Surveillance superheroes (too much for a movie night)

Being sick sucks. You’ve a headache, every part of your body hurts and you cannot focus on anything really serious. This is why, to boost up my immune system and kick out the flu, I decided that I needed a good superhero movie: The Avengers. I didn’t know what I was stepping into.


Everything was going fine. A super villain named Loki, brother of the demi-god Thor of Asgard, was threatening the earth and, one by one, every member of the Avengers was being called back on duty to save the world. We are talking about — in alphabetic order — Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man and Thor. Good stuff indeed.

Everything was going fine until 35 minutes in. Loki is nowhere to be found, wandering around having fun — going to museums, subjugating little portions of the earth’s population and things like that — and our heroes are trying to find him to put him in jail and force him to reveal the position of the “tesseract”, a cube that can open the access to another dimension and allow alien troops to come and conquer the earth.

Schermata 2015-03-28 alle 16.18.29

It’s at this point that Phil Coulson, member of the counter-terrorism agency SHIELD, says:

We’re sweeping every wirelessly accessible camera on the planet. Cell phones, laptops… Everything is connected to a satellite it’s eyes and ears for us.

My first thought was “yeah, they’ll find Loki!” But then I overcame my slow flu-like EEG waves, I stopped the movie and I thought: “no, they’ll find us!”

Let me explain why

The statement that Coulson makes in the movie reminded me of a huge scandal that happened only a few months after the release of The Avengers. I’m talking about the so called “NSA leaks” scandal.

Edward Snowden, former employee with a sub-contractor of the NSA (National Security Agency) took with him a huge quantity of top-secret files and flew to Hong Kong. From there, he made them public – mainly through the newspaper The Guardian.

The first of many articles published by The Guardian had this title: “NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily”. Basically, what the NSA was doing was infringing the privacy of millions of people, collecting meta-data and more without any apparent reason but the “security” of the country.

Now we can see the similarity between this behaviour and what the SHIELD agency is doing to find Loki. They are using private devices’ cameras and geo-location systems to find the guy they want. Basically, they’re breaking the law.

But the really creepy thing is the subtle mental process the fiction movie stimulates. We really need to find Loki. It’s a matter of life or death of the entire human race. We are so involved in the pathos generated by the fast-paced events that we think “yes, thank god they can use everything as their eyes and ears to find Loki and save the world!”

We accept being spied on for our own sake. This is precisely what the NSA claims to be doing, floating unseen over our heads exactly like the Helicarrier, the flying stealth aircraft-carrier captained by Nick Fury, the leader of the Avengers.


A close relationship

If we think about it, superheroes are designed to be national icons and, inevitably, to serve some sort of nationalistic interest. They are the modern descendants of the medieval knights of the ancient European ballads — take a look at the King Arthur’s tales. They are our champions and subsume in themselves every positive characteristic of the human race. They are extremely cool. It’s normal that they can be used to deliver specific messages to the audience — I mean, Captain America is basically wearing an US flag.

Still, things are more pragmatic than this.

The Avengers is a product of Marvel Entertainment Inc., a renowned comics firm. Part of the Marvel Entertainment Inc., Marvel Entertainment LLC, has been acquired by The Walt Disney Company in 2009.

The Walt Disney Company has a certain familiarity with some US government bureaus.

For example, in 2002, Eric Haseltine, head of research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering, left his place to join the NSA as Director of Research —a seat that he kept until 2004.

The opposite path, from the FBI to Disney, was taken by Ronald L. Iden. Iden, more than two decades in the FBI and three years as director of the Office of Homeland Security with the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration in California, has been vice president and Chief Security Officer at Disney since 2004.

Of course, there is nothing illegal in this. Still, such a policy can explain certain things that closely resemble the SHIELD attitude in breaking the privacy of people.

Special Agent Oso

Special Agent Oso is a cartoon for children. The protagonist is a teddy bear — in Spanish, “oso” — that works for the security of babies. Nothing special, he helps them to perform tasks such as blowing bubbles, making a card or cleaning their rooms. He and his friends work for the agency UNIQUE (The United Network for the Investigation of Quite Usual Events).

Does this ring a bell? An agent working for an agency that worries about the security of people?


But there’s more. Among the members of UNIQUE there is a team of shutterbugs. These little ladybugs fly around keeping an eye open in case help is needed. They look like mini-drones and fly around the children, taking pictures and sending them to a satellite, if necessary. No one is asking them to bug off, because they are there for the security of children. Take a look at the video.


We often say that the entertainment industry is the mirror of our society. It reflects our fears and our hopes for the future. Still, the opposite is also true: we may end mirroring what is provided us.

In this particular case, we look at a superhero movie and we are pushed to accept something that is ruled as illegal, that has been condemned as immoral and wrongful. We accept it out of fear of an unknown threat — notice the similarities with the terrorism menace — and the hope for a better future. The same applies to the cartoons that our children could watch. With them they will grow up and through them they will develop their opinions about the world, and as adults they might well be ok in sacrificing their privacy on the altar of a supposed higher good.

Anyway, this little accident didn’t stop me. I finished watching The Avengers. Wanna know how it ends? Well, justice prevails, as always.


by Emanuele Del Rosso


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