Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the politics of Marvel’s cinematic universe

This piece is intended to be read after watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier and features a number of spoilers for the film. Only read on if you have seen the film or don’t mind being heavily spoiled.

There is a big reveal part way through Captain America: The Winter Soldier that carries radical implications for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the spin-off Agents of SHIELD television series. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), whose consciousness now lives on in the memory of a computer system, reveals to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) that SHIELD has long since been infiltrated and is now under the control of the global fascist organisation, Hydra.

But while Hydra’s rot is eating SHIELD from their very core, this is not the full extent of their influence. We last saw Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) attempt to seize Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit from him in Iron Man 2, and he now returns in the Winter Soldier to be exposed as a secret member of Hydra. This reveal immediately brought to mind the many conspiracy theories that link organisations like the Skull and Bones society, The Bilderberg Group and even the Illuminati with the US government.

But it’s the corruption of SHIELD that garners the most attention. They have been cast as the Marvel Universe’s watchmen and can stand in for almost any political intelligence agency.

SHIELD’s unrestricted approach has never sat well with me, either on the big screen or small. There are many times in their television series, for instance, when I found myself disliking the ethical implications of their work, and I’d feel very much in favour of someone taking them down.

If there really was a government organisation acting in the manner of SHIELD, even if it might be for the supposed good of us all, would we really accept their actions? How comfortable would we be with even the idea of a very powerful secret service operating under very little regulation from the outside? Isn’t that how things slide towards totalitarianism and organisations begin overstepping their remit and carrying out atrocities?

To the good of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, these are exactly the questions Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins to address.

The real villain in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), the political figurehead of SHIELD and a personal friend of Nick Fury, and not The Winter Soldier, as the title and marketing would perhaps lead you to believe. Pierce is a fantastic representation of a shady, right wing political figure that terrifies lefties such as myself. He’s presentable, likeable and well connected but his motivations are secret and extreme, even to the point of endorsing mass genocide.

Pierce’s grand plan involves an algorithm that takes the idea of racial profiling to an incredible extreme. This system, which will select the millions of people to die under Pierce’s rule, seems to be a direct reference to the Holocaust, one of the great acts of evil that Captain America, whether he knew it or not, was fighting against during World War II.

The Hydra-Nazi association encourages this connection between this movie’s plot and the history of the holocaust, but more specifically, so does the use of a computer programme to implement the plan. Many believe that Dehomag and their punch card system was instrumental to the efficiency of the Nazis’ mass killings.

When we spoke to the film’s co-director Joe Russo, he appeared somewhat reluctant to address comparisons with the Holocaust directly, perhaps understandably. He appeared happier to express Hydra in purely fictional terms, telling us,

Part of the mythology is that Hydra came out of the Nazi’s science division. Some of what we work with just goes back to the mythology and the first film. In France they asked ‘Why is the terrorist French?” We’re just being faithful to the mythology.

But in being “faithful to the mythology” for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Joe and his co-director and brother Anthony Russo have also extended that mythology and shaped it in new ways. And these new ways are actually more about reflecting the modern world than they are about looking backwards. As Joe Russo went on to say,

When you’re making a political thriller, and this was inspired by 70s political thrillers, you want the issues in the film to effect the anxiety of the audience. That makes the film more immediate. So if the anxieties that Steve Rogers has are the ones that you have already, it makes you feel present in the film. It makes the film contemporary.

This was echoed by the film’s star, Chris Evans, too. He told us,

This plot is very relevant and applicable to what is going on right now. That’s only going to lend itself to when people walk out of theaters, they’ll have a far richer car ride home. I’m willing to take part in this debate. It is a debate, and it’s tough to pick a side because I don’t know all the information. I don’t know how hard it is to ensure the safety of a nation, I don’t know all of the threats that happen behind closed doors, and I don’t that when somebody tells me, “Trust me, it’s for your own good,” whether they’re full of shit or not. That’s what makes this such a hot button issue.

Nick Fury gets the job of explaining SHIELD’s future plans to Steve Rogers, who immediately reacts with, “This isn’t freedom. This fear.” One feels that Rogers could be just as easily speaking explicitly about many of America’s real recent and current policies, both at home and abroad. And these policies certainly influenced the film, explained Joe Russo.

We just started ripping things from the headlines and putting that stuff in the film. We would try to extrapolate real world concepts and put them in.

SHIELD’s plans appear to directly reference current concerns about drones and government surveillance, both in America and beyond. By positioning Captain America in opposition, the filmmakers are taking a stand, albeit in the name of drama, and despite what Evans was saying about not picking sides.

Captain America represents a powerful image of an absolute. He stands for a belief in absolute goodness, an uncomplicated ideal about what is right and wrong. That has always been his strength – and occasionally weakness – as a character, both on screen and in the comics. As the character of Erskine says to Captain Steve Rogers as he prepares to be transformed in Captain America: The First Avenger,

Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.

The idea of good battling evil is at the heart of the dramatic struggle in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, much as it was in The First Avenger, but what I found so interesting is that the ‘evil’ is found in the shade of the American government and their secret service, both of them presenting themselves as working for the common good.

But the film can’t be discounted as a paranoid, anti-establishment, far-left screed. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is much more nuanced and complex than that.

Co-director Anthony Russo told us,

When we were developing the film, our jumping off point for the political situation we’re exploring is that President Obama meets on Tuesday mornings and goes through his kill list. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a left wing thing, he’s a democratic president, obviously. It’s the kind of issue that crosses party lines.

Joe Russo added,

You know bi-partisan politics. They’re both going to find a way to make the movie their message.

And I’m sure they will. But whichever way you cut it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on some controversial and complex modern concerns in a way that very few blockbusters even dare to try.

At once a thrilling action picture, a thoroughly modern interpretation of an iconic superhero and a fiercely political thriller, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is almost certainly the best Marvel film to date and one that seems to signal an important shift in the hierarchies of their universe. It also represents a significant move towards a more global stage for the studio’s movies, and a future for their films that looks at the world not just how we want it to be but also how it is.