Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Disruption and Disability Futures in Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2022), 16, (1), 41–57.


Marvel superhero movies celebrate the transformation of disabled people into weapons. First Avenger (2011) depicts a disabled man rebuilt by military technology into a patriotic superhero. In Winter Soldier (2014), the Soviet cyborg’s brutal, non-consensual modification serves to emphasize Captain America’s wholesomely perfected body. At first glance, both films seem incapable of critiquing the historical ableism that made Captain America’s modification a desirable image of disability-free future in 1941—let alone its modern manifestations. However, rewatching First Avenger after Winter Soldier reveals a far less stable endorsement of eliminating disability: alerted to the precise anxieties about bodily autonomy in the series, one can perceive an undercurrent of disability critique running through First Avenger too—often literally in the background. The film exposes the historical ableism that shaped Steve’s consent to modification, and begins to establish his sidekick Bucky Barnes as a persistent critical voice capable of envisioning a different disability future. The article is therefore not only about ableism in a pair of superhero movies but also about how these ableist films contain seeds of an unexpected critique of their own disability representation.

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Author details

Tankard, Alex