Originally written for Fandom Following. Now hosted on Canonically Courtnee.
Before I begin, I have to start this post by clarifying that what I am about to say to you can only be considered a Bullshit Fan Theory. When I began building this theory back in 2014, It was only ever meant to be a minor part of a fangirl’s review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. However, as time went on, the theory just so happened to continue to work. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this particular tangent could become something that, while still able to be picked apart, could so cohesively flow into a working fan theory. Surely Marvel couldn’t be so clumsy.
It all started with Howard Stark. Or rather, the two actors playing Howard Stark. Better yet, it started with Captain America.
The current Marvel Cinematic Universe has employed three different actors to play Howard Stark, but has regularly made use of two of them. Gerard Sanders originated the role by way of portraits in 2008’s Iron Man. John Slattery has played Old Howard Stark since 2010’s Iron Man 2, and Dominic Cooper has been Young Howard Stark since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. John Slattery is only sixteen years older than Dominic Cooper, but the two Howards are separated by at least a thirty year interval.
You got all of that? Okay, cool. Let’s go forward.
So it’s May of 2014, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier just came out in the United States. The United Kingdom fangirls have already spent a week writing new canon adjacent fics that have just been doing your heart in. You wonder why Disney/Marvel would have a US movie about US superheroes in the US come out in Europe first, but you are not yet listening to John Campea, so you’re not going to bother with tripping about a one week delay.
So you go to the see the movie, and it’s great! However, one scene bugs the hell out of you: the abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters at Camp Lehigh. You’ll remember that the whole reason that Steve Rogers even saw the headquarters was because the building it was housed in hadn’t been there when he was in basic training. Steve even goes as far as to say that it was against regulation for a munitions building to be “within 500 feet of a barrack”. And when Steve walks into the old headquarters, he finds pictures of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s founders: Colonel Phillips, Agent Peggy Carter, and Howard Stark.
This was supposed to be a bittersweet moment for Steve: look at Steve’s now dead or dying friends, who had left such a great legacy that Steve completely missed out on because he was lost and frozen for 70 years. Not to mention, Steve is currently rebelling against said legacy.
Thing is, I couldn’t fully get into this scene because the room itself couldn’t have been abandoned any later than right before Howard’s death in 1991, if not maybe sometimes toward the end of the seventies. So why would they have had pictures of Phillips, Peggy, and Howard from 1945 still on the wall? That’s almost a fifty year difference. You mean to tell me that there weren’t any better pictures of these people after 1945?
And in that same scene, we are shown a headline from Howard Stark’s death in 1991. Except they use a picture of Young Howard Stark in the article. Now I refuse to believe that someone like Howard Stark didn’t have a regularly updated picture in the society pages once a week, if not once a year, since 1945.
Any random movie goer would have said that this was a mistake on Marvel’s part. Dominic Cooper’s performance as Howard Stark in The First Avenger was perfect, but the use of his likeness in The Winter Soldier was anachronistic, because Steve surely would have seen Howard’s S.H.I.E.L.D. file with updated pictures by then. There was no reason that Marvel couldn’t have called up John Slattery to take a few glamour shots, and one strategic picture of the back of his head.
And it doesn’t help that Marvel later did call up John Slattery to portray Howard Stark again, not only in Ant Man, but also in an expanded version of Howard’s death in Captain America: Civil War.
It doesn’t make any sense . . . unless Marvel is trying to tell us something.
So at first I thought, maybe it was just something to do with Steve. Between The Avengers and The Winter Soldier, the MCU does a lot to talk about how Captain America is a “man out of time” because he’s legitimately missed sixty-something years of his natural life. However, it’s not until The Winter Soldier that we really get to see how much that that might have depressed him. It’s all very nuanced, but at the same time we would still have theses scenes where Steve would talk about how he wanted someone with “shared life experience”.
The Steve Rogers that we see in The Winter Soldier was lonely; all of his friends were dead, and he hadn’t even gotten the chance to grow old with them. So of course he would only see the version of them he’d left in 1945, and not the version of them that they’d become after he went missing.
However, when Steve goes to see Peggy Carter, it was like a shock to his system. She was the only friend from the old days that he had actually gotten to see be old. And as much as he still felt that she was beautiful, she was no longer his Peggy. Not really. She had become more than what Steve knew of her, and he’s missed his chance to be part of that.
In any case, my conclusion was that, because Steve had only ever seen his friends as they had been before, that was the only way that he would ever see them. So every time we are presented with a picture of Steve’s old friends from Steve’s point of view, we’ll only ever see them as they were in 1945.
Sounds far-fetched, right? I know, but, the kicker is, this theory holds up well into Captain America: Civil War.
Now you’ll remember that Marvel (and the Russo brothers) had decided to make use of Dominic Cooper in Winter Soldier, but not in Civil War. I think that John Slattery’s use in the third Captain America movie was for the same reason that people didn’t want it to be Civil War: because it’s not a Captain America story. It’s a Marvel Universe story.
