At midnight, audiences around the United States crowded into theaters for early screenings of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already been out for a week overseas and is expected to draw a staggering total at the box office. It is also a major departure for the studio in that the film has been promoted as (and in fact is) less of a straightforward super-hero film than a political thriller which protagonist happens to wear a somewhat gaudy uniform. More than any comic book-based film which came before it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier touches on some of the most disturbing and thought-provoking aspects of society in the twenty-first century and
the United States as the locus of what George H.W. Bush called a “New World Order.” After the close of World War II, with traditional European powers all but shattered and an ideological foe with a massive geographic footprint east of the Iron Curtain, the United States did a complete one-eighty from its prewar isolationist stance into functioning as the titular chief of a world police force. As a part of the “War on Terror” which was launched in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the United States under Bush adopted a policy of using force against nation-states which had not directly attacked it, on the grounds that they represented a clear and present danger to the nation’s security. Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees S.H.I.E.L.D. adopting a similar approach in the aftermath of the Battle of New York which took place in Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s intention at the beginning of the film is to successfully launch what they refer to as “Project: Insight,” a program which will utilize the massive information-gathering tools available to governments in the modern age to identify potential threats in advance of attacks and deploy a satellite-guided squadron of armed-to-the-teeth next-generation heli-carriers (so much for Stark Industries getting out of the weapons business) to neutralize them before they can do any damage.
Steve Rogers rails against this approach, reminding Nick Fury that preemption flies in the face of the cherished “innocent until proven guilty” facet of American jurisprudence. It is not that Rogers has qualms about making hard choices or even taking lives in the name of national defense. He is shown early in the film unrepentantly delivering vicious punishment to those who have raised arms against S.H.I.E.L.D. It is the lack of anything remotely resembling what the traditional view of justice which gives him great pause and places him in early opposition to Nick Fury. In an era where the NSA has been revealed to gather and store immense amounts of data from myriad sources about not only foreign threats but every citizen in America, his resistance reflects the growing public unrest over governments’ ability and willingness to monitor every aspect of their citizens’ lives.
Even before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this emphasis on the power of the surveillance state served as a driving theme within Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. From the first episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that organization’s gleeful willingness to leverage social media platforms and photo-sharing services as a means of gathering intelligence has struck a chord with viewers. This is not by accident. Those helming this monumental undertaking understand at a fundamental level the concerns of a global citizenry who are faced with cameras on every street corner, phones, and game systems which listen in on their users.
The heroes of the film place themselves in direct opposition to these seemingly irresistible forces. Once the identity of those pulling the strings is revealed (something which I won’t spoil in this column, but which is sure to be all the rage on conspiracy-theory message boards), Black Widow winds up taking on the role of a fictional stand-in for Edward Snowden. In a world where government agencies use people’s secrets to identify, target, track, and even eliminate them, perhaps the only defense is for the secrets of those agencies themselves to be made available for public consumption. If the proverbial watchmen are watching everyone, then the only real defense is for everyone to be responsible for watching those same watchmen.
If Captain America represents anything in this movie, it is the unwillingness of those who remember the legacy of the greatest generation to fail in remembering the immortal warning of Benjamin Franklin: “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”