Tony actually takes great pains to hide it. His clothing always covers it up unless he’s alone or in good company. (The various people who might see the reactor in Iron Man 3 don’t count because Tony wasn’t anticipating having to flee his home without a change of clothes.) So the world probably assumes that the arc reactor powers the Iron Man armor, never realizing that it is a thing embedded in Tony Stark’s breastbone to prevent some shrapnel from reaching his heart. It makes sense that Tony wouldn’t want that information out there, of course; too much vulnerability.
Later, he is called on by the government to turn over his Iron Man technology on the grounds that it is a weapon. Tony tells them to kiss his heavily armored ass in a move that probably makes him look good to celebrity gossips and super fans, but terrible to anyone with a sense of accountability. Then he drives his own car in the Grand Prix, hands over his company to Pepper, and holds a house party that turns explodey…adding fuel to the justifiable concerns regarding his stability. Suddenly, following the terror that breaks out at the Stark Expo (which results in countless lawsuits for both Stark and Hammer Industries, and lots of replaced property), Tony comes out with a new element that allows for the creation of efficient, cost-effective clean energy. Pepper uses that to put Stark Industries on the map as a completely different kind of company. Soon after, the Battle of New York takes place.
Tony Stark becomes something of a recluse to the public following those events, and cannot be reached for commentary on the incident (though he probably provides a lot of money to help rebuild New York City). He remains out of the public eye until his dear friend and former bodyguard is critically injured by a cohort of the Mandarin’s, which results in a threat made through the press and the destruction of his Malibu home. He is presumed dead for some time until Iron Man is spotted rescuing the crew of Air Force One. The Mandarin is also dispatched, but his involvement in that incident is likely kept quiet. He gets to work putting together toys for his new super team.
So that’s Tony. What about Dr. Bruce Banner? Because for all we know, the Hulk is an utter mystery to the world. There would have been rumors of a large, terrifying figure that destroyed a science lab, ran through Rio de Janeiro, and fought against military forces at Culver University. If anyone strung those incidents together, he’d seem like a modern-day Bigfoot. Of course, the fight against Blonsky in Harlem would confuse the matter—Abomination and Hulk are both huge and cause a ridiculous amount of collateral damage. It would probably be unclear to anyone who caught a glimpse of the fight that there was a “good guy” in that battle. And then Hulk disappears only to reemerge fighting side by side with bonafide heroes out to save the city. Again, he causes a ridiculous amount of collateral damage, but this time, he’s sanctioned to do it. And then he disappears again.
Does anyone ever find out that he’s Bruce Banner? It makes sense that even with the media machine likely to come down on the Avengers, the dear doctor would want his name off the books. The last thing you need is more people looking into the research that created the Hulk in the first place. And you can just imagine jerks doing anything to try and get him to Hulk out at press conferences.
Black Widow and Hawkeye have the luxury of being two people who were part of the SHIELD machine, and looked nondescript enough in the Battle of New York that they wouldn’t have stood out the way Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and Cap would have. There were other people on the scene! One of them had a bow and arrow? And other one was a lady with some fabulous red hair who shot guns? IDK. So we can assume that Hawkeye and Widow faded back into anonymity following the events of The Avengers… and then the events of Winter Soldier took place and Natasha Romanov burned the house to the ground.
Honestly, it’s vague what precisely has been revealed by the end of Winter Soldier. Natasha claims that she publishes basically everything SHIELD kept secret, but it’s unlikely that all of the information was easy-to-read when she set it on the internet. Mostly, it was used for government evidence on HYDRA. We can assume that several investigative journalists went through the mass tangle that Natasha set loose to pull out all the relevant bits. But that’s a lot of information, and it’s possible that everyone’s dirty secrets are on here: the arc reactor that was in Tony’s chest, and the palladium poisoning he almost succumbed to; the Hulk’s true identity; the fact that Thor’s brother was largely responsible for the attack on New York; the tesseract and experiments done on it. Then again, it’s also possible that the Avengers Initiative and all information relating to it was a pet project of Nick Fury’s, so that data isn’t just resting in SHIELD files. He’s got it all squirreled away somewhere. That’s extremely relevant, because whether or not Natasha had to release information on all of the Avengers to expose HYDRA will directly affect the public image the team has crafted going into Age of Ultron.
Regardless, many SHIELD operatives were exposed at this point in time. After the organization was brought down, most of those people had to find new work (which we see for Sharon Carter and Maria Hill). Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton were both luckily Avengers beforehand, so following the events of Winter Soldier, they likely just moved on into Avengers Tower or somewhere nearby and called that their new permanent employment. Because Natasha was doing some serious deep cover espionage for Fury, the government brought her in for public questioning, which would have been broadcast all over the news. Clint Barton, on the other hand, is a sharpshooter, not a spy dealing in sensitive information, so the public probably doesn’t know much about him besides “Hey, it’s that bow and arrow dude.” Which is appropriately similar to Clint’s status in the comics.
