Captain America: The Civil Libertarians Strike Back

Posted on April 16, 2014 by

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Captain America Winter Soldier Movie ReviewMy relationship with comic book films is sort of like my relationship with science fiction novels–it’s complicated. There are some that rise to the level of art (The Dark Knight), while others are less than drivel (Iron Man 3). I find it hard to be truly a fan when the cycle swings so dramatically. In some ways, this is like every other genre, so it may seem unfair to pick on comic books. But, in another way, comic book films are especially momentous, with DC and Marvel exercising extreme influence over the current movie marketplace.

For me, comic book films are still films. They are NOT extensions of the comics themselves. Though I read a few issues as a kid, I never went through a comic book phase. I therefore do not evaluate the films based on their source material. I don’t care about their fidelity to this or that storyline or to the tone or nature of the books themselves. I am not denigrating comics, I just never really cared for them. I sort of went straight from the Hardy Boys into Stephen King, science fiction, and military history. (Yes, I know. It explains a lot.)

The rumination is only relevant due to the recent premier of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a political scientist who occasionally dabbles in writing about movies, Captain America is particularly interesting. He is, more than any other character, a symbol of his nation. He is essentially dressed in a flag every time he suits up, and his World War II origins closely tie him to what we subjectively perceive as our own goodness and decency. Though his shield remains his only consistent weapon (doesn’t that, in and of itself, reveal much?), he may as well shoot apple-pie slices out of a hot dog-shaped gun while humming the Star Spangled Banner. He is not only American, he is America. This makes him uniquely interesting as a symbol and it undergirds his character with a political necessity that cannot be ignored.

The film takes place in the Marvel Universe, where the Avengers recently saved New York City from invading aliens, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to life in the 21st Century. He carries a small notebook in which he jots down cultural touchstones to investigate later. We see scribbled within it both Star Wars and Star Trek, the Moon Landing, and Nirvana. At one character’s request, he adds Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man to one page (I would include Gaye’s version of the national anthem, but that is just me). This scene, which seems so incidental, reminds us of the old-fashioned values that Steve Rogers’ Captain America brings to the present, unadulterated by the things and events that changed our society. It is not just a matter of cultural literacy, but of perspective and first principles. Rogers represents a World War II conception of America apart from Korea, the Summer of Love, the deaths of Martin, Bobby, and John, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Cold War. He is a member of the “Greatest Generation” who looks like, and is expected to think like, and to have been shaped by, the experiences of all the generations in-between.

Besides Rogers, the characters include the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who gently tries to pull Rogers into the present romantically, Sam (Anthony Mackie), a fellow veteran who tries to counsel Rogers as he grapples with the scars of a war that has been over for seven decades, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the intelligence agency seeking to protect the globe from the recent threats, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison who is spear-heading a new initiative, and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the film’s most obvious, but not lone, antagonist. The characters interact in a complicated plot that cannot be adequately described without ruining the film for those yet to see it. Put simply, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new program, a trio of smart “helicarriers” linked to advanced spy satellites, is designed to target threats and potential threats and eliminate them before their plans come to fruition. The goal is to provide security in a dangerous world through detached, automatic technology. Captain America eventually grows suspicious of “Project Insight” and his conflicts with the Winter Soldier, a true rival to Rogers’ strength, agility, and speed, are enveloped by the transcendent plot. The action is impressive, but the film shines through actual character development. We get the sense that these people know, like, and influence one another.

It might be tempting to paint Captain America as a naif, as one whose old-fashioned “aw-shucks” conceptions are too simplistic to navigate a tangled skein of terrorism and technology. After all, the world is more complicated than in World War II, right? Thankfully, the film does not attempt to detach Rogers’ conceptions, but it redefines them in light of a new context. As Rogers confronts the technical apparatus that is Project Insight, he challenges the state’s seeming supreme value of security and argues instead for a riskier and more transparent freedom. In this way, the film strikes a civil libertarian tone by pushing against, without naming, the Patriot Act, drone kill lists, and N.S.A. data mining. At its heart, the film implicitly critiques a society that craves safety  so much that it willingly forfeits the joy of being left alone. It is a film built on the Fourth Amendment. Though the film’s “solutions” to the problems associated with the surveillance state are too pat, and carry their own significant risks, it challenges those in power–Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, Bush, and Obama–and in this way it conforms comfortably with its own comic book roots.

The film is far more political than any of the previous Marvel Universe offerings (Thor 1 and 2, Iron Man 1, 2, and 3, Captain America 1, The Avengers), and given its stance, it has been more divisive, even on the right. (WARNING: If you click on these links, you will see far more spoilers, so be warned.) John Nolte, a regular in the Breitbart complex of sites, and a cultural conservative in most ways, raves about the film and sees it as Hollywood finally aiming a salvo at Barack Obama’s poorly regulated drone strikes. Justin Amash (R-MI), a civil libertarian member of Congress who is campaigning against the security complex, is also smitten. Contrary views abound. Jonah Goldberg, the National Review stalwart, likes it as a film, but pans its politics as an unwillingness to confront hard realities, while John Podhoretz, writing for The Weekly Standard, sees it as leftist radicalism.

I actually like and respect all these people, at least as I have known them through their work and words. Pin me, the pygmy of this group, as one who sides with the civil libertarians. Government power and technological surveillance are necessary evils, but they must be assiduously overseen so that those who wield them are not abusive. I would, in general terms, prefer risky freedom to cosseted safety. I prefer to act on what has happened as opposed to what might happen. I prefer to fight the enemy as he reveals himself and not based on the presumption of where he might be. I know those things are naive in a world of terrorists who could explode a suitcase full of nuclear waste, and I understand we should use all reasonable means to prevent that from happening. That does not mean, though, that I am fine with my government surveilling me, even indirectly, when I place a call or send a text, or filming me when I walk down a public street, or flying drones around my neighborhood just to make sure nothing untoward is happening. We are wrestling with this tension and we will continue to do so. But while we wrestle, we, the people, should at least occasionally poke a finger in the government’s eye just to remind it of who, in the end, is in control. To the extent that Captain America: The Winter Soldier does this, it succeeds. I think it is the best of the Marvel comic book films and worth a few dollars and a bucket of popcorn.

FINAL GRADE: 2.5 out of 3 eggheads

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Posted in: Movie Review