The Politics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

CHARLIE GIBSON:  Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
SARAH PALIN:  In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON:  The Bush — well, what do you — what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN:  His world view.
GIBSON:  No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.

—September 2008

As Sam Wilson struggles to jog through the National Mall in the heart of Washington D.C., we see Steve Rogers repeatedly zip past him without breaking a sweat.  Each time Rogers approaches Wilson, he gives the same cautionary warning:  “On your left.”  They are the first words spoken in the new film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and they lay the groundwork for much of the political perspective of the film.  While this Captain America may sneak up on you—you’ll find him “on your left.”

By the time you read this column, it’s likely that you will have already read several reviews of this film—probably even here at Sequart—so I won’t belabor the aesthetics too much.  Suffice it to say that The Winter Soldier is the best of the Marvel-produced films thus far.  While not as fun or epic as The Avengers, it’s ultimately more tightly focused and better crafted, with a greater sense of peril in its action sequences, a more coherent plot, more quiet character moments, and more ambitious themes.

[Author’s note:  While I don’t give away lots of details, what follows does contain spoilers.]

Taking a cue from Ed Brubaker’s celebrated run, The Winter Soldier succeeds by de-emphasizing the super-heroics and repositioning itself as a spy movie—like a Bond or Bourne film, only with funny clothes.  It also succeeds by taking a fairly bold political stance for a corporate-owned Hollywood blockbuster.  While not a complete throwback to the American cinema of the 1970s, the paranoid spy-thriller tone does hearken back to post-Watergate classics like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man.  Similarly, the most exhilarating action sequence—the attempted assassination of Nick Fury—begins with a direct invocation of the toll booth scene from The Godfather and then summons up the same frenetic fever of the car chase from The French Connection.  And of course, the casting of Robert Redford—icon of politically-informed ‘70s dramas like The Candidate, the aforementioned Three Days of the Condor, and All the President’s Men—only adds to the sense of paranoia and intrigue.  In fact, this ‘70’s sensibility is so prevalent you get the impression that had Redford turned them down they would’ve offered his role to Warren Beatty.[1]

So as a movie, there’s a lot to love here.  But what makes it particularly interesting is the political perspective.  The basic storyline relies on three key political issues that have defined the last dozen years:  the ethics of using of pre-emptive force, the dangers of exploiting confusion for political advantage, and the need for more transparency from the intelligence community.

To help understand part of this film’s subtext, let’s go back to that famous moment quoted in the epigraph when ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine.  It was during the final six weeks of the 2008 Presidential campaign and at the time the media reaction mostly focused on the perpetual melodrama that surrounded the Republican nominee for Vice President—Sarah Palin.  No one, including the senator who picked her, knew much about the Alaska governor, so her inability to answer the question certainly raised questions about her overall qualifications.  But the implications of her ignorance of the Bush Doctrine go far beyond the more superficial performance analysis that typifies the coverage of a presidential campaign.

The Bush Doctrine, formally known as the “National Security Strategy of the United States,” represented a fundamental change in America’s use of military force.  It provided a justification for military action against anything or anyone that posed a potential threat to the United States.  This policy moved beyond the old notion of an “imminent” threat (i.e., the discovery of specific plans for attacking or invading the country).  With this new policy, there need be no specifically planned attack.  Instead, the Bush Doctrine allowed for pre-emptive strikes against anyone who might be deemed hostile and might be capable of attacking at some point in the future.  Like the 2002 Tom Cruise summer blockbuster, Minority Report, we could now anticipate who we thought might launch an attack and go ahead and take them out ahead of time.  And the new policy was used, of course, as the primary ideological justification for the ill-fated war in Iraq.

All of which raises the question, how could the nominee for the Vice Presidency—someone who supported going to war and whose son was actually preparing to serve—how could anyone at that level be totally ignorant about the public policies that led to war?

Contrary to what you may be thinking, this isn’t all a big set-up for a Sarah Palin joke.  While I am obviously neither an admirer nor a supporter, I don’t believe she’s stupid.  In fact, I think a lot of Americans would’ve answered Gibson’s question in the same bumbling manner, for despite the presence of more news coverage than any time in human history, we remain one of the most badly informed.

