Libertarianism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I finally got around to seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Friday night. I enjoyed it immensely. Although there are the requisite comic book elements, it felt more like an action movie/political thriller. Without giving away too much of the plot, Steve Rogers finds himself caught in a web of lies and political conspiracies. He doesn’t know who to trust and several of his former allies have turned against him. He begins to question what he has been fighting for and whether or not he can, in good conscience, carry out the missions he’s assigned. In addition, The Winter Soldier is one of the most libertarian films I’ve seen. It doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with its message — it isn’t Atlas Shrugged with superheroes — but it does present a relatively sophisticated articulation of libertarian philosophy. That’s quite an achievement for an entertaining comic book movie. More on this below.

As for the film itself, it’s difficult to discuss without getting into spoiler territory. So from here on, all bets are off. In general terms, however, it really succeeds as an action movie. The action beats are well-shot and are, more or less, realistic. The filmmakers are clearly taking the material seriously. There’s no trace of camp or self-awareness, even when handling material that could easily have looked silly. This is a very earnest treatment. The actors involved, especially Robert Redford, lend a real gravitas to the project. Chris Evans is thoroughly believable as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Scarlett Johansson does her best work of the Marvel franchise in this film. It’s definitely an ensemble effort with Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson rounding out the cast. Everybody performs to a very high caliber.

Although it clocks in at 136 minutes, it’s well-paced and none of the scenes feel like filler. The conspiracy plot is effective and there are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing. Arguably, there may be a few too many twists that audiences — especially those familiar with the source material — will see coming, but that didn’t diminish the impact for me. After all, the characters don’t see it coming, and the actors sell that, so the reveals work. I’m also saying this as someone who read the Winter Soldier storyline in the comics a few years ago, so I was already privy to the spoilers. Nevertheless, I was fully engaged in the story.

It’s not a perfect movie, of course. The Helicarriers are easily reprogrammed by inserting a piece of hardware into the ‘mainframe.’ In addition, there’s a lot of the usual ‘computer hacking’ silliness we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. But that’s a minor quibble that’s easily forgiven. It’s even justifiable insofar as it reinforces the juxtaposition between Cap’s analogue world and our digital one. Despite its flaws — which are intrinsic to the genre — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best film of the Marvel franchise, just edging out Iron Man. It’s easily the best sequel of the series.

But the movie doesn’t just succeed as an entertaining action flick. It works as an indictment of the reigning political paradigm. In short, it’s a pro-libertarian film. If you’ve seen it, I don’t think that statement will be controversial. You may, of course, disagree with its libertarian message, but it’s hard to deny that it’s there. In my judgment, this is the right direction for the series. In fact, one of my criticisms of Agents of SHIELD when it first aired, was that it was too sanguine about the potential evil of such a powerful, covert agency. I’m not current with the series, so that might have changed, but the episodes I watched were alarmingly out of touch with the times, and especially with younger audiences. The show basically portrayed government agencies as good and freedom of information activists as bad. Thankfully, The Winter Soldier goes a long way towards correcting that perception. However, it does so in a surprisingly subtle way; not everyone involved in SHIELD is bad, but such an organization has the capacity to do great evil.

The way this message plays out in the plot, is that SHIELD is attempting to launch weaponized Helicarriers that can assess and eliminate threats before they develop. They are willing to trade liberty and civil rights for security. Ironically, in attempting to make the world safe for democracy, SHIELD is prepared to undermine democracy’s very foundation. As Cap remarks to Fury: “This isn’t freedom. It’s fear.” Or, as Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security will find they have neither.” Unbeknownst to Fury, however, Hydra has secretly infiltrated SHIELD and is steering its operations. The lack of transparency — ‘compartmentalization’ as Fury calls it — has enabled Hydra to seize control.

There’s a great scene in which Cap and Natasha encounter Dr. Zola — whose mind has been uploaded into an old-school computer bank — who explains that Hydra realized after WWII that people naturally resist having their freedom taken away. They must be convinced that freedom is dangerous. They must give it up willingly; they must be convinced that doing so is the only way to remain safe. This message resonates in a post-911, post-Patriot Act, post-Wikileaks world. Captain America, however, recognizes that the ‘price of freedom is high’ and is unwilling to trade liberty for security, especially when such security is an illusion.

