We can add Captain America: The Winter Soldier to the list of recent blockbuster films containing themes that are critical of America’s growing police state and war on terror. Other major films like Oblivion, Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, and Star Trek: Into Darkness have all recently taken shots at these important issues, but none have packed quite the patriotic punch that Marvel’s symbolic fascism fighter has delivered in this new sequel.
Jammed inside the 2 hour and 16 minute superhero flick, you will find a full range of important, timely, and often taboo political topics covered within a political conspiracy/spy thriller framework. Among the issues covered in the film are: drone warfare, pre-crime law enforcement technology, Obama’s targeted kill list, state secrets whistleblowers, mind-controlled government assassins, NSA-style surveillance, the U.S. government’s Operation Paperclip, and the proposition of sacrificing liberty for the promise of security. The politically potent film also affirms the impact that the counter-culture of “conspiracy theory” has had on the mainstream, with the plot centered around a rogue network within the government, secretly orchestrating world events to achieve a long-term agenda for a totalitarian New World Order.
This isn’t just my creative, interpretive analysis of the film either. The film’s directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, stated that in order to make a good political thriller, they needed to make it relevant by covering the current issues that concerned them most. In an interview with Mother Jones, co-director Joe Russo explained, “we just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined. And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president’s kill list, preemptive technology.”
The chronicles of Captain America have been incorporated with real-world events and politics since the comic’s creation in 1941, when the hero dutifully fought Nazis for the US government during World War II. Just as the character captured what many thought to be a patriotic ideal at the time, this new film mirrors modern America, as it depicts the superhero awakening to a more sophisticated conception of patriotism in the face of a monumental corruption of power. (Spoilers ahead)
We find Steve Rogers aka Captain America questioning authority early on in the film when he realizes he was kept in the dark on a rescue mission he was assigned to lead for the CIA-like intelligence agency SHIELD.
After the mission, which turned out to be a cover for an embedded covert operation to retrieve data, Rogers (Chris Evans) confronts SHIELD’s director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and challenges the deceptive practices he uses to achieve hidden objectives. Fury tells Rogers, “it’s called compartmentalization. Nobody spills the secrets because nobody knows them all.” “Except you,” Rogers returns.
Fury then briefs Rogers on a secret program that embodies a wide assortment of today’s hot button subjects, like pre-crime law enforcement, drone warfare, Obama’s secret drone kill list, drone spying and other mass data collection and surveillance programs. It’s called Project Insight, and it’s essentially a system of interlinked mega drones that collect and analyze the population’s private information in order to designate people as future threats and preventively kill them. Fury informs Rogers that the drones “can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole,” and that the plan is to, “neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.”
Rogers again expresses his dissent, telling Fury, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” He then accuses him of “holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.” “This isn’t freedom. This is fear,” Rogers remarks. Fury tells him it’s past time to get with the program, to which Rogers responds, “don’t hold your breath” as he walks away.
Already holding his own suspicions of Project Insight, Fury tries to delay the program only to find himself targeted by his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) a former American State Department official. Pierce heads an organization similar to the UN called the World Security Council, which oversees SHIELD and therefore Project Insight. Pierce’s character emerges as the main supervillain of the film, as he first sends a mind–controlled assassin (the Winter Soldier) to kill Fury, then attempts to immobilize Captain America as well, in order to protect Insight and his broader agenda.
Rogers, now designated by Pierce as a fugitive from the government, is forced to fight the very system he worked for, as he and fellow SHIELD member, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) battle the Winter Soldier and the SWAT-style counter terrorism teams working for the compromised SHIELD agency.
Rogers and Romanoff soon discover the deeper plot inside an old, hidden SHIELD bunker containing a huge system of computer databanks. By activating the system, they awaken a former Nazi scientist Dr. Arnim Zola, who had uploaded his consciousness into the computers as a way to avoid death (an idea explored by some of today’s futurists like Ray Kurzweil.) While attempting to stall Rogers, Zola explains that the fascist, Nazi-affiliated, secret society Hydra, has infiltrated SHIELD since its inception after WWII. Rogers learns how SHIELD recruited top Nazi scientists after the war during “Operation Paperclip,” in a plot point keenly modeling the real life project of the same name.
Zola states that, “Hydra was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom,” but from the war they learned that to avoid mass resistance, “humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly.” To illustrate Hydra’s political manipulation through history, Zola shows Rogers a video montage of world events that includes assassinations of influential figures, as he states, “for seventy years hydra has been secretly feeding crisis, reaping war. And when history did not cooperate, history was changed.”
Captain America angrily slams his fist through the computer display when Zola claims victory, telling Rogers, “Hydra created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, Hydra’s New World Order will arise.”
