Captain America is back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While the previous film, Captain America: The First Avenger, was simplistic to the point that it ignored obvious questions about the ethics of creating a supersoldier, the sequel dares to engage with a political subject but pulls its punches just when it gets interesting.
In the film, SHIELD, a supranational organisation tasked with protecting the world from extraordinary threats, is on the verge of launching an ambitious program called “Project Insight” that will enable it to eliminate threats pre-emptively, anywhere in the world. Heavily armed floating weapons platforms, combined with global satellite targeting and a digital algorithm that predicts where threats will emerge, will grant SHIELD almost unlimited knowledge and power.
The head of SHIELD, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), explains convincingly that in a world of superheroes and super villains, the stakes are so high that SHIELD must take extreme measures to guarantee global security.
Captain America (Chris Evans) sees things differently. His priority is to defend freedom. While he knows better than most how dangerous the world has become, he will not sacrifice the world’s freedom for the sake of making his battles easier.
Having angered his masters at SHIELD, Captain America goes on the run and tries to expose the dangers of SHIELD’s surveillance and weapons program. So far, so interesting. Here’s a Marvel superhero film that’s finally willing to engage with a real-world political debate on the balance between security and freedom. And at first glance, it appears to be brave enough to take a firm stance on the importance of freedom.
Unfortunately, the film insists on undermining itself. The nature of the villains and the heroes weakens its point dramatically, so it fails to make a knock-out blow as a political thriller.
Halfway through the film, we discover the real reason why SHIELD is pursuing Project Insight. SHIELD has been infiltrated, from top-to-bottom, by an evil organisation bent on world domination. Suddenly, the people who prioritise security over freedom aren’t heroes and patriots with a certain set of values, they are black-masked villains driven by evil. It’s very easy to say that evil people shouldn’t have access to ultimate knowledge and power, but what about people with good intentions?
By revealing one side of the debate to be so cartoonishly shallow, the film pulls the rug from under itself. The opportunity to engage intelligently with a real issue is gone, and instead we’re left with a pantomime of black-and-white, or in this case red-white-and-blue.
When one side can be convincingly labelled as “evil”, we stop asking questions. What makes this worse is that we stop asking questions of our heroes as well. Captain America, like most superheroes, wields considerable power. Some superheroes, like X-Men’s Professor Xavier, have the power to read people’s thoughts and control their minds. Knowledge and power, when in the hands of evil villains, is clearly wrong. But our favourite superheroes wield knowledge and power all the time, and we’re fine with it.
What a waste, this film is. Cartoonish villainy robbed us of the chance to deal intelligently with an important debate over some of our most fundamental values. But it also stole from us the opportunity to examine our superheroes and consider whether holding so much knowledge and power is wrong in principle, whoever you are, or whether it only matters if you’re a goodie or a baddie.