Captain America: The Winter Soldier—The Most Subversive Big Budget Film of 2014 so Far (Spoilers included, obviously)

At the beginning of the final act in the recent *Captain America: The Winter Soldier,* the titular Captain wrangles control of an intercom system at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters after he’s had to fight, along with his platoon of exiles, against the entire security apparatus his early efforts built, and for whom he was continuing to begrudgingly serve as he acclimated to modernity. Knowing that he and the few other superheroes couldn’t possibly take on the thousands of people unwittingly operating in the service of a HYDRA driven S.H.I.E.L.D. (an uncompromising metaphor for hyper-Nazism infused into the ideological framework of the N.S.A.), the Captain issues a proclamation to all who can hear. At the critical moment where S.H.I.E.L.D. is about to unleash mega drones capable of wiping out every citizen who poses a threat to HYDRA’s vision of authoritarian order, Captain America places himself into the conversation as the ideological line-in-the-sand. Its brilliance is in its simplicity, and says that the whole of the apparatus has been compromised by authoritarian ideology, and you’ll know who “the bad guys” are simply by who wants to continue with the launch. The good guys will have to just trust in Captain America and *make a choice* whether or not to oppose, fall in line, or stand on the sidelines with the cowards and maintain a position of neutrality. The characters he’s addressing are explicitly part of the program and, by their choices and presence in the building, they *have* to make one of these choices.


[In a recent interview about how America was duped by Donald Rumsfeld into going to war in Iraq, Errol Morris suggested that Americans were simply too gullible to have seen through the PR smokescreen of Rumsfeld’s “unknown known,” response to direct questions about evidence of WMD’s.]( But I don’t think that’s entirely true because, not only did half of the population recoil in disgust at the blatant marketing of the Iraq War, but we were *constantly* barraged by a proliferating PR campaign that had been going on for decades and finally exploded in the years after 9-11. What Americans heard were a series of brash denials and bold lies, and the only way to have contextualized them properly would have been to take an equally bold intellectual stance, and make the suggestion that *our government,* the one we thought we controlled, the one we thought stood for freedom and democracy, was actually outfitting itself as a burgeoning authoritarian imperialist power predicated on values we thought had been extinguished during WWII.


But that moment never came, exactly. [Consider that, of the top ten grossing films of all time, nine have been made since 9-11, and eight of those feature a white male savior of the world.]( It’s as though the country, and the world, fetishistically rallied around the idea of a Western white male at war with a variety of external threats to the order they represented. Some flirted with the idea that the right path actually looked a lot more self-critical (Iron Man 3), but nevertheless featured agents in the service of the state or the military industrial complex, struggling to determine the best course of action in a world ravaged by super evil “others.” As a set of signifiers illustrating the “sides” of good versus evil, the good guys can always be shown to actually uphold a particular order of the sign that ultimately celebrates order and hegemony. *The Winter Soldier,* as a filmic signifier, aims to destroy the apparatus of that order, and the “Captain’s Orders” speech in the S.HI.E.L.D compound operates as a rallying cry against the symbolic order of authoritarian militarism itself. Captain America, then, makes himself an ultimately subversive signifier against which his audience (diagetically, in the building he’s infiltrated, and extra-diagetically, in the theatre where the film is showing) can compare the ideology they knowingly or unknowingly serve. It’s a bombshell in an ongoing war of ideologies that plays out wholly in the minds of individuals—a war that ultimately precedes actions like military service, voting, and civil movements, but also critical engagement with the authority we help build and sustain. Before there is a physical war or a physical rise of authoritarianism, there is [a war that takes place in the imagination](, and I don’t think, as Errol Morris suggested, that its entirely the result of gullibility that the Bush Administration managed to undermine democracy and critical engagement. And it wasn’t gullibility that provided the space for the NSA to grow as it has, but a lack of large-scale contextualization that allowed it to happen.


The subtitle: *The Winter Soldier,* refers not only to a soldier from WWII who had been mechanically enhanced and undergone EST to forget his past self and to perform assassinations over the past 70 years in the service of HYDRA, but refers specifically to [The Winter Soldier] ( movement by Vietnam Veterans who alleged and blew the whistle on atrocities they had committed in Vietnam *in the service of their country.* This was the movement that provided John Kerry his political starting point, and the one that Karl Rove’s think tank reconfigured as the act of cowards and traitors. That generation of soldiers, comprised mainly of conscripts and draftees, served from the same ideological standpoint of their “Greatest Generation” forebears, but discovered that the very idealism their fathers harbored was manipulated in the service of an act of imperialist aggression. The resulting culture wars left and entire generation in shambles and a country in a state of confusion about its own values. Since that time, the military-industrial apparatus that used the Vietnam War as a test case in its effectiveness to world-shape, has become so common and ubiquitous that the initial war of ideologies that took place in the 1960’s has become muted. The generation of soldiers who volunteered for the Iraq War, represented by Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/ The Falcon, are presently in the same position of self-interrogation, but without the context of the WWII generation, and in the shadow of the Vietnam War, they are individually left to reconcile themselves to the personal wounds they invisibly labor to carry.


Wilson is a PTSD counselor when he meets Captain America (as the civilian Steve Rodgers), and there is a moment when Rodgers, in speaking with Wilson, seems to consider leaving the military because he senses that it’s lost its way. But, the persistence of The Winter Soldier as assassin draws him back into the fray. After a fantastic fight scene on a freeway, Rodgers knocks the mask off of the Winter Soldier and they meet, without their masks and face to face, as the scrawny kid willing to give up his life for his country and his old heroic pal, Bucky. In a metaphorical way, Captain America becomes the archetypal counselor, the embodiment of a soldierly and patriotic ideal who not only cannot leave the archetypally fractured and manipulated P.O.W. of The Winter Soldier behind, but by necessity *has* to offer him an atonement for his historical position. The film operates then, as a high allegory of a fractured and wounded American identity saved by a return of the values it once embodied, at least in spirit. The stakes are the same as they have been since WWII, freedom against authoritarianism, balancing patriotic idealism against a hierarchy that may be corrupted somewhere high above the individual, and individual responsibility *at every level* to take care that the responsibility of freedom is passed along into the future. It’s the heroism of the whistle blower, the true believer, and the individual, who, instead of being gullible, might just need a hero around which they can rally to make their own individual choice. In a world that seems to be heading in exactly the direction the film suggests, Captain America becomes the *most* subversive film in a line of comic book adaptations, and one of the most subversives statement to be made in cinema since 9-11.


As viewers, we’re left to reconcile ourselves to the description of HYDRA’s algorithm that sifts through the data centers of the S.H.I.E.L.D. security apparatus. The algorithm, which takes into account contacts, online activity, movements, and the whole data footprint of individuals, determines the level of threat that each person presents to the hegemony of military order. It is [exactly the capacity the Defense Department]( has been developing for some time in the dark, until Edward Snowden blew the whistle. The Captain’s Orders then, transform the film, like the launch sequence of the super drones, an overarching shibboleth that suddenly strikes an arabesque around the occulted enemy. It responds to the Bush era adage that “you are either with us or against us” with the exact sentiment, but completely and finally (nearly 15 years later), returns it, like a grenade whose pin has already been pulled, back to its source. And the audience, faced with the conspiracy the film illustrates that we all know is there, is, one by one, forced to take a side.


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