Not just another Hollywood blockbuster, Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees Marvel switch on politically.
The superhero genre is now a staple part of the annual blockbuster season. What was once a genre relegated to the cheap Saturday morning television slot is now big business. There’s such confidence in the genre that the studios appear to be pumping much into the vastly unknown Guardians of the Galaxy – outside of comic book stores and forums, they’re not quasi-household names like Iron Man and Captain America – which could be a game-changer for the genre. But Marvel Studios knows it must remain innovative to prevent stagnation and, more importantly, from becoming a box office failure. In so doing, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has Marvel attempt its most politically challenging film to date.
There is a pessimistic question lingering over much of The Winter Soldier for our heroes: What are we fighting for?
When viewing the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, it’s easy to pigeonhole them as bombastic, Hollywood mega-blockbuster action flicks, for those prior to The Winter Soldier have been simply that. There have been questionable political influences, i.e. setting The Avengers Assemble in New York could have 9/11 connotations (as we see a united front do battle against an external threat), but this could easily be a hyperbolic analogy. The point I’m making is that The Winter Solider has Marvel politically challenging the world around it, and in so doing there is a pessimistic question lingering over much of the film for our heroes: What are we fighting for?
The main villain may shock fans, for it is not The Winter Solider, but Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, senior member of S.H.I.E.L.D. and member of the World Security Council. His objective is to use a mass surveillance device via the Helicarriers to detect and eliminate potential criminals. This device will kill 20 million people in an act of pre-crime prevention – think of the plot of Minority Report on a mass scale. This device has hacked into people’s personal profiles via their emails, social networking profiles and any other online databases, and has used this algorithm to form an act of “protection”, as Pierce likes to call it.
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This Big Brother plot of hacking into people’s databases to pre-emptively calculate their future actions and decide their fate sounds familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the news lately; it has similarities to Edward Snowden’s PRISM unveiling, for one. It’s a governing body gathering information about its citizens and potentially using this information against the citizens. Now, regardless of where your views lie on the Snowden case, it’s important to note such an analogy is reflected in a PG-13 Captain America movie. This is most important – it shows Marvel wants to elevate itself above the action superhero fare its prior films have been.
Furthermore, The Winter Soldier reflects another controversial moment in recent history: that of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks leaking the Afghan War logs/documents. Nick Fury hands Captain America a USB containing secret information about HYDRA operating secretly within S.H.I.E.L.D. to bring about the mass surveillance scheme. Through this they are marked as fugitives to the organisation and are consequently hunted down, along with Natasha Romanoff. The film ends with Romanoff before a senate, arguing who the real criminals are – is it those revealing the documents or those who committed the acts detailed within the documents?
The Winter Soldier makes political observations because these concerns are widespread in the public consciousness
These issues have become easily intertwined with the plot not because of a far-out attempt to make an intelligent political observation or to make the film intellectually challenging, but because these concerns, fears and issues are widespread in the public consciousness. The issue of public vs private space and governmental intervention is paranoia as seen in 70s thrillers – Robert Redford’s casting makes this distinct reference – but now it’s an issue to be found in blockbuster films. That is both bold and worrying; bold for Marvel to bring up such a debate and worrying that it’s now such a common issue.
The Winter Soldier ends on Captain America, Romanoff and Fury questioning their objectives, on a pessimistic cliff-hanger. It takes a dark turn, as the traditional Captain America views the cynicism of the post-modern world he’s been assigned to protect, only to understand the organisation that was to support justice has been corrupted at its core. Captain America: The Winter Solider has the bombastic action set pieces and humorous exchanges as found in other Marvel Studio films, but coursing through it is a strong political theme that should make you sit up and take notice.
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All images: Marvel