I finally caught up with the rest of the world and saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier yesterday. I have a mess of notes I jotted down during the credits, in the vain hope that I might write a full review, but I have two posts in my drafts folder I really want to finish, plus at least two just-for-fun writing projects that I’m actually excited about, so that full review may never materialize.
I do want to touch briefly on the movie’s central ideological theme, though, before I get too distracted. Spoilers ahoy!
While the movie is named after the Winter Soldier, he’s not really the antagonist. The real villain of the piece is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who spearheads the takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. by the Nazi group HYDRA. HYDRA, it turns out, has been growing within S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades, using its resources and influencing its policy. HYDRA’s ultimate goal is to use a data-mining algorithm and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s massive firepower to identify and wipe out several million people they consider threats to order.
Part of what’s really scary about this plan is that if nobody had found out that a bunch of Nazis were behind it, S.H.I.E.L.D. probably would’ve just gone ahead with it, calling it a pre-emptive strike, and nobody within the organization would have been terribly bothered by it.
It’s a thinly-veiled and well-constructed critique of the USA’s use of the NSA to spy on its citizens (hello, whoever’s reading this while I’m typing it!), our use of drones to kill people we’ve declared enemy combatants at long range, and our nation’s all-too-frequent willingness to trade freedom for security.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about this specifically, because plenty of people already are and I think it’s enough for me to say that I loved it. What I want to do is zoom out a little bit and look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, and at this freedom-vs-security theme in the zeitgeist.
Because that’s the thing, to me: I feel like a lot of people are lauding CA:TWS for how groundbreaking this theme is, and it’s not, particularly. It’s just a very well-executed, big-budget version of something that we haven’t seen in a few years.
In 2006, George W. Bush was in his second term as president. The US’s practice of extraordinary rendition had come to light. Horrific pictures of prisoner abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison had been burned into our collective consciousness. The Bush administration’s “Torture Memos” had been leaked to the press. The USA PATRIOT Act had been in force for five years, giving intelligence agencies incredible freedom to surveil and investigate US citizens with very little cause. In this climate, the Wachowski siblings produced V for Vendetta: a movie about a government that spied on its own people, restricted rights, and kidnapped and assassinated citizens that were considered threats, all in the name of security.
In 2007, Ubisoft released the first Assassin’s Creed game, introducing the world to an age-old struggle between the Knights Templar and the Assassin Order. These two organizations both seek to create a perfect world, but with diametrically opposed philosophies: where the Templars seek to control people and impose order, the Assassins fight for the cause of free will. Neither group really has the moral high ground, in that both Templars and Assassins have no problem with murder, kidnapping, etc, an irony that the charcters themselves acknowledge. But the heroes of the story are still definitely the Assassins, and throughout the games, dozens of historical visionaries, revolutionaries, and leaders are revealed to have been on the Brotherhood’s side: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Dante Alghieri, Nikola Tesla, Anne Bonney.
The idea that our government might not have our best interests at heart, that we must always be fighting to preserve our constitutional freedoms and demanding more transparency, is an idea near and dear to the hearts of American audiences. It’s true that CA:TWS and V for Vendetta are aimed at liberal audiences, but conservative Americans have plenty of mistrust towards government surveillance too (at least when it’s not a conservative politician giving the wiretapping orders).
And it’s a theme that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards for a while. In Iron Man, the movie that set this juggernaut rolling, the US military-industrial complex was cast in an extremely suspicious light. Tony Stark went from saying that “peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy” and “I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once” to realizing that he “had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability” and shutting down Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing departments entirely. Sure, the villain there was double-dealing Obadiah Stane, and he was just a bad apple among genuinely good military characters like James Rhodes, right? But the discomfort with the US military was there.
In The Incredible Hulk (which I still say is underrated; I will hear no word against Edward Norton’s Banner), Marvel cranked that discomfort up a little more. General Ross used the power of the US military to hunt Bruce Banner all the way to Brazil, pursuing a goal that was more personal grudge than political asset. The military had secret labs where it was doing human experiments, and Ross had no qualms about driving heavy weaponry onto a college campus to try and take down the Hulk.
Captain America: The First Avenger might have been the first MCU movie where the US army was portrayed in a positive light, with its sepia-toned images of Cap’s propaganda tours and the perfectly balanced multi-ethnic blend of the Howling Commandos. But it’s so much easier to think of the US army in positive terms in the ’40s, especially those boys stationed overseas fighting Nazis — the bad guys were so clearly defined, and our moral imperative was so obvious. Even that movie at least nodded to the way the US military inculcates toxic attitudes, though: Steve Rogers was chosen for the super serum over men who were better soldiers, men who bought into the power fantasies and one-upmanship and us-vs-them of the military, because he’s a good person who just doesn’t like bullies. (I think it’s interesting that the Howling Commandos are so individualized: if the point of basic training is to break everyone’s individuality down so that they cohere into a team, if the point of being a soldier is being one part of a phalanx, the Howling Commanods are not very soldierly at all.)
And then we get to The Avengers, which sets us up for the reveal in CA:TWS.
STEVE:You think Fury’s hiding something?
TONY: He’s a spy. Captain, he’s the spy. His secrets have secrets.
[…]TONY: I should probably look into that once my decryption programmer finishes breaking into all of SHIELD’s secure files.STEVE: I’m sorry, did you say…?TONY: Jarvis has been running it since I hit the bridge. In a few hours we’ll know every dirty secret SHIELD has ever tried to hide. (holds out a bag of blueberries) Blueberry?STEVE: Yet you’re confused about why they didn’t want you around?TONY: An intelligence organization that fears intelligence? Historically, not awesome.
And of course, S.H.I.E.L.D. is hiding dirty secrets: it’s hiding a program that’s developing weapons based on the same awesome power HYDRA’s weapons used in Captain America. It’s prepared to launch nuclear strikes against the island of Manhattan, heedless of civilian casualties, to stop a war. Natasha says that S.H.I.E.L.D. monitors potential threats, and the implication is that the good guys — Thor, Cap, Bruce Banner — are on that threat list.
It’s important to note that when Jasper Sitwell names people on HYDRA’s pre-emptive strike list, Bruce Banner is mentioned. HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. consider the exact same people dangerous.
And that’s what Captain America 2 seems to be saying. At the end of the movie, Cap insists on destroying all three helicarriers, not giving control of them to S.H.I.E.L.D. The message, ringing loud and clear as a national anthem, is that nobody should have the power to put the punishment before the crime. Not them — but not us, either. Because power wants to be used. Power corrupts. And if we can’t use it responsibly, we shouldn’t have it.
Because otherwise, all too soon, us and them will be the same.