Just as Shakespeare teases his audience by introducing a series of underdeveloped motivations for Iago’s hatred of Othello, Americans were presented with a flurry of half-baked theories and justifications for why we were about to go to war.  Rather than weakening the push to war, this strategic misdirection muddied the debate and allowed the Bush administration to control the discussion with false dilemmas, such as whether war opponents opposed or supported Saddam Hussein.  Such chaos and confusion continued to impact the political conversation as the administration periodically raised the alert level with its strange, color-coded alert system—never with any explanation, always with a positive uptick in the President’s poll numbers.

Such chaos and confusion breeds uneasiness and fear, much like the fear that helped pass the Patriot Act and inspired the willing surrender of many forms of privacy—a surrender no one even seemed to remember when, a decade later, Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA surveillance program.

Remarkably, The Winter Soldier suggests strong opposition to these three main issues:  pre-emptive action, politically-motivated chaos, and secret surveillance.  The plot, which I won’t attempt to summarize in detail, hinges on the development and deployment of three all-powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. machines that are capable of identifying and coordinating an attack on “potential” threats.  It is this new technology that raises Nick Fury’s suspicions, and his effort to delay them leads to his attempted assassination.  Likewise, as Captain America learns, Hydra has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and is using a global strategy of chaos and confusion to strengthen its grip and bring about a new sense of order and control.  And, perhaps most striking of all, the film culminates with the heroes participating in a Chelsea Manning/Edward Snowden/Wikileaks-style information dump onto the Internet and the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D.

For Disney, a corporation often seen as supporting the status quo and one that is heavily invested in the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept, given its ongoing television series, the movie represents a fairly subversive, radical statement.

All of which is not to say that The Winter Soldier is some kind of masterpiece of political radicalism.  It also contains the obligatory super-hero torture scene, though this one feels rather half-hearted at best, and it includes a scene where Nick Fury tells a story about his grandfather that seemingly celebrates carrying concealed handguns.

But the biggest weakness in the film’s political vision is the use of Hydra as the source of all problems.  Granted, Hydra, as a generic, catchall enemy, allows for coded storytelling and perhaps enables the filmmakers to more safely explore all of these political issues.  But choosing a covert remnant of Nazi-ism as the source of all the corruption suggests an artistic vision where the only real source of danger in society comes from “outside evil,” and the moments from the film when powerfully-placed political figures secretly whisper “Hail Hydra” to their fellow club members is both clumsy and embarrassing—especially for a film that is otherwise as sophisticated and relevant as this one.

But overall, this is an impressive film, and as regular readers of this column know, I was a tough sell.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my lack of enthusiasm for the movie and the problems I often have connecting with the Steve Rogers character. But while Rogers remains a bland protagonist, his character isn’t really what The Winter Soldier is all about, and his behavior doesn’t really drive the story.  Instead, the filmmakers build a world around him that forces him to react.  Thus, late in the film when Sam asks how to tell the good guys from the bad, Cap’s response, “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad,” isn’t a celebration of black and white morality so much as it is his general modus operandi.  He just responds to what is around him.  The result takes a lot of the pressure off Steve Rogers and helps the film work.

So am I eating crow?  Partially.  Let’s call it a lunch portion.

[1] Not all of the allusions are from the ‘70s.  In one scene that takes place in Secretary Pierce’s kitchen at night, the Redford character removes a conspicuously-placed carton of milk from the refrigerator.  Everything about the scene hearkens back to a moment from John Frankenheimer’s Cold War classic, The Manchurian Candidate, only with a very different outcome this time.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Em Gee says:

    Great article I loved all the information about past spy thrillers and how they tie into the film but I disagree with the point about Hydra. Hydra were not Nazi’s. Red Skull pretty much made that point in the first film, he was using the Nazi’s for their resources. Hydra are parasites. They used the Nazi’s the same way they later used SHIELD.

    They weren’t an “other”, they were people who Steve, Natasha, Fury(by extension the other Avengers and the characters in Agents of SHIELD) worked with, were friends with. They could be anyone. In this film, they were Americans, they were politicians, agents, soldiers who either were Hydra or joined Hydra after the fact. But the whole thing is they could be your neighbors.

    I also disagree that Steve Rogers is a bland protagonist. He’s just not an anti-hero, a “type” which is ridiculously overused at this point. Everyone is an anti-hero, of some sort. Batman isn’t different anymore, he’s the norm.

