Much like Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier wants you to view the events through Steve Rogers’s World War II lens. The events are framed through the true evil behind World War II, Hydra, and Rogers’s 1940s simplicity and heart reinforce this. However, the events of The Winter Soldier have deeper, darker implications. Given the news reports of drone attacks, the argument over the ethics of such tactics, and the quiet refusal of Americans to recognize the horrific implications of current military tactics, I find it hard to believe that the audience doesn’t recognize The Winter Soldier for what it is – an indictment of the post- 9/11 military industrial complex.
In The Winter Soldier, the audience sees Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, begin to question some of the actions of S.H.I.E.L.D. – and by extension Nick Fury – and their plan to seek out dangers before they appear. It’s hard not to connect the Helicarriers that S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to implement with current drone technology and the approach to seek threats out and eliminate them before they’re realized, as Kevin Thurman points out in his recent review. These tactics offend Rogers’s sense of fair play and justice and ultimately have him questioning whether or not he fits – with S.H.I.E.L.D., with being a soldier, in this time. The audience sees Rogers as a man out of time, and at the beginning of the movie, his doubts are framed in this light. S.H.I.E.L.D. is not evil or misguided, Rogers just doesn’t understand what it takes to wage war in modern times. This is certainly the implication in The Avengers. Even the attack on Nick Fury only serves to reinforce Rogers’s idea that he doesn’t understand this new world. However, The Winter Soldier makes a sharp departure from this approach soon after Fury’s presumed death. Suddenly Rogers becomes “in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. Instead of his fish out of water status being the source of jokes, as it is in The Avengers, it is Rogers’s moral compass that becomes the center for the movie, and by extension, the audience.
In the style of origin stories (and the style of sequels where the past comes back to haunt you), Rogers and Black Widow return to the beginning, Camp Lehigh, to discover the truth. It is there that Zola, now an incorporated machine controlling everything, reveals that everything S.H.I.E.L.D. has stood for is built on a lie. That from the beginning Hydra changed tactics and decided to build on the fear of Americans, post-World War II, and not only give them the tools to ensure their safety but manipulate S.H.I.E.L.D. to accomplish its own purpose. Zola clearly explains that the current state of affairs is a direct result of the birth of the military industrial complex during World War II. Americans traded freedom for a sense of safety and never questioned the cost. In The Winter Soldier, we see this most clearly with Nick Fury once he realizes that he has been betrayed not only by S.H.I.E.L.D. but by his mentor and friend Alexander Pierce. This idea is carried on in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the character of Agent Coulson. The very things they thought they had been fighting for are rotten to the core. While both Fury and Coulson have good hearts, they came to trust so much in the system that they never stopped to consider the system could be corrupt. They never stopped to question, although the tactics of S.H.I.E.L.D. were questioned in The Avengers by Stark, Banner, and Rogers.
Zola also represents the dangers of relying on technology and removing the human factor. When Howard Stark decided to “save” the knowledge of Zola by incorporating him into a machine, a hard drive, he did not consider the implications. Because Stark is focused on obtaining and preserving knowledge, he does not consider the consequences of trying to contain such evil. The lack of limits put on this technology allows Zola to not just infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. but control it. Because there are no human checks and balances put on Zola’s power and access, Hydra is allowed to gain power and insidiously take over S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside out. It is only through reinstating the human element in the form of Rogers and Black Widow that Zola can be stopped.
The importance of the human element is also illustrated in the character of the Winter Soldier, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. In very clear imagery, the presentation of Bucky shows us exactly what happens to our humanity when we focus only on what soldiers can do, and not what a state of constant war can do to someone’s humanity – it erases it. When Bucky begins to recognize Rogers, and remember who he is, Pierce erases him and starts over. His humanity is of no value, only what he can accomplish. With extended tours for soldiers, the lack of support when they return home, the lack of emphasis on their humanity, and the effects of war on them, it’s not hard to read Bucky as a stand in for our own soldiers. Through the character of Bucky, the movie focuses on the damage done to soldiers by the military, with no concern for the human being behind the soldier.
The Winter Soldier – rather than framing the story (and warnings) with World War II – draws a direct line between the military industrial complex post-World War II and the military industrial complex post-9/11. The fact that betrayal has been in the works for decades. The dangers of removing the human element from war. The argument that anything is justified if framed in the rhetoric of “for the greater good”. The dangers of technology that is allowed to run rampant.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Erskin argues that it is the heart of a man that makes the difference in how technology – specifically the super soldier serum – is used. It is a lesson that is forgotten in the decades between World War II and The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as S.H.I.E.L.D. comes to think they can control Hydra technology while not falling victim to Hydra ideology. So too has America forgotten the implications of blindly trading freedom for a sense of safety. America has agreed to a suspension of rights, “for the greater good”. America has traded a sense of safety for wiretapping, electronic monitoring, and personal freedoms. All that is needed for evil (or Hydra) to take over the world is to not pay too close attention to the details of how things are accomplished, but just focus on the end result – winning. But as Erskin and Rogers tell us, how we get there matters.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes a clear argument that if Americans continue to blindly believe that the ends justify the means, we face complete and total destruction. That we will end up just like S.H.I.E.L.D. – unable to recognize what we have become, completely separated from the ideals we once valued. However, The Winter Soldier also seems to tell us that it’s not too late. That there’s still time to rediscover our moral compass and change our ways.