Captain America 2: 2014’s most subversive superhero film?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier taps into current fears about surveillance and data-mining. Ryan looks at its subversive undertones...

NB: This article contains mild spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Oblivion.

Every generation carries with it a heavy payload of shared anxiety. A fear of nuclear annihilation permeated the Cold War era. The 1970s brought with it a distrust of leadership, as Richard Nixon’s presidential authority crumbled in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

These collective preoccupations constantly find their way into the stories we share, not least in movies: Cold War paranoia manifested itself in 50s invasion science fiction; the distrust of the 1970s found its expression in such conspiracy thrillers as The Parallax View, The Marathon Man and Capricorn One.

For several years after the global financial crisis of 2008, a resentment towards banks, billionaires and corporate types became a common sight in movies. The comedy Horrible Bosses (2011) saw down-trodden workers get their own back on their tyrannical paymasters. In Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist, a group of Robin Hood-like thieves stole a solid gold sports car from a business mogul’s top-floor condo. The Dark Knight Rises staged nothing less than a full-on revolution, with Tom Hardy’s muzzled villain Bane bankrupting Bruce Wayne and throwing Gotham into anarchy.

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While themes of social divide and inequality are still explored in the films of 2014 – see The Purge: Anarchy for one example – one or two of this year’s biggest releases brought with it new concerns about freedom, technology and state control. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

On the face of it, Marvel’s latest sequel is typical blockbuster fare: Chris Evans is on chiselled form as the patriotic hero, there are villains with secret, evil plans, and lots of things explode and fall out of the sky in the final third. But within the typical action framework, directors Joe and Anthony Russo smuggle a political thriller plot that is thought-provoking and perhaps even subversive – particularly when you consider that it’s tucked away within a colourful film aimed at a mass audience. 

In the run-up to The Winter Soldier‘s release, the Russo brothers – who are self-described movie nerds – talked excitedly about their film’s references to classics of cinema past. Heat, To Live And Die In LA and such conspiracy thrillers as Three Days Of The Condor and All The President’s Men commonly came up in conversation, while Robert Redford’s casting as S.H.I.E.L.D chief Alexander Pierce appeared to cement their film’s connection to 70s genre movies.

What The Winter Soldier does, however, is take the 70s conspiracy thriller and bring it straight into the present. Its Marvel Universe version of America isn’t so different from our own: following the Battle of New York, S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing to launch Project Insight – a counter-terrorist measure which monitors the activities of the world’s citizens in an attempt to eliminate threats before they occur.

S.H.I.E.L.D’s Alexander Pierce sees the forfeit of civilian privacy – that, and the small detail of having gigantic, armed Helicarriers roaming the skies – as a small price to pay for ensuring the world’s safety. Steve Rogers, however, is less sure. “This isn’t freedom,” he tells Nick Fury, “it’s fear.”

His suspicions piqued, Rogers begins to dig further into Project Insight’s history, and discovers that its implications are even darker than he’d feared. Fascist organisation Hydra has secretly infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D at its highest level, and plans to use Project Insight as a means of taking over the world: the technology supposedly designed to maintain freedom will instead be used to pre-emptively destroy any opposition to Hydra’s new order.

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The Winter Soldier arrived in cinemas at a time when the revelations of former system administrator Edward Snowden had placed the topic of surveillance and data security at the top of the media agenda. The Captain America sequel waded right into the middle of this debate about the mass surveillance of ordinary citizens’ communications and internet activities.

“It’s hard to make a political film that’s not topical,” Anthony Russo told Film Journal. “That’s what makes a political thriller different from just a thriller. And that’s what adds to the characters’ paranoia and the audience’s experience of that paranoia. But we’re also very pop-culture-obsessed and we love topicality, so we kept pushing to [have] scenes that, fortunately or unfortunately, played out [during the time that Edward] Snowden outed the NSA. That stuff was already in the zeitgeist. We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties—Obama talking about who they would kill, y’know? We wanted to put all of that into the film…” 

Again, the events at the beginning of The Winter Soldier reflect those of post 9/11 America: a government agency uses the latest technology to monitor communications in the hope of maintaining freedom. But what happens if that technology falls into the wrong hands, or – even worse – when that a government agency uses it to oppress its people rather than protect them?

The Helicarriers and computer systems in The Winter Soldier may be the stuff of science fiction, but they too have a grain of real-world truth to them. Those Helicarriers are really just the drones of the present writ unfeasibly large, and Joe Russo has made no secret that his film meditates on the use of drone technology to remotely terminate enemies of the state.

“The question is, where do you stop?” Russo  asked in an April interview. “If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there’s 1,000? What if we find out there’s 10,000? What if it’s a million? At what point do you stop?”

Even Project Insight’s use of a computer algorithm, specifically designed to data-mine society’s communications and seek out potential threats, isn’t all that far-fetched. In an article published in The Observer a few weeks ago, writer Evgeny Morozov described something called algorithmic regulation – a means of data-based governance, where everything from refuse collection to health to the speed and movement of cars are all controlled by software.

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It’s a utopian, hyper-efficient vision of the future, where every activity is monitored, fed back and used to maintain a stable society. But like the idea of using computer systems to analyse user data and isolate potential terrorists, there’s a downside to this: where’s the room for privacy, a critical media or peaceful dissent in a future where everyone is monitored, categorised and ranked?

“Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen,” Morozov writes; “most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.” 

That such weighty themes have found their way into a Marvel movie would be remarkable enough, but there’s something else impressive about The Winter Soldier and other genre films like it: few other filmmakers have yet begun to address the topic of surveillance technology and its darker implications. The best way to articulate our concerns about the future, it seems, is in science fiction.

Jose Padilha’s 2014 RoboCop remake explored similar fears about the use of drones and automated warfare – “The automation of violence opens the door to fascism,” the director told us last year – while 2013’s Oblivion saw Tom Cruise inadvertently leading a drone war on his own people.

The Winter Soldier, however, seems to be the first film to talk about mass surveillance, and how it could be used as a tool of oppression. It even dares to go one step further, and suggest that the agencies who claim to be working in our best interests might not be as trustworthy as they seem – something that completely changes Steve Rogers’ worldview by the film’s conclusion.

Admittedly, The Winter Soldier isn’t perfect – as previously mentioned, it reverts to a fairly straight (though technically impressive) action flick in the final act – but the Russo brothers’ contemporary, political themes give Cap 2 a relevancy and edge that most blockbusters lack.

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With technology now utterly meshed in our everyday lives, The Winter Soldier engages with the implications of our interconnected society in a way that other movies haven’t yet attempted. Beneath the explosions and heroism, Marvel’s blockbuster raises some relevant questions about privacy and freedom.

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