WARNING: This article contains spoilers…
Captain America: Rise of the Winter Solider is both the latest in the Avengers film series and first a summer blockbuster of 2014. It has all of the hallmarks of the genre: pithy, yet witty dialogue, intrigue, drama, and, of course, copious explosions and violence. (If you are Canadian, the early scenes feature of hand-to-hand battle between Captain American and George St. Pierre which will bring an approving smirk). And yet there are several political commentaries lurking not far under the surface of the plot.
The film revolves around a fleet of three ‘heli-carriers’; immense airborne platforms capable of launching futuristic attack aircraft and armed with a satellite controlled targeting system capable of killing specific individuals hundreds of thousands at a time. The heli-carriers utilize a highly advanced algorithm, which makes use of the entire world’s bank of electronic information, to predict identify, and task the heli-carriers’ banks of precisions weapons to execute individuals deemed a threat to international order. The immense vessels are to become SHEILD’s first line of defence against threats to global peace and order. Though hyperbolic, the heli-carriers and their targeting system are an interesting dramaturgical reference to the current use of drones for targeted assassinations around the world. What is more interesting, however, are the film’s attempts to deal with other social and political issues which exist in relation to this technology.
From the outset Cap’ is not pleased with these new weapons systems; actually, he sees them as a direct affront to the freedom his compatriots sacrificed for in the Second World War. In response Captain America takes form as an inherently conservative figure, driven by concepts of honour, freedom, and humble decency that western cultural memory so often likens to the ‘greatest generation’ he was part of. He vividly remembers tyranny and is, according to the narrative structure of the film, predisposed to see its guise lurking under the shadows of technological advancement. He personifies memory, and embodies justice, which stands in direct contravention to Cap’s newest enemy: the Winter Solider. The audience comes to find out that there are shadowy figures within SHEILD bent on using this technology nefariously. An attempted assassination of Nick Fury is used to turn Captain American out as a traitor in order to put him on the run.
Though the plot takes place within the shadow of the heli-carriers, the Captain America’s nemesis is the Winter Soldier. A renowned assassin who many believe does not even exist, the Winter Solider is brought in to keep Captain American from disrupting the deployment of the heli-carriers. Brought in, that is, by the Secretary in charge of SHEILD. Though shrouded in mystery for about half the film, we come to learn that the Winter Soldier is actually ‘Bucky’ Barnes, Cap’s once childhood friend turned brother-in-arms. Bucky has, like his once friend, been given super-human capacities through experimentation, with the dubious distinction of having been given a bio-mechanical arm. But, where Captain American was created by the West, the Winter Soldier is a product of HYDRA; he is yet another weapon to be used in defence of their tyrannical plots.
Of the same generation, the same age, and both personifications of the growing ability of technology to re-create the human body, the stunning difference between the two is that Bucky has no memory of himself, his history, or his friend, Steve Rogers (Captain America). In perhaps the most powerful scene of the film, when the Winter Warrior discusses a murky memory of Captain America, the Secretary of SHEILD (his handler) orders his mind reset—the Winter Warrior calmly bites down on a mouthpiece and proceeds to have his mind wiped through what appears to be an enormously painful process. The Winter Warrior’s memory, that which differentiates him from Captain America, is subject to the whims of tyrannical power.
These are enormously powerful narratives, with the capacity to render a would-be summer block buster, good only as temporary entertainment, an interesting political platform. Sadly, the film does not capitalize on them. Or, at least fully realize their potential. Rather than SHEILD, a massive security bureaucracy, having succumb to tyranny through its collective forgetting, we come to learn it has been infiltrated by HYDRA and now does its bidding. Captain America, along with his compatriots, wage a campaign to take control of the heli-carriers before their enormous power can be used by to HYDRA to frighten the world into submission and order, at the cost of millions of lives. Justice of course prevails.
What is unimpressive with this narrative, upon reflection, is that the tyrant still comes through the form of a network of well-placed political players, and memory is taken as a simple antidote to the its threat. The technology, and by extension memory, merely serve the whims of specific tyrants. This is a potent warning, but it is a banal and partial one. What is more interesting is how the advances of technology make this kind of political climate possible. The ambiguity of technology, most specifically how it can create both Captain American and the Winter Soldier, is cast aside in favour of a last minute reprieve. After falling from the sky our last image of the Winter Solider is his mechanical arm pulling Captain America to safety, before disappearing. In dealing with technology and memory the film has an interesting political message, however, it favours nostalgia instead of a more nuanced engagement with the Janus-faced nature of technology and our relationship to it.
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