Okay, first things first: There is no way to talk critically about Captain America 2 (aka Captain America: The Winter Soldier) without spoiling the hell out of the film. Spoilers are coming below, but suffice to say that it’s an excellent movie, second best of the MCU films to this point, only behind the Avengers (and only just barely). If you haven’t yet, go see it.
Still… there’s no such thing as a perfect movie, and Captain America 2 has a… its not a flaw, exactly. It’s something that’s a bit worrying for the future of the Marvel films, although it seems hard to see it as a flaw quite yet.
So, What is Captain America 2 About?
A habit I’ve started getting into with films, games, music, books… really, any piece of media that I feel a bit uncertain about is to ask myself two questions:
1: What, thematically, is the story about?
2: Why does, or doesn’t, that work like it should?
With Mass Effect 3, the thematic issues were easy for me to draw out, because of how much I had already been immersed in the series as a whole. With Burial at Sea, the story fell apart because it stopped being about Elizabeth and became all about the original Bioshock. And so on.
So, when I walked out of Cap2, I was honestly a little bummed. I had gone in expecting a mature and intelligent discussion on the Privacy vs Security debate, with Captain America (amazingly portrayed as usual by Chris Evans) on the side of idealistic beliefs that Privacy should be sacrosanct, and Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury on the side of pragmatism, that idealism is a weak defense against people that want to kill you.
Well, that’s not what I got, because it turned into a fantastic Spy Thriller where it turned out that SHIELD was infested, to the core, by Captain America’s old nemesis from the WW2 era, the formerly Nazi super-science group HYDRA.
And that bummed me out. One of my favorite portrayals of this debate was from Deep Space 9, in the two parter “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”, where high ranking Starfleet Officers perform a military coup of the Federation out of a fear of Changelings, aliens that can perfectly mimic the appearance and voice of anyone, infiltrating and subverting the Federation. What worked was that the bad guys were acting, in their view, in the bests interests of the Federation. The threat was real, their intentions were generally noble, and even our heroes recognized it, but that:
“If the Changelings want to destroy what we’ve built here, they’re going to have to do it themselves. We will not do it for them.” -Captain Benjamin Sisko
But, upon further reflection, that’s not what the movie’s about, that’s not the lesson it’s trying to teach. That’s the lesson they TEASED, of course, because the actual lesson involves a pretty massive spoiler.
No, what Cap2 is about is the darker side of this topic. The assumption many tend to have is that the people violating the privacy of the everyday people are ‘just’ overzealous good guys. They have our best interests in mind, it’s just the extent of what they’re allowed to do that’s the problem.
The point of HYDRA having infiltrated SHIELD is to say “No, the people with the power aren’t always the good guys. This isn’t going to always be freedom versus security. We need to limit this power to make sure that if any bad people get in charge, they can’t abuse it.”
It’s a good message, and after realizing that, it has raised my opinion of the film a bit.
But only a bit. Because Captain America 2 still doesn’t work great for me…
Why Doesn’t this Work?
The problem is HYDRA and their plans.
First… no matter how much you try to divorce HYDRA from Nazi Germany… there’s some pretty damn clear visual parallels. The film basically Godwins itself as soon as the HYDRA reveal hits, not because the bad guys are suddenly Nazis, but because the bad guys are no longer remotely relatable, understandable or sympathetic (excluding the titular and largely redundant Winter Soldier).
The bad guys all being HYDRA basically signifies “All these people are now Morality Free targets”, that can be eliminated without issue, like Zombies, Robots or Nazis. Only at one point do they even try to make a single HYDRA character’s views seem sympathetic… which is really a dumb scene because the defiant and proud SHIELD leader refuses to kill people to save innocents… and there’s no implication that this isn’t one of the guys from The Avengers that was willing to nuke New York to possibly save the world.
Because… it’s HYDRA. They’re evil. They’re a secret conspiracy infiltrating SHIELD dating back to the early Cold War, sprung up from a former Nazi super science group, that dropped the Nazism for simple megalomania, formed because the last remaining leader of HYDRA, Armin Zola, was brought over to the US to help build SHIELD, and then his brain got uploaded into a few thousand 70’s era magnetic tape computer banks, which my computer science degree tells me is completely absurd on the face of it and he’s managed to come up with an algorithm that determines the future potential of everyone in the world, and the evil plan is to murder tens of thousands of people to ensure that world domination will be theirs…
…that above paragraph is the big problem with Captain America 2, because… it sounds so much like a silly Silver Age comic book its kinda amusing in retrospect.
I mean, I honestly have no real problem with Zola being uploaded to Magnetic Tape. The reveal of THAT was just so bloody audacious and impossible that it looped back around to entertainingly acceptable. It’s the sort of silly that suspension of disbelief is made for.
The problem is, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is trying to have its cake (…well, Apple Pie) and eat it too. It wants to be a serious, mature look at modern concerns about privacy and security, and when it focuses on that it is indeed wonderful. But it also wants to stay true to its comic book origins and the silliness that can bring.
And the more worrying part of this is that one of the most common defenses of all that is “It’s a comic book movie”, almost as though its origins means that the serious and the silly can be divorced from each other and considered separately, because I doubt that’s what will happen. What is far more likely to happen is that the attempts by the Marvel films to go into more serious subject matter gets knocked back by the more artistically minded as “Oh, it’s just a comic book movie. One of the villains is a brain uploaded to magnetic tape, it’s not supposed to be taken seriously”.
That attitude, I worry, is what might kill the MCU, in an artistic if not financial way. Sure, there’s something to be said for smart concepts presented in an easily approachable way… but these films can’t just rely on their Comic Book past as justification for the silliness.
The best Super Hero film thus far, in my eyes, continues to be “The Dark Knight”, because it never relied on “Comic Book Movie” as a defense. It stayed true to the characters for the most part, stayed true to the principal behind the comics… but just about everything was justified in the film and felt like something that could really happen in our world… and made the explosions and violence and death all the more terrifying.
Don’t get me wrong. Captain America 2 is a fantastic action film with a strong message about the dangers of allowing for government violations of security ‘for the greater good’, and it does not deserve to be dismissed as ‘just another Comic Book movie’.
But I worry that, in some circles, and the circles that matter most, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
After all, as bad as the NSA’s oversteps in violating our privacy are… I don’t think anyone could rationally compare them to the results of a former Nazi super-scientist made immortal on magnetic tape orchestrating a massive conspiracy propagating a secret conspiracy of almost-Nazi villains.