By Christopher Binder (Lorton, Virginia, USA)
Politics and Racism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Warning: Spoilers Down Below
“Phase Two” of Walt Disney’s Marvel movie franchise has been decidedly hit and miss for me on a number of different personal levels (switching from film to digital beginning with the first Avengers movie would be a start), but none more so than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. What it implies both politically and (this extends back to “Phase One” as well) racially is nothing short of detestable.
After I first saw the film in theaters back in April, my first reactions were these: the first scene involving Rogers blazing past Wilson several times on a run and then standing over him, hands on his hips, ready for more while Wilson is out of breath is racist, and all the political conspiracy stuff is very supportive (annoyingly so) of Edward Snowden spilling the beans on the NSA. Looking back at a lot of Marvel movies, black characters are usually relegated to supportive, second fiddle roles to the main, white hero. James Rhodes as War Machine in the Iron Man series plays sidekick/second fiddle to the white hero.
Heimdall is relegated to supporting the white British guys in the Thor movies. Nick Fury has no choice but to hand over authority to Captain America to destroy SHIELD/HYDRA. That scene when the “cops” eye him in that giant car he’s driving when he says, “wanna see my lease?” doesn’t help much either. Even Djimon Hounsou in Guardians of the Galaxy, apparently the only black person in that galaxy, is an evil android lackey. I remember working in a movie theater back when the first Thor came out and all that my Black and Latino friends there could talk about was how awesome Heimdall was when all he really did was kill a couple frost giants after breaking free of the ice Loki had trapped him in. It was like Thor wasn’t even in the movie to them. I guess this really shouldn’t surprise me given how far back this sort of thing goes (The Green Hornet TV show comes to mind), but it also disappoints me how little things have really progressed over the years. I’ll be curious to see how Marvel deals with its inevitable Black Panther film. Will they tell it from his perspective or start with a white outsider who comes to Africa and discovers Black Panther? I wonder.
Politically, Cap 2 is working in the same vein as Iron Man 3. In that movie, it was implied that our enemies were no longer located overseas (thanks I suspect to Bin Laden’s death 2 years prior), but rather were located right here in America (domestic terror). The fact that the Boston Marathon bombings occurred just around a month before IM3 came out is more than a little disturbing (I talk about this at greater length in my review for Star Trek Into Darkness). Cap 2 furthers this idea by implying that the American Intelligence community and the government is being run by a bunch of Nazis trying to spy on everybody.
It confuses me that people feel antagonistic against other people working in the government spying on them through technology in Cap 2, but don’t raise much concern that one person, Heimdall, as gatekeeper of Asgard, has the power to see and hear almost everything and anything he wants to in the Thor movies. Perhaps because Heimdall is more of a mythical figure with mythical powers who lives in the mythical Asgard and Captain America is grounded in a more “real” world that American’s can identify more with Cap than Heimdall in that sense. In Cap 2 it’s implied that any surveillance used against people at all is wrong and everything they do and how they do it should be made public knowledge, yet in Thor: The Dark World, Heimdall actually uses his powers of omnipotence to uncover a stealth attack by the Dark Elves on Asgard. Apparently the Dark Elves were not aware of Heimdall’s power or I’m sure they would have taken him out first.
I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t mind calling the NSA and government Nazis, especially after the whole Snowden case. I think by implying that in Cap 2, it further cheapens the negative opinions Americans have of the NSA. The NSA is made up of real, hardworking people, like you and me, who have jobs and took real, serious oaths right before they began their jobs (which can be found here, http://9websites.com/airforce/oath.htm and here http://uspolitics.about.com/od/usgovernment/a/oaths_of_office_4.htm). It really is a cheap shot by the filmmakers and the people at Disney. Of course, people would talk about shady government conspiracies and laugh and say and know it’s probably nothing new. It’s only when it becomes real that people become scared and angry.
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a couple of excellent articles that talked about my views but went into greater detail and took them even further. You can find links to them, and another one on domestic terror, down at the very end. I’ll paraphrase some of what they both say. In regards to the title, Captain America is actually himself the Winter Soldier as opposed to Bucky. Bucky is simply called that because of a gimmick in the comics where he gets put on ice whenever he isn’t needed.
The term “Winter Soldier” actually comes from the Vietnam War era. It was used by the Vietnam veterans against the war who called their public hearing on US war crimes in Vietnam ‘The Winter Soldier” investigation (John Kerry was actually one of them). The Winter Soldiers were formed to counter the Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots, who spread and helped preach the truth that Vietnam was a “Just” war and that the military had not been committing atrocities. The Winter Soldiers were whistleblowers essentially, just as Captain America and his compatriots are in the movie, just as Snowden was (according to popular public opinion). The title of the movie is not actually in episode format.
Captain America is The Winter Soldier, just as he was The First Avenger in his previous solo movie. The directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, were brought on to direct the film because their previous work in Arrested Development delivered great political satire on Bush and the Iraq War, and as we all know (or should), comedy is hard, drama is easy, so it would make sense to hire two comedy people to direct something as political as Cap 2 turned out to be (you can read that article here http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/04/captain-america-winter-soldier-obama-kill-list-politics-drones-nsa).
Paraphrasing some of the other article I mentioned, an interesting scene occurs between Cap and Nick Fury in an elevator. Fury recounts how his grandfather was an elevator operator in NYC who carried a loaded handgun with him walking home. This shows where Fury gets his distrust of people. However, this also shows that Fury’s distrust is actually very racialized behavior and exposes a very big weakness of the film in that the film stops just short of reminding us that Fury’s grandfather’s world is the very same world that Captain America grew up in (remember he’s from Brooklyn).
The studio simply refuses to allow Rogers to explore his own racial baggage from having grown up in a segregated North, yet we’re forced to believe that Rogers has absolutely no comment about this at all? The closest it ever comes to that is when Rogers tells Wilson that it has taken some getting used to (hilariously, reading the first scene of the “abridged” version of the screenplay goes where the studio would never in a million years go http://www.the-editing-room.com/captain-america-the-winter-soldier.html), but naturally we just assume he means getting used to other cultural changes, of which he keeps an ever growing and changing list in his pocket.
It really does feel like Sam Wilson is physically incompetent next to everybody else. He needs technology, his falcon wings and guns, to really be of any help in a fight. When he fights hand to hand against Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) during the climax, he’s clearly outmatched and is only saved when the helicarrier crashes into the building (caused by Cap).
Clearly all of this came out in the earlier half of 2014 and back before that, before “ISIS” came into the American vocabulary. Depending on how long that mess goes on overseas, I wonder if Disney and Marvel will again shift their views in their films to implying our enemies are overseas again as opposed to domestic.
The Helicarrier crashing into the Triskelion was another thing I disliked. Can we just move on past the whole 9/11 thing already? Do we really need to twist images like that around to mean we should be tearing down the walls of secrecy?