Mass surveillance, drone warfare and a government conspiracy animate the Star-Spangled Avenger’s latest film outing, a modern take on Steve Englehart’s seminal Cap tale from the 1970s. (Contains mild spoilers)
“The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”
Those are the words of Joe Simon, who, along with Jack Kirby, wrote and drew the first Captain America comic story in 1941, a year before the Pearl Harbor bombings would spur the U.S. to war. Simon and Kirby, New Yorkers from working class Jewish families, birthed a red, white and blue dynamo that was parachuting behind enemy lines to cold-cock the Fuhrer while the the rest of the country was still wringing its hands over joining the war in Europe. Cap inherited the courage and conviction of his creators, who continued to write and draw Captain America stories while receiving death threats from American Nazi-sympathizers (in 1939, there were enough of them to fill Madison Square Garden for a pro-Nazi rally).
In the early 70’s, Steve Englehart (honorably discharged from the US Army as a conscientious objector) would honor that legacy of brazen candor by authoring the seminal “Secret Empire”, echoing the events of Watergate:
“I was writing a man who believed in America’s highest ideals at a time when America’s President was a crook. I could not ignore that. And so, in the Marvel Universe, which so closely resembled our own, Cap followed a criminal conspiracy into the White House and saw the President commit suicide.”
“Secret Empire” ran through seven issues in 1974, telling the story of Captain America investigating a plot to manipulate the government that leads him to the White House and the President (Nixon isn’t mentioned explicitly). Ending with a disillusioned Steve Rogers hanging up his star-spangled pajamas, “Secret Empire” is considered the defining Captain America story. In the most resonant Cap stories, Steve Rogers wasn’t just defending status quo American exceptionalism, but actively holding America accountable to American ideals, often at the whim of activist creators making conscious political statements. ‘Winter Soldier’ co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (best known for the previous Cap movie and the Narnia films) ably continue the tradition, updating Englehart’s “Secret Empire” story for a generation no less fraught with uncertainty and disillusionment.
We learn during the 007-style opening action sequence that Steve Rogers is becoming increasingly at odds with his secretive missions and SHIELD’s clandestine agenda. Authoritarian badass and SHIELD commander Nick Fury defends his actions predictably: “freedom” and “transparency” are luxuries enjoyed by denizens of a much safer world, relics of Cap’s bygone past. Things escalate quickly when an assassination attempt on Fury reveals a conspiracy to use SHIELD’s newly-launched “Insight” program, a security initiative involving a network of sub-orbital drones capable of targeting anyone on earth, to establish a new world order. The movie’s big plot twist is an overt reference to the real-life Operation Paperclip, an OSS initiative to swoop in and secretly recruit Nazi scientists while the Victory Day ticker tape was still falling.
The titular “Winter Soldier” is the only name given to a mysterious assassin, “a ghost story”, who has “intervened” from time-to-time since WWII to ensure history plays out to his masters’ dystopian design. The result of a mash-up of Boba Fett’s mystique, Jason Bourne’s moves and Jared Leto’s dreaminess, he’s one of the coolest big-screen villains we’ve seen in awhile. (Fun fact: The character shares a name with the little-known Winter Soldier Investigations, an event sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 70s to publicized atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. When author Ed Brubaker created the character in 2005, he was aware of the event but had borrowed the name from a much earlier Thomas Payne reference).
Under directors Joe and Anthony Russo (The TV sitcom Community is probably their best known work) ‘Winter Soldier’ plays out like out like the lovechild of a Borne-esque espionage thriller and a Raimi superhero romp, with plenty of parkour, Krav Maga, and winged jetpacks to go around. The action in Cap 2 is rib-crackingly real, feeling like it belongs in a Tony Jaa movie rather than an effects-heavy superhero blockbuster. The result is that you’re still engaged by the third act instead of yawning through another CG fight scene. Chris Evans leads a round of solid performances (including the unexpectedly enjoyable Robert Redford) pulling off a yester-yearly kind of earnestness and charm that evades corniness. Perhaps I even imagined a little bit of wistful self-reflection on the Greatest Generation in his performance. “You saved the world,” consoles Peggy Carter, Steve Roger’s best gal, now a grandmother. “We mucked it up.” Captain America punched out the most evil empire on Earth and woke up 60 years later to drones, torture and another depression. Cap helped America win the 20th Century, but somehow the American Dream was lost in the process.
Indeed, the most profound aspect of ‘Winter Soldier’ may be its tacit acknowledgement of the current state of the world as one marked by increasing political, economic, and perhaps most imminently, environmental instability. “The world is at a tipping point!” the monstrous Arnim Zola cackles gleefully. Amidst this storm of chaos, Captain America is a moral lightning rod; a sane voice in a world seemingly gone mad. Our hero doesn’t hesitate to condemn SHIELD’s paranoid militarism for what it is: “This isn’t freedom,” Cap says with square-jawed sureness. “This is fear”. Made up by two Jewish kids to sock Hitler, Cap is our righteous indignation made manifest, but possessing both the courage to speak the truth and the power to be heard. It’s easy to see the appeal.
When Cap finally blows the whistle on the secret plot, he asks average citizens to do what they can to help prevent the launch of the Insight drones. Ultimately, the acts of regular, everyday people — like a technician who refuses to start the launch sequence while threatened at gun point — help save the day (and really, hasn’t that always been the case?). ‘Winter Soldier’ is a worthy entry in the library of relevant, conscious and fun Captain America tales.