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Captain America Skips Politics, Stays Personal

This review contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind Marvel’s movies, said that [1] Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a chance to expand the range of comic book movies, since the sequel would really be “a ’70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie.” But, despite the clear references to the overreach of the NSA’s surveillance state and the CIA’s unauthorized abuses, little in the movie treated man (or superman) as a political animal.

Although Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is warned by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that he should trust no one, the movie never forces the squeaky-clear hero into the same kind of suspicious attitude that characterizes his enemies.

The grand conspiracy isn’t revealed through an act of deduction or infiltration, but through the monologue of a very accommodating villain. When the organization that Rogers has served turns out to be tainted, there’s no attempt at investigation or truth and reconciliation. The heroes just leak all the classified files and disband S.H.I.E.L.D. altogether. And, when they infiltrate the base of their erstwhile allies, Captain America has a very simple heuristic for distinguishing friend from foe:

Falcon: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Captain America: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!

Charlie Jane Anders, reviewing the film for io9 [2], argued that Captain America’s greatest power isn’t his superstrength or his shield, but his certainty.

[Y]ou reach a point where you realize that’s Captain America’s true superpower — he makes things simpler, for everybody. Everybody else in the movie changes, at least in part because of their connection to Steve Rogers. He’s a catalyst, as well as a leader. This film is simplistic because Steve Rogers’ worldview is simplistic. And if you only let him, Steve Rogers will allow you to live in his world where everything is black and white.

Usually, when Americans are characterized as thinking in black and white, it’s because we’ve divided the world or just our nation into “us” and “them” and are out to get rid of them as in President Bush’s statement [3], “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  But when Captain America divides the world into light and dark, he has more in common with John Winthrop [4], who referenced Matthew 5:14 [5] to tell his fellow colonists that the eyes of the world are upon them, and they must shine out, as a city on a hill.

The forceful optimism that Captain America exemplifies is most moving when the stakes of the movie get lower. When Captain America faces his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, who has been transformed into the robotic Winter Soldier, he offer Barnes his weakness, not his strength. Rogers drops his shield and stops putting up a fight. He’s asking his friend to show mercy, instead of removing the choice, and it’s easy to for the audience to hear echoes of a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon [6], “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”

That makes it all the stranger that, in order to make his way to Barnes, Captain America punches his way through approximately fifty mooks. Maybe he was carefully doing non-lethal damage, but, more likely, the film didn’t expect us to care, since it had already told us that all of Rogers’s antagonists were fanatics and Nazi-collaborators [7]. There were limits to the movie’s mercies.

But Winter Soldier would have been a stronger film if it had taken a lesson from a different blockbuster franchise [8] and admitted that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” In order to be a political thriller, instead of an interpersonal one, we need to see how Cap’s idealism scales up.

What are the limitations on charity and compassion when it’s expressed through an institution, instead of an individual? What sacrifices can Rogers choose for himself, but not the nation? The Winter Soldier, with its simplistic plot, doesn’t have any serious critique of American policy, but Steve Rogers still offers a powerful call to small-scale heroism to the American people.

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#1 Comment By Aaron Gross On April 10, 2014 @ 7:15 am

I think the real call to small-scale heroism, and some politics, too, is the scene where the bad guy holds his gun to the head of a nerdy, anonymous technician and tells him to launch the weapon systems immediately. The technician, like the other SHIELD employees, had been told that Steve Rogers was a traitor. Now Rogers and his crew have taken control of the facilities and announced that the other guys are the real traitors. The technician is terrified and confused, and he says to the guy holding the gun to his head, “I’m not going to launch the system.” Politics! Small-scale heroism! Or, maybe, super-heroism!

#2 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 10, 2014 @ 10:26 am

I disagree. I think there is a rather strong political content. Of course, this is a comic book movie, so the politics are rather simplistic and straightforward. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The standard Superman notion of “truth, justice and the American way” is political, even though simple. So is the endless, grim focus on crime in Batman (indeed, to me, it makes all but the campy TV series of Batman more or less unwatchable).

You say:

“When the organization that Rogers has served turns out to be tainted, there’s no attempt at investigation or truth and reconciliation. The heroes just leak all the classified files and disband S.H.I.E.L.D. altogether.”

To which I would respond with “Just?” They “just” disband the organization ALTOGETHER and leak ALL of its secrets? I wish someone would “just” disband the CIA, the NSA, etc and reveal all of their secrets!
And it seems to me that “truth” is thereby well served. The secrets being leaked means that the truth, finally, is being told. The reference to Snowden and Wiki leaks is pretty strong here.