    Rogers grew up an outsider because he was sickly, weak and small – he knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, to be left out, to be bullied, to be lonely. He was sickly at a time before antibiotics, before the sort of treatment we have things like asthma now(and asthma can still be deadly). So he had to live with possible death nearby too. As a result he tries to be understanding because he remembers what it was like to be a weak lonely outcast with one friend, a friend he probably often wondered why he was his friend, if maybe he just pitied him or felt sorry for him. It wasn’t really that long ago for him.

    He was that person longer than he’s lived as Captain America(as opposed to being frozen:)) . Why would you need him deconstructed when we SAW him constructed? He was “Captain America” in the sense of who he is as a person before he ever got the serum, it’s why he was chosen in the first place. And it was explained why and while we didn’t see his whole life, we certainly saw and heard enough about it to extrapolate what his life was like before. He wasn’t chosen because he represented what “is” but because he represented what “could be”(and “is” in some individuals every day, the point being if everyone tries their best to be good, kind people even if it’s not perfect it would certainly be better) .

    The reason he “symbolizes” the best is because he doesn’t always listen and he actually has a brain he uses to think – he “made” himself in a way, sure they had him doing a song and dance(literally) for a little while but he is the one who took it into his own hands to live up to his potential, to free the captured soldiers despite it going against orders. He made his own team, he didn’t accept one they were going to give him. He’s always questioned and as for not lying? Well he WAS lying to try and get into the Army. He’s not very good at it, but we’ve seen the man will lie, however it’s not something he takes lightly so he probably wouldn’t lie about something as trivial as getting out of a party because maybe he’s not so immature that he wouldn’t just say “Hey you know I don’t feel like going, I’m sorry”.

    He’s a symbol by NOT just being a symbol, by not being a puppet. Captain America is an individual, first and foremost. He’s not brainwashed, he wasn’t a product of being “broke down and built up to comform” like much modern military training does. He’s a product of his own choices, some luck(he was lucky he was there when Dr Erskine was but he wouldn’t have been there for Erskine to find if not for his own choices) and his upbringing in a poor family(going by the comics a poor family with a strong mother and a father who became an alcoholic and died when he was a kid, so even growing up he had the example showing him him he could choose to deal hardship in a good way or a bad way).

    Does he sometimes, often, have to react to what is going on around him? Yes. Which makes him JUST LIKE US, what could be more relatable than that. :) He’s faced with choices in situations which happened outside of his control and he has to choose. He’s not a boring or bland character because he doesn’t choose to be an asshole, he doesn’t choose the easier path but those characteristics didn’t come out of nowhere. They can be found in Steve Rogers before he was Captain America. The same way there are people out there every day who make the choice to not be a jackass when they could do otherwise.

    IMO Steve is actually one of the most human of the superheroes, he’s an everyman who got a shot of super serum that made him strong and resilient but the rest is all Steve Rogers, so I don’t get why he isn’t “relatable”.

    • What a long, thoughtful, and well-written comment.

      I’m intrigued by your defense of the use of Hydra as a metaphor for internal political movements rather than an “other” or outside force, or as leftover “Nazis” as I labelled them. I like your argument even though I’m not quite convinced. It’s true that the Hydra agents could be anyone, but they’re still part of a formal, secret organization. They’re not representatives of organic, wrong-thinking, homegrown citizens. That makes them very different from a dangerous political faction or movement. It makes them an invasion force. And it puts the heroes in the same role as the McCarthy-ites in the 1950s–paranoid about how many secret communist agents might have worked their way into different parts of American society.

      That’s why, even though I like your interpretation, I still think casting the blame on Hydra undermines much of what was really appealing in this movie. At least for me.

      As for Steve Rogers, conceptually I agree with almost every single thing you’ve written here. But that doesn’t mean he necessarily “works” as a character. At least not for me. It’s ultimately subjective, I think, and that’s how I’ve tried to present it. While I could write an essay about how Rogers is the ultimate symbol of what is the best in all of us, that doesn’t mean that I find him interesting when he’s suddenly thrust into the middle of a story. In fact, the more I’m able to understand a character, generally the less interesting that character becomes. I like being surprised by characters. Intrigued. Don Draper, on Mad Men is a great character because he reflects the inconsistent, quirky, mysterious parts of our nature. He’s capable of being both great and small–often simultaneously.

