So my partner and I went to Captain America: The Winter Soldier yesterday.
First, the obvious: It was an awesome action movie. The FX and stunt work were great. Chris Evans continues to grow in his role as Steve “Captain America” Rogers; Scarlett Johansson continues to deepen her role as Black Widow, and Samuel L. Jackson continues to define his role as Nick Fury as a man of deep but compromised and stained principle.
Cap shows us in multiple scenes that he’s no longer a complete foreigner to the 21st Century. We know that Steve will never get over losing Peggy, but how many people truly get over losing someone they loved? Steve’s dealing with something that most of us, sooner or later, will have to deal with: Losing an elderly loved one not to death, which hurts enough already, but to dementia (it’s clear this isn’t the first time Steve has visited Peggy, but she can’t remember). But it’s clear that he’s getting to a place where he’s ready to start dating; Natasha is avidly trying to get him to date, and he’s showing that he’s not entirely unreceptive to the idea (though I’m not certain the wisdom of trying to get Steve to date Sharon, who is related to Peggy).
The movie shows us Cap bonding with other veterans, particularly Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie, who needs to be in more blockbusters, and who as we all know will become The Falcon by the midpoint of the film). Steve in many ways has more in common with the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan than with those of his own generation, and it’s good to see him bonding with people of his own physical age in more ways than one – it shows that he’s becoming part of his new era instead of trying to cling to the old.
Yet Steve is not so isolated from his roots that he can’t draw inspiration from what was good in his origins, and he dons the old Red, White, and Blue for the final reel. The 1940s were absolutely an ugly, racist time. But they were also a time when Americans took great risk to enter a war that could never reach our shores because the world we wanted to live in could not coexist with Nazism as a national animating philosophy.
Also, Sebastian Stan has beautiful eyes that are compelling when he looks hurt, which he spends about 50% of his screen time doing.
Oh, if you don’t want painful introspection about American foreign policy, this is the part where you should leave, by the by.
At its best, Captain America as a character and as a media property reminds us and chides us that we are not the people we should be, and this installation follows in that tradition – and because of this, I am very happy that Steve is not fixed in the past, because he knows, and we know, that as messed up as America is, we’ve been worse.
I was pleasantly surprised with Captain America: The Winter Soldier – more so because of its pungent and well-timed criticism of American foreign policy for the last six decades. HYDRA may have been restarted by one of the German scientists brought to the United States by Operation Paperclip, but it would have withered on the vine without the fertile soil of people in its adoptive land who were receptive to its poisonous ideas and memes. American history is replete with horrors caused by our belief that we deserve to be in control; Adolf Hitler based the Holocaust on the American war of extermination against the indigenous peoples of this continent, so HYDRA also represented an uncomfortable parallelism in that regard.
When Alexander Pierce speaks, we’re meant to squirm uncomfortably in our seats, because he’s saying things that resonate in American history, every time we let ourselves believe that killing and conquest are for the greater good. When he expresses his belief in preemption of terrorism with targeted killing from safely afar, we recognize as we should that this is something America is already doing, with missile-armed drones controlled by men in bunkers in Nevada.
When we create chaos for the sake of domination, we betray ourselves. When we insist that the way the world is demands that we destroy others to make ourselves safe, we betray what is good in us. Freedom is hard. Freedom is the opposite of doing whatever we want. Freedom demands that we have the discipline to restrain ourselves from taking whatever we want so that others can have enough. Freedom demands principle and it demands sacrifice so others can be free.
We have to be willing to make that sacrifice. To invert a popular quotation from Mark Waid’s run on Captain America a decade or so ago, when the river of truth bends away from us, we have to be humble enough to rejoin it.
It’s not about planting yourself beside that river and saying “No, you move.”
It’s about walking along the river and saying “Yes, I’ll move.”