By Angelica Chong, 14A01B
Cover picture reproduced with permission
Halfway through writing the first draft of this review, I realized something: I didn’t really want to go over the same old narrative loopholes, or the sad state of action sequences in summer blockbusters that have reduced battles to demolition derbies. So instead of writing 1000 words on camera angles and the improbability that anyone believed Nick Fury was actually dead, I’m going to talk about Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and the unavoidably political dimensions of one of America’s most famous superheroes.
The important thing to remember is that Steve Rogers is not Captain America because Captain America is not a man; he is not even a just a hero. He is the embodiment of everything that the American psychology stands for*. In The Amazing Spiderman #537, Cap explains this in one of his most famous speeches:
“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — ‘No, you move.’”
*Or, more accurately, what it purports to stand for.
This premise is explored in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (CA: TWS). Cap, the beacon of American pride during WWII and a much-needed leader in the modern context of 2014, becomes a fugitive from the very nation he has sworn to defend – because he’s decided that SHIELD, who is supposed to protect the American people, is what they need protecting from. As he puts it in the movie, SHIELD’s Project Insight, which shows their inclination for liberation through pre-emptive annihilation, is “not freedom; it’s fear.”
CA: TWS attempts to critique the American system itself as inherently wrong, through both the toxic growth of HYDRA the organization in SHIELD, and Cap’s condemnations of SHIELD’s founding policies all the way back to Operation Paperclip. It is clear that SHIELD has been complicit from the start: HYDRA managed to commit international atrocities because they recognized that SHIELD was a fellow monster, and that the value systems and structures of SHIELD not just allowed for infiltration, but cultivation. HYDRA is not embodied by Red Skull and Nazi Germany; it is not an organization restricted by time, place, or the weight of history; it is an ideology, and it found its home in SHIELD for a reason. HYDRA didn’t turn the system rotten; it always was. It is important to note that Fury, categorically a Good Guy, was perfectly okay with the idea of the helicarriers in the air, before he ever found out about HYDRA’s plans for it. Both Pierce and Fury express variations to the same theme: that the price of freedom is high, and they are both one of few who are willing to pay it. The irony of these parallel proclamations is, of course, that while one genuinely believes in the use of America’s intrusive and all-encompassing warfare to ‘protect’ the world, so does the other. It’s just that one is willing to kill about 7 million more people to do it. Who is who? It’s more than a perfunctory observation about the realities of America’s preventative warfare and questionable military engagements. CA:TWS rends the dichotomy between the bright manifest righteousness of America’s foreign policy and its innumerable shadowy antagonists because there is none. It’s a damning proclamation to make of a country that has been able to justify their actions because, hey, they’re always the good guys, right?
Except no, they’re not. This is where the Winter Soldier comes in. Captain America as Steve Rogers’ persona is the moral psyche of America; as SHIELD’s patriot, he is the controlled face of propaganda. The Winter Soldier is one thing: the long dark shadow of Cap’s palatably sunshine love of his nation and its people. He is not a person; look at the mechanization of his body, and the complete erasure of personhood and agency, and we can see that he is a weapon, literally. Both Cap and the Winter Soldier are parallel facets of America’s freedom and national security, except the latter is Cap’s ugly, hidden brother: the one who is used to dealing death unflinchingly, until there is nothing left but collateral damage and a body-count. He is used in the name of the greater good, to “shape the century”, but there is nothing good about what he does.
Symbolically, the Winter Soldier is a construct just like Captain America. They are inextricable aspects of warfare: the smiling hero and his metal red right hand. Captain America cannot exist without the Winter Soldier, because someone needs to get their heads dirty, and it can’t be the nation’s blond poster-boy. When Cap looks into a mirror, he sees not himself, the shining beacon of everything that is good and noble in the world, but the quiet dirty blood-stained machinations of the Winter Soldier behind the scenes, doing what Cap will not – and cannot – do. In CA: TWS, Steve finally understands that there is no such thing as evil neo-Nazis secretly taking over SHIELD; the bad guys have always been at home.
But behind the domino mask and the metal arm, and the decades of memory-wiping and ice, there is a man. And herein lies the greatest tragedy of the movie: the dissolution of Bucky Barnes. Narratively, his tragedy is a personal one, for both himself and Steve, his best friend; politically, it speaks of the twisted compromises that we have made in the name of protecting ourselves, and the corruption of people into living weapons at the cost of their – and our – humanity. The Winter Soldier’s only legitimate character arc occurs in the final act of the movie, when he says of Steve, wonderingly, “I knew him.” Probably the first original thoughts he’s had since he’d been cryogenically frozen again and again, they represent a tension, between the man who used to be Bucky Barnes and the killing machine in front of us, that is palpable. The ghost of the man in the machine breaks through the Pavlovian conditioning of his masters – because make no mistake of it, the Winter Soldier is not an employee but a dog – when Steve drops his shield and refuses to fight his friend. Because no matter how much you try to systemize and weaponize a human being, at the end of the day, he is still a human being. And the Winter Soldier’s black-and-white reality of kill orders and terminated targets warps and buckles under the weight of choice that Captain America, the man and the mission, gives him. The last we see of the Winter Soldier (before the post-credits scene anyway) is of him dumping Steve unceremoniously onto the Potomac river bank. He rejects his mission outright because he felt something other than numbness – but this is hardly cathartic for the characters or the audience; Bucky Barnes isn’t back, and is likely never to be – but the important thing here is that the Winter Soldier, for the first time in his existence, has exercised free will. He chose to let Steve fall; he also chose to save him.
CA: TWS is clearly a political movie that tries to go beyond your typical Good vs. Evil plot to explore the surface benevolence/back-alley-terror duality of war. But maybe it’s just because I’m always more invested in the characters than anything else, because the relationship between Steve and Bucky is, to me, the true heart of the movie. While it is awful to think about brainwashed assassins and the complete breakdown of a nation’s security from within, on the helicarrier at the end, during the film’s narrative and emotional climax, it’s not about SHIELD vs. HYDRA or Captain America facing the Winter Soldier. It’s about Steve and Bucky, two boys from Brooklyn, who, despite lost decades and the red in their ledgers, still have each other, till the end of the line.
This is a bit of a side-track, but interestingly enough, Ed Brubaker, the author who wrote the original Winter Soldier comic arc, chose that name because of the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, where the Vietnam Veterans Against War (VVAW) organized a media event to get discharged servicemen to discuss the acts of savagery they had seen and committed during their time in the war. The hope was to bring these tragedies, which were often swept under the rug, before the public eye. Specifically, it was to prove that incidents like the My Lai massacre of 1968 were not isolated and rare occurrences, but were instead the frequent and predictable result of official American war policy. When future Secretary of State John Kerry spoke before a Senate Committee, he explained:
“We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.”
However, the term ‘winter soldier’ itself is derived from Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, The Crisis, which was written during the American Civil War:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
The implication being that the winter soldier is one who does right by his country even in the face of personal cost, or divergence from those who are supposed to be guardians of the state. Ironically, according to Paine, the real winter soldier is Captain America.