Review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

While thinking about this blog post, I originally thought about titling it “Captain America and the Negotiation of 20th Century History,” but I decided that might make a better journal article title, so I opted for the simpler “Review.”  Boring it may be, but it cuts to the point.

Still, upon viewing the most recent entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was struck by the ways in which Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, in addition to its thoughtful (and at least slightly progressive) ruminations on the meaning of freedom and terrorism, also serves as a reflection upon the course of 20th Century world history, with all of its horrors, wars, famines and, to use one of the film’s favourite words, “chaos.”  In essence, the film uses the fictive (we hope) organization HYDRA to corral the seemingly unconnected and devastating events of the 20th Century into a larger grand narrative.

For those who have not seen Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, a bit of summary is in order.  Sandwiched between several lengthy (and superbly edited and choreographed fight scenes), the film suggests that most of the atrocities (wars, famines, violent political coups, etc.) that have troubled the 20th Century are the direct result of the machinations of the sinister organization HYDRA, who intends to use these events to persuade the world’s population to willingly surrender its freedom so that the leaders of the organization can establish a new world order.  Wrapped within this traditional comic book narrative (not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you), there is a serious, and perhaps not entirely intentional, reflection on how we in the 21st Century make sense of the events that have led up to and shaped our current global political climate.

By ascribing often-unconnected political and social atrocities and upheavals to a unified source, Captain America clearly attempts to make sense of a world that seems to rigourously and consistently deny such desires for lucidity, reason, and order.  After all, we live in an age of irony and postmodernism, where the grand narratives of progress that shaped so much of the 20th Century (or so we have always believed) no longer possess their explanatory power.  Just as we want to think there are still heroes that we can wholeheartedly believe (such as Captain America and his compatriots) and a social world where such a thing as justice actually exists, we also want to believe that the seemingly random acts of violence and genocide that have taken and continue to take the lives of millions of people have some underlying meaning or cause, no matter how sinister.  Otherwise, they represent a dark, fatalistic, and almost nihilistic world with which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cope with on a conscious level.  Just as importantly, the fact that the film ascribes so much of HYDRA’s success to the work of Nazi scientists further solidifies its moral position.  By evoking the shadow of Nazism, in particular its use of science, the film grants 21st Century audiences, especially those in the U.S., a firm moral ground from which to consider the vicissitudes of recent world history.

In other words, Captain America seems to express a deep cultural need to make sense of a century’s worth of horrible atrocities that, in our postmodern age, seem to possess no overarching (or underlying) meaning through which we can make sense of them.  By displacing all of them onto a powerful organization seeking world domination (and, they claim, “order,”) one that has clear ties to the Nazis, the film allows 21st Century audiences, hungry perhaps for meaningfulness, something to hold onto.  The question that hovers just in the background, however, is:  how responsible or ethical is this (re)presentation of history?  What is gained or lost in attempting to ascribe so many events to a single, sinister, obviously evil organization?  These are not easy questions to answer, but they are necessary if we as a culture and a social body are to to engage meaningfully and ethically with the world in which we live.