I like Captain America. He’s a good guy just trying to stay true to what’s right. He comes from a time when right and wrong were easier to understand, a time when Allies were allies and Nazis were Nazis. Simpler times, right? (An aside–why do we consider a time when evil was very mighty as “simpler?” Would we rather there be more evil in the world if only it was easier to recognize?)
The modern world Captain America finds himself in now is more complicated. People are more cynical. Governments are more secretive. Both friends and enemies are more difficult to name. Captain America is a man out of time not only because he’s never seen Star Wars but because his ethics don’t correspond to society’s. What’s a superhero to do?
First, he’s going to run around and hit people. A lot. He’s going to shoot a few of them too. Captain America: The Winter Soldier really shines in its action scenes. Unlike his Avenging compatriots who excel at combat in their own particular ways, Captain America is a more athletic combatant. He’s strong and durable, yes, but it’s his speed and agility that make him remarkable.
The movie is remarkable in a similar way. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is long—two hours and sixteen minutes—but it is also spritely paced. The film features a plethora of characters—some of them are more interesting even than the Captain— and the movie hurdles between their individual stories, skillfully tying them altogether as the story nears its conclusion. I was entertained throughout. (Of course, I was mostly entertained by the violence, so that’s something for me to pray about.)
Being entertained is nothing new with these Marvel movies though. They’ve proven predictably thrilling. If Captain America: The Winter Soldier stands out in any regard from the other films in this series, it’s in its insistence on product placement. I may not have left the theater wanting to be a superhero, but I certainly left with a renewed interest in shiny new Apple computers, spacious Chevrolet Silverados, and blindingly blue Under Armor tennis shoes. Maybe it was the rampant product placement or maybe it was the nondescript visual style of the film, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while entertaining, reminded me more of a television show than a movie.
In this installment in the series, Captain America’s insistence on doing what is right is challenged by a world where right and wrong are harder to discern. He is a soldier, after all, and his loyalty lies with the state. If the state is participating in nefarious activities, must Captain American become the tool of a totalitarian regime? The movie forces Captain America to determine where the source of his loyalty to the state ultimately lies.
The United States of America is, in aspiration at least, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and Captain America ultimately opts for a similar approach. (I won’t reveal who those people are, because that would ruin the movie.) I have to admire a man who decides in favor of his friends though, choosing to love people more than any philosophical idea. Living for an idea turns us into tyrants or worse, ideologues. Living for others makes us lovers. Captain America may leave this film a little disenchanted, but at least he has maintained his integrity, and he’s not alone.
These more “grounded” superhero movies—Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America—have explored current issues in their heightened cinematic worlds. The recent Batman movies considered urban class divides. The Iron Man franchise considers the true sources of what terrorists in the world. Captain America’s series looks at what it means to profess allegiance to a modern, military state.
The flip side to Captain America’s story in this film is Natasha and Nick Fury’s stories. They are spies, and their narrative world is one of secrecy, surveillance, and illusion. There are always powers behind the powers that be, and their story is about unmasking those powers while Natasha and Nick take off their own masks at the same time.
The real tragedy of these Captain America films then is that by establishing another power as the real power behind the state’s abuses of power, be it Hydra in WWII or the mysterious power at work in this film, the films obscure the fact that in the real world, “we the people” are the real power behind the state. We abuse our own power. We take advantage of ourselves and others. There is no Hydra. There is only us. And until we all quit vilifying others and take responsibility for the ways we are villains, nothing will change.
In this movie, Captain America has to learn to love his friends regardless of their deceitfulness. We need to love each other regardless of our deceitfulness, but we also need to stop being deceitful. We need to own up to the fact that we have created a surveillance state. It wasn’t “them” that did it. It was us. Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggests there’s still good in us reagrdless of what we’ve done. Let’s embrace that good and leave our deceit in the past.