'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' is the most political (and subversive) superhero movie ever made

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Image Credit: Marvel

We spend a lot of time here on the internet talking about the Meaning of blockbuster movies, attempting to analyze what some new mega-successful PG-13 rated corporate-branded movie says about our culture or the age we live in. We do this maybe because blockbuster movies have become more interested in tackling weighty themes. (9/11 is all over the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies; conversely, it’s difficult to graft some larger mid-’90s topical narrative onto Star Trek: First Contact or Batman Forever.) But we also do this because blockbuster movies are popular, and it’s fun to use popular things as a prism for understanding the issues of our day. It’s rare for a blockbuster movie to come right out and announce its intentions.

And so I was legitimately shocked and impressed and fascinated when I reached the middle of Captain America: The Winter SoldierSPOILERS FROM HERE — and got to the scene where the movie clearly states that our modern intelligence apparatus and our whole system of national security was invented by some of the greatest villains of the 20th Century. And worse: Like the vampires of the pre-glitter period, HYDRA was welcomed in by their victims, freely and of their own will. In real-world terms, Winter Soldier basically says that the NSA was invented by Nazis…and that we let it happen, insisted even, giving up our freedom because we were too afraid to do anything else. EW critic Owen Gleiberman pointed out in his review that the villain in Winter Soldier is really the military-industrial complex. And that villain has accomplices, accessories, and henchmen who help the bad guys by doing nothing. To paraphrase Pogo: We have met the enemy, and they is us.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we construct meaning with regards to pop culture — “we” as people who write about pop culture, but also more generally “we” as people who become fans of billion-dollar franchises, and who feel a natural human urge to ascribe some deeper meaning to something beyond just “Thing We Spend Money On For Enjoyment.” On one hand, I don’t really think it matters if the filmmakers were trying to say something specific; indeed, you could make the argument that making a film out of specific ideas is less interesting, that it’s more important for films to have characters and style and interesting storytelling. We all interpret art in our own way. No one who wrote this headline can ever safely criticize anyone for reading too much into pop culture.

At the same time, it’s relatively rare to find a major blockbuster movie where the central ideas actually have some clarity and the filmmakers take the extra step beyond assembling lots of contemporary cultural identifiers. For all the talk about the hot-topic nihilism of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, what made The Dark Knight great wasn’t that it turned the Joker into a terrorist (although the imagery was there).

The Dark Knight put several ideas into a spin cycle, but at its center, it was really about a lack of purpose. The Joker isn’t a guy who performs terrorist acts for his country, or his cause, or even for money: Indeed, if you take the Joker at face value, he’s not really doing it for any purpose at all. Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises failed because it gave the villains almost too much purpose: Bane was a socialist terrorist fundamentalist Tea Party Occupy Wall Streeter, who was spoiler-alertishly actually just the love slave of a vengeful ninja-monk heiress. (ASIDE: Many franchises become less interesting as their central themes become more explicit. Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection are much more open about their freaky-Freud sexuality — Ripley gives birth to and has sex with an Alien — but they’re also much less interesting than Alien and Aliens. This could also just be because the first two movies are near-perfect sci-fi films made by top-of-their-game directors, but it’s not like David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet are hacks.  END OF ASIDE.)

The Nolan Branch of superhero cinema favors gritty allegory; you could also throw in last year’s Man of Steel. It’s spiritually similar to the Singer Branch: The X-Men films are all freefloating riffs on the idea of outsiders and Civil Rights, which is arguably a much simpler idea than anything in The Dark Knight and also a more important idea than anything in The Dark Knight. So far, the films of Marvel Studios have generally gone in a much lighter direction. Iron Man began with an extended tour through the Middle East, but the franchise raced into farce with Iron Man 2. Understandable: There’s something inherently interesting about a weapons manufacturer injured by his own weapons, but when said manufacturer immediately decides to become a superhero and completely halt all weapons production in his multi-billion-dollar company, we’re officially in fantasyland.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! There were a few scenes in Avengers that hinted at a darker, more paranoid vision of the Marvel-verse — but most of those concerns were thrown aside when the Avengers decided to avenge Coulson, essentially throwing aside a profound debate in favor of just winning one for the Gipper. Again, also fine: Avengers needed to get to a big battle scene with lots of Avengers.

But then we get to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And on one hand, it might simply be impossible to construct a post-WWII Captain America adventure that doesn’t even accidentally say something interesting about our country. (The man’s name is America.) But throughout history, there have been plenty of Cap creators who take full advantage of the character’s standing as a potent symbol. There was the time that Cap found out that the mysterious leader of an evil organization called the Secret Empire was some politician who was probably/definitely Richard Nixon. More recently, Captain America got killed — an essential period-piece moment from 2000s America.

Winter Soldier doesn’t do anything that bold, but it’s very much in the same spirit. The film’s onscreen exemplar of Political Leadership is Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, who turns out to be the Big Bad — and if the idea of a politician being a supervillain is less transgressive than it used to be, there is something incredibly potent about seeing the star of The Candidate and Three Days of the Condor recast as the government baddie. In All the President’s Men he took down Nixon; now, he’s become Nixon. (Redford in Winter Soldier is probably as close as a superhero movie will ever get to Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.) And when, in the middle of the movie, Captain America becomes a fugitive from his own government, it means something. (“Captain America Vs. America.”)