Zola also revealed that he created an algorithm for Insight, which is later revealed to be a program that can sift through the personal data collected by the mega drones and select targets for assassination by determining who poses a threat to Hydra and their agenda for world control, rather than targeting actual terrorists posing a threat to humanity. As it turns out, the algorithm-derived targeted kill list features Captain America along with other superheros, American political figures, and what seem to be regular American citizens. This is comparable to how the war on terror is used by the power structure to protect itself from those who threaten it, not to protect the citizens from terrorists as it was promoted.
In the end, they shut down Project Insight before it’s fully activated, Fury is forced to kill Pierce, and Rogers moves to dismantle SHIELD altogether. In another scene reflecting aspects of real life politics, Romanoff plays the role of a whistleblower who attempts to publicly expose the corrupt SHIELD by accessing the organization’s internal files and posting the information online for the world to see. She later faces a Senate subcommittee over the matter, which questions whether or not she is the criminal who should be imprisoned. In reality, whistleblowers have faced this kind of treatment for a long time, and despite Obama’s early promises, his administration has been been particularly harsh on them.
It must be worrisome for the establishment to see blockbuster movies with themes coming straight out of the, “conspiricist underground.” Last year, Roberto Orci was criticized for including 9/11 conspiracy themes in the Star Trek Into Darkness film. Slate columnist and former Think Progress writer, Alyssa Rosenberg, said that she was uncomfortable with the Star Trek film’s critique of the War on Terror because of, “Orci’s publicly-stated beliefs that the September 11 attacks were an inside job.” Orci had also made statements revealing skepticism of the Boston Marathon bombing on his Twitter account, but despite the complaints of those who are upset with the “conspiracy theorist’s” involvement in the film, Orci has recently been selected to direct Star Trek 3.
While the Star Trek film’s political themes may have been hard for some to make out, the themes in Captain America are much more overt, and far surpass Star Trek Into Darkness in the “conspiracy theory” department. The central theme of The Winter Soldier is that the dominant intelligence apparatus has been steered by fascist forces, acting as a rogue network within the government, attempting to establish an authoritarian world empire, which is promoted euphemistically under the term New World Order.
This works against the establishment’s efforts to portray these concepts as being representative of radical, mentally ill extremists who are dangerous and pose some kind of a threat. The Department of Justice released a terms and concepts guide in 2010 for “investigating terrorism and criminal extremism,” warning about the phrase “New World Order” being “used by conspiracy theorists.”
National Post journalist Jonathan Kay, tried to tie New World Order conspiracies to unstable thinking and anti-semitism in his book, Among The Truthers, while the Southern Poverty Law Center attempts to connect extremists and “hate groups” to New World Order conspiracy theorizing.
These efforts haven’t seemed to hurt the films success, financially or critically. Rotten Tomatoes rates The Winter Soldier at an 89%, and Box Office Mojo puts the film at 85 on the list of all–time box office domestic grosses, beating out hits like Toy Story 2, Cars, and Ghostbusters, with a lifetime gross of $247,879,000. Most reviewers seem to appreciate the political messages with few complaints about conspiracy theories, although some just skipped over the themes, making very few connections at all. Slate’s movie critic, Dana Stevens, seemed more impressed with Scarlett Johansson than anything else. She said during a podcast review of the film that she was not clear what Captain America was fighting for, “except survival of SHIELD” and the “safety of their own organization,” although he is clearly fighting the organization and eventually shuts it down.
The film is well worth seeing, even if you aren’t typically a fan of superhero movies. It’s just as much of a political thriller as a superhero flick. Rather than wearing a spandex costume and possessing superpowers, the archvillain comes dressed in a suit and tie, disguised as a peace promoting, respectable politician, while wielding the machinery of the military industrial complex. A figure who snubbed a Nobel Peace Prize claiming, “peace wasn’t an achievement, it was a responsibility,” but who wants to “bring order to the lives of seven billion people by sacrificing twenty million.”
It is exciting that a very symbolic and mainstream franchise is carrying such a heavy political load in the direction of true freedom and liberty, as it juxtaposes the modern U.S. national security state with Nazi Germany through a narrative that has the two systems coming from the same source. The messages of the film point neither toward the political left nor right, and instead easily reach out to dissenters from multiple orientations having common concerns about the degradation of civil liberties and abuse of power. Rather than serving as a tool of state propaganda by fighting foes from the list of Washington’s contrived enemies in the real world, Captain America is instead fighting fascism where it poses its greatest threat; here at home.
You can read more from Lucas Bowser at his site Victory Post, where this article first appeared.