Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Shield of Liberty: The Winter Soldier

By far the best of the modern Marvel movies to date, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a sharp, well-plotted political action thriller that neatly poses a question every citizen must answer: how much freedom are we willing to surrender in the name of security?

As the film opens, we discover that time-tossed World War II super-soldier Steve Rogers - AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) - is dividing his time between performing anti-terrorist operations for shadowy supra-government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and trying to catch up on the sixty or so years of popular culture he missed while in suspended animation. (There's a cute moment where we see a brief close-up of Steve's notebook, which includes a checklist of music, movies and television shows he should watch to bring himself into the 21st century.)

While a patriot, Steve is clearly uncomfortable with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s methods, which consist chiefly of universal surveillance and overwhelming firepower. His concerns mount when his boss, Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) informs him that a new generation of helicarriers (basically flying weapons platforms) will soon be deployed, and that these weapons are capable of wiping out every bad guy on earth in one fell swoop. In the real world, drone strikes kill indiscriminately at a distance without due process of law; the film takes this unhappy reality one step further, suggesting a holocaust by remote control.

Steve's misgivings - and, as it turns out, those of his boss - turn out to be well-founded, and soon Captain America and his allies the Falcon and the Black Widow are on the run, fugitives from their own employer. What follows is a well-paced cat-and-mouse chase full of surprising revelations and chilling betrayals, with not only millions of lives at stake, but the personal freedoms of everyone on Earth.

While this film, like the other Marvel movies, features generous helping of super-hero action, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far more grounded in real-life problems than its cinematic siblings. While previous films in the series dealt with mad scientists and alien invasions, The Winter Soldier presents us with villains cast in the mold of today's greatest threats to democracy - the very people we elected to serve us, who instead kowtow to the 1 percent and sacrifice the liberty of the masses to serve a few corporate masters.

That may sound a little cynical, but the past year's revelations of increasingly intrusive corporate and government surveillance of our lives makes this, along with climate change, one of the chief existential threats to civilization. Tellingly, the only politicians in The Winter Soldier turn out to be exactly as deserving of the distrust polls show we have for our elected officials.

Many storytellers fail to deliver on the initial promise of an intriguing premise, but in this case the film plays out exactly as it should, taking some impressive chances to deal with the logical fallout of its plot - fallout that can't help but have an impact on future Marvel movies (and especially the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television program).

In the end, Captain America and his friends save the day - for the moment. But it's a victory that demands its audience start thinking more seriously about what patriotism and freedom really mean. These are not American problems; it's a struggle that touches each and every one of us. The Winter Soldier is just a movie, but like the best popular culture, it raises an important issue and even serves as a call to action: don't let the powers that be cow you into a state of constant fear. Open your eyes and look for the real enemies. 

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