CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

by Max Sparber in


Captain American, the spangled, square-jawed, patriotic superhero that is the eponymous lead of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” began with moral repulsion.

The character's creators were Jewish. There was writer Joe Simon, nee Hymie Simon, whose father was an English tailor, a common profession for Jews in England. There was illustrator Jack Kirby, nee Kurtzberg, whose parents were Austrian Jews. And there was publisher Martin Goodman, nee Moses Goodman, the child of Lithuanian Jews.

When Joe Simon first conceived Captain America in 1941, it was in direct response to the rise of Naziism; one of the title’s most popular issues, lampooned in the first Captain America movie, had the hero belting Hitler on the jaw.

I mention this because “Winter Soldier,” aside from being a superlative action film, also seems a product of moral outrage. I can’t discuss this without disclosing some of the details of the film, so, be warned: Spoilers ahoy.

The script is by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also penned the first Captain America movie. That film was set in the midst of the Second World War and was very much the sort of thing that Simon, Kirby and Goodman had intended for their hero. Steve Rogers, the 90-pound weakling who would be genetically enhanced to become Captain America, was thoroughly square. He represented a sort of American ideal, in that he was physically imposing but morally uncompromised – all he really wanted was to be strong enough to take on a bully.

In these films, Rogers is played by Chris Evans, an actor previously known for playing against his essential gorgeousness with an admirable loopiness – he always seemed to be offering a lopsided grin and a comic wildness. Here, however, he was a man with a single, earnest goal, and that was to take down the enemy. He was put up against a twisted, occult army reaching for the technological sophistication to destroy the world, a group called HYDRA but existing as allies of and proxies for the Third Reich.

At the end of the first film, Captain America was left frozen in the ice, to be revived in modern times. This is a story that we usually reserve for caveman, and, once defrosted, Rogers is treated as a returned Cro-Magnon. The world of the Greatest Generation, which is looked back at with Rogers’ rejection of ambiguity, is treated as being far so removed from the modern world that it may as well have had men in caves painting bison on the walls.

In the modern world, the sort of world-destroying technology the Nazis sought have now become something any terrorist or rogue state could achieve. This leads to endlessly monitoring by an intelligence organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., which uses Captain America as a blunt weapon, throwing him into combat to mop up, but leaving him vague as to what, precisely, needs to be mopped.

The film gives Rogers a partner in the Black Widow, a former Russian intelligence officer with a long history of morally ambiguous wet work; one gets the sense that the trail of dead behind her is terrifyingly long, and that many among the dead were collateral damage. She’s played by Scarlett Johannsen, her third time in the role, and her most substantial. For much of “Winter Soldier,” she leads the action, Captain America trailing behin. She’s far more skilled at subterfuge and intelligence gathering than he is, and this is a film where those skills are essential.

As it turns out, S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised. A series of scenes, including a crackerjack assault on a heavily armored car, demonstrate that agents of HYDRA have slowly moved into leadership positions in the organization. They’ve been responsible for stovepiping bunk intelligence in order to undermine democracy, and their latest scheme is to send up giant, self-sufficient, flying killing machines to engage in a massive campaign of extralegal assassinations against anyone who might oppose them. They’ve made their list of enemy combatants by trawling emails and phone messages and then using that data to profile dissenters.

All this might sound familiar. There are echoes of the buildup to the Iraq war, the rise of the NSA-driven surveillance state, and even drone warfare in all this. The film proposes that our politicians and intelligence leaders are not acting in service of democracy, but instead are secretly in cahoots to protect their own interests, which are obscure and malevolent. The film even casts Robert Redford, himself a veteran of films about shadowy schemes, as the most shaded of the schemers. It’s as though we’re at the end of “Three Days of the Condor,” and Redford uncovers the conspiracy, and it wears his own toothy smile and perfect hair.

Throwing Captain America into this is a brilliant conceit. This is not a man with a lot of respect for moral ambiguity, and his spangled uniform doesn’t represent a blind allegiance for anyone who drapes themselves in the flag. Steve Rogers sees America as a force of morality, a corrective to bullying, whose correction comes as a punch in the jaw. And so, once he figures out what is going on (or, more properly, once the Black Widow figures it out), he does what he does best: He starts punching. It's just the American way, even when it involves punching other Americans.

The climactic, heroic scheme involves a massive data dump, by the way. At the end of the film, our heroes have become a sort of mixture of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, attacking governmental corruption by forcing radical transparency on them. Captain America’s version involves dogfights over Washington DC, a man with mechanical condor wings, and a battle against an old friend on a burning helicopter the size of a battleship, but the goal is the same. Captain America’s task in this film is the same as it was in the previous "Captain America" movie, to smash corruption and destroy corrupt institutions, and it put him in surprising company, as he’s the living embodiment of a phrase authored by anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin:

The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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