This is a film draped in American political iconography. The first shot is of the Washington Monument; the Watergate hotel is right across the Potomac from SHIELD HQ. Cap’s mission to the Lemurian Star is the kind of well-executed Special Op that Paul Greengrass loves to shoot — I can’t remember another time that a superhero punch-fight has been rendered as a Metal Gear Solid stealth mission — but it’s also a complete crock, less about saving people than about saving information. (“Information” is the movie’s Macguffin. In this sense, it really does have a lot in common with Zero Dark Thirty, a detective story which wades through mountains of material attempting to answer one simple question: Where did Bin Laden go?)

From there, you have the loaded scene where Fury shows Captain America the top-secret mega-helicarriers. Along the way, Fury offers a parable that explains his perspective on life: The story of his grandfather and the gun. It’s a simple story — essentially, it’s a variation on “walk softly and carry a big stick.” But then Fury shows Cap the stick: Weaponry that can take out 100 hostiles a minute, that can read a terrorist’s DNA from a million miles away, that can essentially do Minority Report without the weird bald-people pool party. “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime,” says Cap. “You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection. This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”

I guess that, for some people, this conversation might be too on the nose. And if the movie were just a brute-force idea battle — if it just announced that the Nazis invented the NSA and created terrorism to make us scared, if it’s whole point was “Captain America Is Good, Bad People Are Bad!” — that would be fine. But the cynicism is not cheap. Fury throws Cap’s idealism in his face, refuting the nostalgic idea that things were better in the ’40s: “Greatest Generation? You guys did some nasty stuff.” Cap’s argument is that they did that bad stuff to make the world better — to make it the kind of world that didn’t hold a gun to everyone’s head.

In the next scene, Cap goes and talks to an old friend: Peggy Carter, now in her ’90s. Peggy’s the time traveler who took the long way around: We hear briefly that she helped to create SHIELD, that she was presumably a key figure in the agency’s activities throughout the Cold War. Peggy’s statements are not encouraging: “Sometimes, the best we can do is to start over.” Then she coughs and forgets everything that happened in the scene — the superhero movie version of the final Tony-Junior scene from Sopranos. With a bit of imagination, we can imagine that Peggy Carter lived her whole life following up on Cap’s promise: Doing everything she could to make the world safer. She failed — and, as we later learn, in the process helped to create an organization that came thisclose to conquering the world.

Winter Soldier is much more gleefully over-the-top than the Nolan films — this is a movie where an undead Nazi scientist takes the time to compose a montage showing how HYDRA created Hugo Chavez. But it never loses sight of what it’s talking about: the security state, and how appealing it is, and how terrible it can become. Late in the movie, Redford’s character asks a member of the Security Council the kind of theoretical question beloved by pundits and 24 producers: What if you know that someone was about to march into your home and kill your daughter? What if you could stop that person right now, with the flick of a switch?

Redford tells Fury that they want the same thing: order. Redford argues that he is the hero, because he’s willing to flip that switch — because he’s willing to save seven billion people by killing a few million. (HYDRA in Winter Soldier is basically Ozymandias in Watchmen.) Redford asks Fury if he‘d be brave enough to flick that switch. Fury’s response, a great line in a third act filled with great lines: “I’m brave enough not to.”

This comes right around the moment when Captain America refuses to fight his best friend — poor, brainwashed Bucky, another long-way-around time traveler from the ’40s. If the 20th century left Peggy Carter as a worn-out old soldier, at least she’s better off than Bucky, an idealistic, all-American boy who became a murderous killing machine, a demonic mash-up of a PTSD-afflicted vet and a CIA superspy. In the comics, the Winter Soldier was explicitly working for the Soviets; on the big screen, he’s a HYDRA agent, which you could argue is a roundabout way of being an agent of SHIELD. Cap can’t kill Bucky, so he stops fighting, and lets Bucky pummel him. The macro- and micro-narratives of Winter Soldier both climax in the same place: A character refusing to take action, a fighter deciding not to fight.

In its closing moments, Winter Soldier takes a couple steps back. This is to be expected: The movie can only burn the house down just so before building forward to further spinoff-sequels. Black Widow gives a speech to the government where she insists that the government can’t lock up people like her: “You need us,” she says, and admits that even if people like her could destroy the world, “We’re also the ones best qualified to defend it.” No superhero movie can ever really be against the idea of superheroes — it’s an echo of that famous Truffaut quote about how no film can ever truly be anti-war, because movies fundamentally make war look exciting.

Yet Winter Soldier indicates that Marvel is willing to dig into its characters — to let them explore our real, contemporary world. Black Widow is also the character who, earlier in the movie, advocates for a kind of personality void: the ability to live without a past, to become anyone, to defeat the Information Age by living a life without any personal information. (“Who do you want me to be?” she asks — and it’s clear that she has all the power in that situation.) But the movie ultimately puts her into a position where she has to unveil all of her secrets along with SHIELD’s — yeesh, this movie basically recaps the whole Snowden affair as a quick throwaway plot beat in the third act.

Winter Soldier confirms, for me, that Captain America is Marvel’s most interesting franchise, the most willing to engage with a world that looks an awful lot like our own. (Compared to last year’s Iron Man and Thor sequels, Winter Soldier is a freaking David Simon joint.) I’m not sure if Cap 3 will continue this trend — and I’m not sure I need to see another movie about the Winter Soldier, which is strongly hinted at in the post-credits scene. But having seen Winter Soldier twice now, I’m impressed most of all with the force of its message. Early in the film, Fury offers a statement promoting realism: “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be!” Winter Soldier ultimately argues that “taking the world as it is” makes it worse for everyone. It’s an optimistic movie, but it’s operating from a position of paranoia and cynicism. It hates America, yet it believes in America: A paradox, but also a promise.

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