Captain America is a libertarian with respect to the limits of government power. He realizes that too much state power can be pernicious. He realizes that the real enemies of freedom are not ‘terrorists’, but those who claim to be fighting on behalf of freedom while simultaneously undermining it. In the end, he realizes that he has to fight against that system in order to preserve his ideals. Ironically, this makes Captain America, a symbol of the state, a fugitive from the state. This symbolic reversal gives the lie to the notion that patriotism requires simply going along with the program. Rather, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “The highest form of patriotism is dissent.”

The film’s message also gives the lie to the oft repeated mantra that democratic governments can’t be oppressive, because the government is us. There are several problems with this slogan. Of course, the government does not simply reflect the will of the people, but even if it did, and the majority of people were willing to give up their civil liberties in the interest of security, that wouldn’t make it less oppressive. The democratic tradition has long recognized ‘the tyranny of the majority’ and that even democratic governments can be oppressive. Simply because democratic governments have a better track record in this regard, doesn’t mean that they can’t oppress. Indeed, the reason they have a better track record is that they operate on the assumption that power corrupts and that checks and balances should be in place to prevent any government from becoming too powerful.

Another problem with ‘the government is us’ argument is that it assumes that all levels of government exemplify the transparency we associate with democratic systems. Of course, this simply isn’t true. In the case of Captain America, a covert agency which trades in secrets and lies, has been given carte blanche to steer the administration in ways that aren’t democratic. By contrast, it is trying to stamp out dissent. Granted, this is an overstatement for dramatic effect in the film. Personally, I’m skeptical of the many conspiracy theories that are popularly associated with the libertarian movement. I don’t see government conspiracies and cover-ups everywhere. Nevertheless, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, one would have to be hopelessly naive to think that ‘the government is us’ or that such surveillance is good for democratic values. In fact, quite the opposite. As Snowden has said, the NSA even keeps track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography in case they need to damage their target’s reputation. This makes character assassination — if not actual assassination as in the film — a trivially easy matter. How is such meticulous control over the democratic process by unelected and unaccountable agencies healthy for any democracy? The Winter Soldier makes this point quite eloquently, albeit in the exaggerated way we’d expect of a comic book action movie. Still, we shouldn’t reject its core message due to its heightened dramatic sense.

In summary, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of those rare movies that works both as popcorn entertainment and deeper social and political commentary. Just as it urges us not to sacrifice freedom for security, it doesn’t sacrifice entertainment value for heavy-handed ideological messages. The underlying political philosophy is there if you want to see it, but is never distracting if you don’t. It’s definitely worth a watch.

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Another Batman Short

Here’s another Batman short, this time from Darwyn Cooke.

A friend of mine gave me the complete Batman Beyond series on DVD for Christmas, so I’ve re-watched it recently. The show holds up remarkably well. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. The network wanted a younger Batman, a teenager, who younger viewers could relate to. Bruce Timm, who produced the brilliant Batman: The Animated Series, was reluctant to do it, but the more he thought about it, the more he became intrigued by the concept. There are several reasons Batman Beyond worked. The highlights include:

1. It provided a plausible reason why Bruce Wayne would retire and pass on the mantle. Not even the The Dark Knight Rises managed that. The mentoring relationship between Bruce and Terry was the core of the series.

2. It was set in the future, but not too far in the future. Yes, there were flying cars, but not everybody had a flying car. The writers wisely realized that such technology would be expensive, at least at first, so only the rich, i.e. Bruce Wayne, would be able to afford it. Gotham City also looked like a plausible place. The designers borrowed pages from Blade Runner, Manga, and Judge Dredd in coming up with a believable future urban landscape. City blocks and public transportation went vertical. There was a fusion of Asian and Western designs. Also, there was a clear demarcation between rich and poor. The poor lived close to street level, while the rich lived atop skyscrapers. If our current economic situation is any indication of the future, the writers accurately forecast this aspect too.