      With Cap, the more I feel like I know exactly what he’s supposed to be, the less interested I become. That means writers have to put a lot of energy into everything else that’s going on around Cap in order to sustain my interest. Brubaker did that by re-casting the book as a spy series and bringing in Bucky as a much more complicated character. This new movie does it by also emphasizing the spy elements and diffusing the focus onto other, more complex characters like Fury, Pierce, and the Black Widow.

      But again, it’s a subjective thing. My hunch is that the reasons we’re moved by some characters and not others has more to do with us than with the characters themselves.

      • David Balan says:

        Your last paragraph is absolutely true, in my mind – certain characters resonate more with some than others.

        I found Rogers to be a fine protagonist, but I don’t think what he represented was really ever questioned. And by questioned I don’t mean deconstructed – I just don’t think he was really pushed far enough. I didn’t get to see him choke – to see him face any real dilemma that would show us what kind of person he is when the chips are down.

        The final fight with Bucky might qualify for some, and I did like it, but I don’t think anyone was really engaged by the decision Cap made – he had nothing to lose at that point. He had already won, Hydra was defeated, SHIELD was destroyed… Every goal he had set out to achieve had been accomplished, except that of rescuing Bucky. And he certainly isn’t going to rescue Bucky by killing him, so what he did, while heroic, noble, and inspiring, wasn’t really a choice, so it didn’t give us any insight into his character.

        That’s, in my opinion, why he was an uninteresting protagonist in the end – he never had to choose.

  2. David Balan says:

    I was bored the instant it was revealed that Hydra was the source of all evil in the world. It was yet another “EVIL OTHER” which just plays into the common trick of painting a target on someone and blaming them for all your troubles, so you can feel good about invading their country, killing their people, and destroying their economy for your own gain.

    I didn’t find the movie particularly ambitious. It was a fun ride, and I thought the action sequences were filmed well, and I did enjoy the final fight between Rogers and Bucky – but any questioning of America’s politics was quickly swept under the rug by two things. The first was, of course, the EVIL NAZIS trope.

    The second was a constant and pervasive idea that America was somehow “better” back in the old days – in the 40s/50s. That there was some moral center. What was Cap’s line? “Yeah, we made compromises that didn’t make us feel good. But we did it for people’s freedom.”

    That’s a bunch of hooey. Financial concerns have always motivated every foreign war America has become embroiled in. It’s pretty easy to see in retrospect that Hitler and the Nazis had to be stopped, but that’s not the reason we went in. That same pattern was true in World War 1, and it has repeated itself in every American conflict since.

    These two grand delusions were never questioned, and so I found the politics of the movie to be pedantic and stereotypical. The “evil government guy” was killed and then the fair, equitable status quo was restored – yet another delusion.

    I suppose I shouldn’t expect too much radical thought from a major motion picture, though.

    • David, thanks for both the comments. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here, even though I liked the movie a lot more than you did. I agree that the Hydra subplot is a real weakness–for much the same reasons as you. And I also shudder at the Romantic notions that “things were better back then.” I think that kind of rosy nostalgia is often dangerous.

      However, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that we went into World War II for financial considerations. I’m not a historian and I’m sure there were some nasty financial aspects to our participation in the war, but to say that’s why we “went in” strikes me as going too far. We were attacked by Japan at Pear Harbor and Germany declared war two or three days later. That’s why we “went in.” I’m not sure how there is any other way to look at our initial involvement there.

  3. Captain America does not belong to any party, he is thoroughly disillusioned by what he sees in the modern world. BOTH parties doing horrific things and losing their way, the nastiness and divide between the people and the parties would cause him much dismay. Growing up as he did caused him to truly understand what’s important.

    Does he have opinions, absolutely. But he thinks about each and every one on an individual basis, not because of what a party believes. He would despise agenda and propaganda thinking. He’s a leader, not a follower. He is not the type to only look at left or right leaning websites and sources of information and go along with what they said like most people do unfortunately.

  4. hellon wood says:

    Captain America is not a member of any political party, and he is thoroughly disillusioned with what he sees in the modern world. BOTH parties doing horrible things and losing their way, the nastiness and schism between the people and the parties would make him very unhappy. Growing up the way he did teach him to value what is important. the falcon and the winter soldier

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