We’ve had plenty of so called “investigations” of our spy agencies, without any real change. I fail to see how getting rid of them altogether would not be much, much more of a radical step. As for “reconciliation,” I would say “meh.” Frankly, I have no great desire to reconcile with the NSA and CIA and so on, or its personnel. Nor would I greatly desire to see them punished. I just want them to stop doing what they’re doing and have been doing. Which is what happens in the film.

The new Captain America film posits the notions that loyalty to America, which the captain has in spades, does NOT include loyalty to our spy agencies, that our spy agencies are not merely overzealous, incompetent, etc, but are actually working for evil, and that getting rid of them would be a good thing. I found all of that to be rather bracing, and mostly unexpected, in what is otherwise a more or less cartoon, feel-good, summer blockbuster, special effects movie.

#3 Comment By Franklin Evans On April 10, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

I’ve been an avid follower of Stan Lee’s work to bring his (and he has a personal stake) comic book vision to the big screen. Peter Parker/Spiderman was my personal adolescent avatar. The love story in X-Men between Scott Summers/Cyclops and Jean Grey/Marvel Girl/Pheonix is on my list of all-time best stories of any medium. I thought that choosing Ang Lee to direct Hulk was a stroke of genius.

In the end, though, even with the egregious differences in the screen story lines, what you see is the archetypes and avatars of the comic books. They serve specific purposes, even if demoted to walking and talking plot devices.

The first connection is personal, visceral even. Considerations of abstract concepts can inform that connection, but never define it.

#4 Comment By david Naas On April 10, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

About 13 years ago, I had occasion to remind a person at work that loyalty to the Bush administration was not the same thing as loyalty to America. And that shredding the Constitution in the name of National Security was setting an example which could — and would — be followed by subsequent presidents. He seemed to believe Die Partei would be in power forever, and since they were “The Good Guys”, there was no problem.
In the immortal words of Gomer Pyle, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!”
In America, we believe in an America which probably never was. It existed in our imaginations, but we tried to give it reality.
In movies, we saw it in “Good Morning, Miss Dove”, and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”, in “Miracle on 34th Street”, and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Ruggles of Red Gap”.
I am a victim of such “black-and-white” thinking.
I believe in those hackneyed values yet. Freedom, equality, justice, community, faith in God and faith in my fellow Man.
The Gods of the Copybook Headings are not all negative, you see.

#5 Comment By Ellid On April 22, 2014 @ 8:08 am

NOT POLITICAL????

My God, did you even watch the thing, or just get the plot off Wikipedia? This is one of the most political films in years, and despite some chops at Obama, most of its critique of the modern security state is directed at Republican policies from the CIA coups that toppled Mosadegh and Allende on down to the Patriot Act. Good God!

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 27, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

I enjoyed this film. But I thought it was definitely political. It is that band o political films that have Utopian solutions as in dumping secret data and terminating an organization as if those were the problems.

The argument is that Hydra can be destroyed or that secret organizations whose priorities are intel and defense can be ameliorated if we all just know everything there is to know about them. That is all political intrigue. The good guys of course being those want to disband and data dump.

As though Hydra’s goal is SHIELD. An organization that really can’t be band because it is not about Captain America. Shield is that organization which serves as protector by providing a method or a locus by which the super heros come together under a central planning unit and leadership. Neither data dumping or disbanding those organizations does a thing in hindering Hydra or end government surveillence programs — there’s never just one intelligence organization and Hydra isn’t after a post in SHIELD. Their infiltration goals rest in where power is actually weilded —

Disbanding SHIELD all temporary I am sure just lops off a tentacle not even a head. And since Hydra operates via head regeneration they have a level of autonomy that protects them from tentacle removal damage.

Even the movie itself is political. Note the bragging going on about ‘The Other Woman’ which came out last week. It ‘dethrones’ Captain America. Something that will only be somewhat accurate it if tops 600 million in the same number of weeks. Female politics is battling for a spot against a comic book character.

That’s rich.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 27, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

For those attempting to make a lot of hay out Pres. Bush’s admin. and the intelligence state. The exorbitant growth would not have occurred minus 9/11. I hate to remind you that the country was panicked and caught flat footed. Further, the democrats were the initial pushers for the the security state growth of HMS and the Patriot Act —- which were passed late in the evening, after midnight I think. I was in the bath, just back from a jog when I heard the disappointing news. I remember slapping my hands against the water in frustration and just what a poor choice it was. But it was not a Republican cabal. And the power grab would was not unigue, especially during times of crisis. While poor choices were made about muslims — there were no Muslim internment camps.

Further this debate is not new, it was more intense during the 1970’s — certainly Daniel Elsberg rings a bell.

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