There comes a time when one has watched so many superhero movies that it's hard to keep them straight. One can't confuse Superman and Batman, and Spiderman is pretty unique too, but when superheroes come in bunches - who's Night Owl? What does Cyclops do and which side is he on? What's Thor's superpower?
Captain America doesn't seem to have this problem: you know what side he's on (America's, duh!) and even more important, he does too. No angst or ambiguous protagonists when you're dealing with Cap!
Until, that is, his latest movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You know what he stands for, and so does he, but the question is - who stands with him?
As seems to have become standard in modern superhero flicks, things are not what they seem. If you don't want to find out, you'll have to finish reading this article after you've watched the movie.
Captain America works for SHIELD, which serves as a comic stand-in for America's combined military and intelligence infrastructure. His boss is Nick Fury, the equivalent of the head of the CIA. 'Ol Nick's the ultimate spook, with more layers of secrecy and compartmentalization than changes of underwear.
|Now that's more like it!|
Mr. Fury is presented as being as patriotic as Captain America himself, but with a different perspective on what exactly that means. Fury believes that our enemies are so strong and omnipresent that pretty much any method is justified in stopping them. Cap, on the other hand, believes that if America compromises its values, it's not America anymore and we won't have preserved ourselves at all.
This debate could hardly be more timely. The last year has been full of revelations about just how thoroughly the NSA is watching pretty much every aspect of our lives. What's more, the concern crosses traditional party lines: liberals are opposed to an all-powerful security apparatus and conservatives are deeply worried at the government spying on them as well.
In the movie world, the NSA-equivalent has gone one further: they've tied their omniscient surveillance network into a smart computer program that can identify everyone who is a threat. SHIELD is planning to deploy a fleet of airborne "helicarriers" that can rain down death from above onto anyone so fingered. Basically, it's Obama's drone program on steroids, and covering America too.
The idea of squishing terrorists from afar has an obvious appeal, but any moviegoer will instantly identify the fundamental problem: who decides what constitutes a threat? Having seen what happened with the Obama administration's drone program, Skynet, Robocop, the computer from WarGames, and too many more to list, it doesn't take a genius to foresee the end result.
Sure enough: SHIELD has been infiltrated by neo-Nazis who plan to use the technology to eliminate anyone who doesn't agree with them.
No doubt the far-lefties of Hollywood had generic Republicans and conservatives in mind when creating the movie villains. However, this wasn't translated to the screen: the lead baddie is a high-ranking bureaucrat who apparently heads the State Department, about the last place in the world you'd ever find anyone remotely conservative.
Indeed, it's all too easy to imagine our real-life bureaucrats applying his same logic, for it's the same logic used by leftists and statists since the 1960s. We know what's best, and if you disagree with us, you're too stupid to matter. Getting rid of you is good for society.
Which makes Captain America's position all the more intriguing: In an easily-overlooked exposition scene with Nick Fury, Mr. Fury agrees that SHIELD has been compromised and plans to purify it of the neo-Nazis. Cap says that's not good enough: SHIELD itself is the problem.
In other words: Captain America understands the fear our Founding Fathers' fear of an all-powerful government. They tried to set up checks and balances and our Constitution, for the express purpose of preventing government from ever having the kind of powers SHIELD amassed. To them, it wasn't a matter of just picking good people to run the show - no human being was good enough to be trusted with that kind of power, so that much power had to be prevented entirely.
By the end of the movie, events persuade Fury that Cap was right, and he assists in destroying the organization he's spent his life building.
To reach that point, Captain America has a difficult task: persuade a whole lot of people who are committed to defending their country that they've actually been dedicating their lives to destroying it. Fortunately... he's Captain America! So when he takes over the SHIELD PA system and explains the truth, everyone except the hardcore baddies is instantly converted.
It helps that what the baddies are trying to do is self-evidently evil: their master targeting screen clearly denotes millions of human targets who will be eliminated, from the current President on down. In the real world evil is not usually so obvious.
But the movie does raise an important question: at what point can honorable government workers - soldiers, policemen, bureaucrats - be expected to say, "Wait a minute, this is wrong. I'm not doing this. In fact, I'm switching sides"?
History suggests that this happens rarely. How many German officials seriously opposed the Nazis? A handful, but only at the end of the war, when they could see that Hitler was losing.
A current debate over the involvement of French railways with the Holocaust makes the point even more plainly. Yes, the Nazis had conquered France. Yes, the Vichy puppet government was under the thumb of the German occupying authorities.
But when the quasi-private railway company SNCF was ordered to transport the Jews to Auschwitz, they did so with nary a peep. They weren't ordered by the Germans to use cattle-cars instead of passenger cars - they did that on their own. The executives, civilians, and all but one of the engineers working on the railroad just followed the paperwork and hauled France's Jews to their deaths.
Not one single German soldier put in an appearance and just that one single French railwayman declined to participate. He received a mild reprimand and lost not even one day of work - he paid no price whatsoever for his moral stand! Yet nobody else wanted to stand with him even in the smallest way.
In the real world, can we reasonably expect that someday a majority of government employees will suddenly be converted to conservative libertarianism and start sabotaging the apparatus of their employer to which they've dedicated their careers? Well, if Captain America shows up and pleads with them to do so, then maybe.
Otherwise, no. But the fact that Hollywood is, on some level, predicting that such an upheaval will be required is interesting indeed.
Over the past five years, the editors have been secretly working on a book that summarizes the fundamental viewpoints of Scragged.