What happens when you splash some godlike alien sauce on top of that? Thor made his entrance in New Mexico, but even if some newspaper did try to cover what happened between Asgard’s finest and the Destroyer, there wasn’t much information to be had; SHIELD likely covered up a lot of it just to prevent panic. Jane Foster kept at her work to find Thor again, but she didn’t go on any talk shows to let people know about him. Then Loki shows up on Earth (note that with the exception of that little show in Germany, it’s unlikely that the majority of the world knows anything about Loki’s existence, or his role in the Chi’tauri invasion), and it gets Odin’s attention. Thor fights in the Battle of New York, yet the world knows exactly nothing about who this dude is. It’s likely that the public assumes “Thor” is a codename, just like Hawkeye or Iron Man. They don’t understand that hammer shtick, but it could be some special military weapon, right? Sure, he can fly, but so does Tony Stark—maybe he outfitted the guy with some kind of repulser deal-y.
Eric Selvig had to deal with Loki pin-balling around in his brain, and that sends him a little bonkers. No one believes his rants and raves about aliens. In any case, telling everyone outright that Thor is from another world would have been pretty bad press after the events of The Avengers; aliens had just leveled midtown. So it’s likely that Thor’s status as alien and actual-inspiration-for-a-Norse-god was kept under wraps. With the events of Thor: The Dark World, it’s possible that some more truths about his nature came to light, but it’s difficult to say how much information people have on the guy up to this point. Maybe the Avengers did a press tour following Winter Soldier, maybe they didn’t. If not, then Thor is likely still being portrayed as some dude who they call Thor because he’s tall and blonde and good with magic-seeming hammers.
And all of these complexities pale in comparison to the confusion and upheaval Captain America brings.
So check this out: back during World War II, Steve Rogers makes the front page of a newspaper for rescuing some kid from a mean HYDRA agent who caused a shootout in Brooklyn. No more information is given out than that. What a swell guy! He gets hailed as a hero, and a senator puts him into showbiz, dubbing him Captain America and having the guy sell war bonds across the U.S. He makes a few propaganda films and becomes something of a homefront star. Then he’s sent to do his USO tour for actual soldiers. Next thing the public hears, Captain America has been pulled into the army, and is running major missions to rid the world of the elusive Nazi science division. He dies right before the end of the war, stopping HYDRA once and for all (to the best of everyone’s knowledge).
Here’s the thing—at no point during the war did the government likely admit that Steve Rogers was the result of an experimental program to create super soldiers. Because the government always hides information like that from the public (and from opposing forces). So to the world, Captain America was the ultimate American Hero story: nice kid from Brooklyn jumps in when he’s needed, gains fame on the road, then becomes the real deal and an inspiration to us all.
But by the time we get to Winter Soldier, the world definitely knows about Steve Rogers’ super serum-ed past—it’s part of his Smithsonian Exhibit. So… when did the world find out? And how? Did the information come to light after the war, or did it stay under wraps for even longer? And who broke the story? Was it Howard Stark? Some wily reporter who dug deep and paid off the right sources? Did Peggy Carter talk to that reporter? Did she want people to know at all? And how much about that Vita Ray process has been revealed? They must have disclosed that the formula used to create Captain Rogers was lost, or the world would expect its application in everything from making more super soldiers to curing arthritis.
When Cap was found after 70 years, SHIELD clearly didn’t shout to the skies that they’d thawed him out right away. During The Avengers, we can assume that the world at large has not been informed of his return, otherwise he’d probably get a lot more street recognition, with his face plastered across every magazine cover imaginable. But following his appearance in the Battle of New York, his resurrection would be hard to miss. Some New Yorkers might have assumed that the guy wearing the modified Captain America uniform was a new super soldier, someone else taking up the mantle, but eventually it would come out—that’s actual Steve Rogers. He’s alive, he was frozen under ice. Suddenly, everyone in the world is really interested in cryofreeze technology. Some people think the story is fake, that he isn’t really Steve Rogers, or that he’s a clone, or that the government had him in stasis somewhere, ready to break out when the world really needed him. (It’s pretty suspicious that he suddenly emerges during this unforetold, unimaginable state of emergency, after all.) But regardless, Captain America is back.
What’s weirder is that, following the battle, Cap goes off the map for a couple years. When he emerges, it’s to dismantle SHIELD and let the world know that HYDRA has been secretly manipulating areas of government for decades. Some assume that this was Cap’s plan from the beginning: go underground to expose HYDRA all over again. Everyone else isn’t sure what to think. The government hearing committee is furious that he won’t appear before them to recount the events that brought down SHIELD, but Natasha Romanov tells them off handily. Cap is back on the Avengers bandwagon thereafter (with a side order of searching for Bucky), and the crew seems to come together for real this time. They are a dedicated group with a public face, and he’s the leader.
You take your time and map it out, and you realize that the world has not one clue who these people really are and what their agendas entail. We get to know as privileged audiences members; we’re privy to all the top-secret information. But if we lived in this world, as average folks? We’d probably be just as concerned as that couple at the end of The Avengers. There’s just a lot of things that people aren’t telling us. And it concerns the future of our species in a big way.
So what have you got for us, Age of Ultron? Are the Avengers more transparent now that they’re a named public super team? Or will more secrecy and the destruction that Ultron brings lead to the problems impending in Captain America: Civil War? Who knows….
Emmet Asher-Perrin wants a whole movie that show how the world reacted to the Super Soldier project. It’s important, darnit. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.