So to Steve Rogers/Captain America, Howard Stark is this young inventor, who happens to find himself doing stuff for the government. To the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, Howard is an older, Walt Disney-type who only seems to make weapons for the government, and not much else. That’s why John Slattery’s Howard Stark shows up in several different Marvel properties, but Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark only shows up in Captain America movies and Agent Carter. It is in the Captain America movies and Agent Carter that Howard is his most relatable, but that’s because we see Howard the Friendly Millionaire, not Howard Stark the Spymaster Businessman.
Marvel even goes out of it’s way to have Howard be a minor point of contention between Steve and Tony in The Avengers. Steve knew Howard as the eccentric millionaire who outfitted him for war, but Tony only knows Howard as his distant and unappreciative father, who regularly ditched him to go search for his buddy, Captain America. Neither of them can reconcile these two different versions of Howard, because the time between Cooper and Slattery’s introductions are so great that they’re essentially playing two different people.
You have to watch Agent Carter to see how Cooper’s Howard Stark can even begin to become Slattery’s Howard Stark. It doesn’t help that Cooper is playing a version of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (or Howard Hughes, as some have said), and Slattery is playing a version of the real Walt Disney.
Howard Stark’s – and Peggy Carter’s – appearance in Ant Man is only done for the benefit of Hank Pym. Howard validates Hank’s presence in the movie, and his place in the MCU. Howard Stark’s presence in Civil War is for Tony Stark’s benefit, and also the audience’s.
Howard and Maria Stark’s deaths in Civil War are never shown to us from Steve Rogers’ point of view. There was no need for it, because we had already seen it in The Winter Soldier. The Starks’ deaths are first shown to us when Helmut Zemo watches the surveillance tape, then when Bucky Barnes remembers the mission, and finally when Tony Stark views the tape.
(I take issue with this, because you get the feeling that that file was part of the initial S.H.I.E.L.D. dump from The Winter Soldier. So why is Tony just now finding this out? He’s way too nosey to not have picked that apart.)
During the last viewing of the tape, Steve was standing behind Tony, who was directly in front of the monitor, so we, the audience, are watching Howard and Maria’s death from Tony’s point of view. Arnim Zola had already told Steve what happened in The Winter Soldier. And Steve had read all of the files on the Winter Soldier, so I think that Steve’s position in front of the monitor was really for him to watch Tony’s reaction.
Another way to look at it is, because Steve’s Howard and Tony’s Howard were so different, if we had seen the murder from Steve’s point of view then we wouldn’t have gotten the same emotional reaction. You have to remember that Steve’s Howard is also Bucky’s Howard. So the reason that it took the whole movie to reconcile that that one guy the Winter Soldier killed was also Bucky’s war mate, Howard Stark, probably had a lot to do with the fact that Bucky also wouldn’t have recognized that Howard due to time and Hydra conditioning.
Had they not been aware that that was Howard, both Steve and Bucky would have only reacted to the fact that two more lives were unjustly taken because of Hydra. Whereas Tony – and the audience – is reacting to the fact that those were his parents.
When I first noticed the Howard discrepancy, I legitimately thought that Steve was living in an alternate dimension for two seconds. Cooper and Slattery’s Howards had some minute differences that were making them seem like different people. Like, Dominic Cooper’s Howard had immigrant parents, and not the rich kind. Before that, I don’t think that we’d ever had any reason to believe that the Starks weren’t old money.
Then I thought that It was just Steve’s depression. He was legitimately out of time, and all of his friends were dead. He couldn’t see them as old folks because he didn’t want to see them as old folks. Except, he was able to see Peggy as she was in her old age. He was able to recognize the change in Bucky, even as he marveled at their relatively youthful images. We end The Winter Soldier with Steve having a brighter outlook on life than he did at the start.
Now, though? I think that Steve Rogers doesn’t see his dead friends as they were after he went missing, because he can’t. I don’t think he would have been able to recognize those people. I think he’d been gone too long, and their deaths meant that there was nothing to reconcile the change with. When Steve and Tony fight in the end of Civil War, Steve has already reconciled that his Howard is dead, and this guy that Bucky killed was basically a stranger. To Tony, his parents’ death – his mother’s in particular – was still an open wound.
So maybe Marvel meant for it’s use of two different Howard Starks to be a little symbolic. Maybe Young Howard Stark was supposed to represent the youthful hopefulness of America’s first superhero. Maybe Old Howard Stark represented the bitterness of not being able to recapture that magic, and the cynicism that came from trying to build the type of weapons that ended wars and left countries in ruin. Maybe that’s why Steve could never see Old Howard, because he refused to let the reality of the time he had found himself in corrupt him.
Maybe it was more than just a mix of opportunistic casting, and a weak spot in the script.
Whatever it was, it gave me something to think about on and off for the last two years. It is not the most perfect fan theory, and in some points may count more as a meta, but it’s definitely more than I thought it would be. For all that I consider my “Tale of Two Howards” a Bullshit Fan Theory, it definitely held up in the long run.
If you would like to keep up with me and my adventures in appreciating all kinds of things, please be sure to subscribe to this blog. If you just want to chat with me about this particular topic, make sure to hit me up in the comment section.