3. The temptation when doing a show like this is to have future Batman facing ‘the son of the Joker’ or ‘the son of Two-Face.’ In other words, the writers could have taken the easy road and just recycled classic Batman villains. Instead, they created new baddies for Batman to battle. Yes, there was the Jokerz Gang, but that gets a pass. Interestingly, the new villains often contained elements of Batman’s classic rogue’s gallery; for example, the character Inque, who combines elements of Catwoman and Clayface.

One of the reasons I’m less than optimistic about DC’s attempt to build a live-action ‘universe’ is because there’s no chance it could possibly be as good as their animated universe. They should just give their film budget to Bruce Timm so he can produce great cartoons in perpetuity. Now, that’s something I’d pay to see.

Universe Building

It seems that ‘universe building’ is all the rage in genre movies these days. Marvel’s success means that other studios are trying to build their own ‘cinematic universe.’ However, universe building to cross-promote different properties isn’t new. In fact, CBS in the 80’s provides a cool example of it.

I’ve been watching the first two seasons of Magnum P.I. and caught several references to ‘Five-O’ and even ‘Steve McGarrett.’ Of course, both shows are set in Hawaii and Magnum utilized the production facilities that CBS had established for Hawaii Five-O. Still, this means that both shows are set in the same ‘universe.’ But it doesn’t stop there. Magnum did cross-over episodes with two other CBS shows: Simon and Simon and Murder She Wrote. That means all four shows take place in the same ‘universe.’

Perhaps most intriguing is the cross-over that never happened. After Magnum’s run, producer Donald Bellisario had planned to do an episode of Quantum Leap in which Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) “leaps into” Thomas Magnum! (Even though Quantum Leap aired on NBC, Bellisario had produced both shows.) The cast of Magnum was set to return, but plans for a 90’s reunion movie that never materialized, put an end to that idea. Too bad! Where the episode of Quantum Leap would have fit into the Magnum P.I. ‘continuity’ we’ll never know. Since Quantum Leap episodes were time travel stories in which Beckett would “put right what once went wrong”, it may have even altered the continuity in some way. It’s fun to speculate about which episode of Magnum it would have changed.

Anyways, it seems that ‘universe building’ is not quite the novel innovation the studios think it is. Thanks to magnum-mania.com for the Quantum Leap connection!

Around the Web

spiderman-in-web-0013For your weekend reading, here are few items of geeky interest from around the web:

Lorenzo Semple Jr, the writer who brought Batman to television in the 60’s, has died. Semple also wrote the cult favorite Flash Gordon (1980).

An alternate cut of Gravity kind of shortens the movie.

On a related note, here’s some cool Soviet propaganda art from the space race era. In Soviet moon base, air breathe you!

Just in time for the sequel, both CinemaSins and Honest Trailers have a go at Captain America.

Speaking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there may may be some loopholes that would let Spider-Man join the fun.

Ye Olde Medieval X-Men designs. Reminiscent of Marvel 1602.

Sticking with the medieval theme, what if Game of Thrones were a classic sitcom? And from the same creative team, Firefly as an 80’s action sci-fi show. Actually, Firefly was an 80’s show in spirit, so it’s only appropriate to give it an intro to match.

A fun entry from Longbox Graveyard on how Conan comics overcame the strange taboo about drawing nipples on shirtless male characters. It’s okay to have scantily clad women, but don’t show male nipples! But wait, does this mean we have Roy Thomas to blame for the Joel Schumacher bat suits?

Speaking of bat suits, here’s a visual history of DC live action costumes. Wonder Woman has only one entry, but Cathy Lee Crosby and Adrianne Palicki have both played WW in failed TV pilots and their costumes differed from Lynda Carter’s. For me, the actors who embody these roles are Lynda Carter, Christopher Reeve, and Adam West.

Well, that pretty much brings us full circle. If you have any geeky links you’d like to share, feel free to post them in the comments.