Captain America: Winter Soldier Is A Political Parable About The Security State
Well, since Scott handled Game of Thrones, I guess that gives me the go to write about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I saw on Friday. Go see this movie! It’s very nearly perfect as an entertaining action movie, except for the part where we’re supposed to believe that Scarlett Johansson is a former KGB agent, when the actress was, you know, 7 years old when the KGB collapsed. (The Americans, at least, has warmed me up to the idea of KGB agents that have no detectable Russian accent.) And even that I forgive, because she’s really good in this movie and I’m happy that there’s an Avengers movie where women play a major role, instead of being relegated to love interests and background characters.
Spoilers, of course. Lots of them.
I was a little anxious, upon hearing that this movie was going to be a political thriller, that it would ruin itself by being too cautious. With mainstream blockbusters like this, there’s often a tendency for the Hollywood executives to forbid any overtly political themes outside of “Patriotism is good!” and “Terrorism is bad!” and the previous incarnations of Captain America in this new series of Marvel movies have been noticeably void of giving Steve Rogers a political point of view besides a general distaste for Nazis. I feared this would be more of the same, but I can safely say it is not. Instead, the movie is an overt broadside against the surveillance state. More to the point, Rogers is the only character who strongly opposes the surveillance state from day one, and he explicitly links it to the kind of fascism that he “died” fighting in WWII. The movie ends up being a parable where a ghost from the country’s past is here to judge us….for not being progressive enough.
This is a major relief, since as Steven Attewell has argued in the past, Captain America is at his best when he’s portrayed as a card-carrying member of the ACLU, whose patriotism is rooted in a sense that America has the potential to exemplify liberal values. Sadly, there has some sanding off of the edges of his character in this new incarnation—apparently, he bemoans the lack of universal health care in the original draft of The Avengers, but that was cut—but this movie is a pretty decent step forward. Because he’s an outsider who lived his life as fiercely anti-fascist, he’s able to see what even the most decent-hearted characters in the movie can’t, at least not at first: That SHIELD was only able to provide cover for fascists for so long because of its lack of transparency and accountability to the public, and therefore the only way to fix the problem is to dissolve the organization and dump all its secrets, Wikileaks-style, onto the internet.
Obviously, the real world isn’t as black-and-white as Captain America shows it. And yet, for a silly superhero blockbuster, the movie does ask some harsh and uncomfortable questions about how much an insistence on nuance and shades of gray forces genuinely good, freedom-loving people to bend to the desires of people who want to create a security state. It made me a little melancholy, in fact, because a lot of the story is based around convincing Nick Fury, who I read as an Obama stand-in, to give up his hope that there’s a responsible way to run a covert survelliance operation that doesn’t open the door to major abuses of people’s right to live freely. Because this is a movie, the well-meaning liberal sort who signs off on the survelliance program is brought around to reason, by being strongly reminded that the same people who pushed so hard for this kind of security state also do not want the likes of him to hold any real power. In real life, however, the “I trust myself to get this right” kind of mentality that Obama exhibits is much harder to budge.
But that melancholy was definitely offset by being pleased that Marvel was willing to take some chances and make a movie with a strong political point of view, instead of tip-toeing around in fear of offending conservative audiences. It made for a much stronger movie, allowing the filmmakers to tell a straightforward story instead of devolving into the incoherence that stems from trying to be all things to all people. And while it’s a bit dumbed-down, as you expect with a superhero movie, it’s still a movie about a WWII vet and a former KGB agent teaming up to fight the Nazis and return America to a place of liberal optimism, which is definitely not something you’re going to see in any other movie that’s come out in the last decade. This movie was like the anti-Zero Dark Thirty, and I loved it for it.