American Identity Through The Eyes of Captain America
How do we define American? Are we defined by the food that we eat, our national holidays, and the sports and music that we enjoy? Does our government, outlined in our much heralded constitution make us who we are? Or, is our American identity not rooted in our shared heritage and traditions but on how we live our lives on a daily basis? These are the questions that "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" addresses in a way that is both entertaining, funny, and unexpectedly moving.
I initially went into the film as a fan boy. I think "The Avengers" is pretty much a masterpiece of large scale storytelling and can easily tell you every movie of Marvel's "phase" based storytelling. That being said "Captain American: The Winter Soldier" has stuck with me in ways beyond nerd obsession. It struck me a brilliant metaphor to raging battle about how we define our cultural identity. The first brilliant clue that the movie will be about this comes not from our hero literally running through the symbolic monuments of our history in Washington D.C. but from the convenient checklist that he keeps of important "American" cultural and political forces that he needs to catch up on.
How do you feel about this list? Do you think it defines what it means to be an American? What would you add or remove from this list? One thing that is missing (definitely on purpose) are the attacks of September 11th and the never ending war on terror that we live with now. This doesn't make the list because this war and all that comes with it is the central issue of the film. The core of the film's story is how Captain stands in the tug of war between lean between "freedom" and "fear" as it pertains to protecting the country in the name of "order." When Captain America learns about a wide-reaching intelligence gathering and "defensive" program he memorably says "you hold a gun on everyone's head and call it protection."
This is a bold line (amongst many) that are clearly directed at the current NSA data-mining program and our continued war on terror. Earlier I asked if our government and constitution define us as Americans and the film presents the terrifying question that if it does, what does it mean if our government is diseased and corrupt? Captain America's choice in the film is to fight directly against the government which he believes has lost its way. The film may be a "super-hero" film but its really a super-revolutionary film. Is Edward Snowden our modern day Captain America? They both were born and raised here and pursued a career in intelligence. Like many whistleblowers or people who expose Governmental wrongdoing, both are labeled "traitor" by their bosses when do they so. The film is brave enough to explicitly draw a connection between standing up for your country's ideals even the when cost may be severe. Pretty intense and thought provoking than your stand blockbuster-fare.
It is not all doom, gloom, and paranoia because the film's true political message is that the strength in America lies not in our military power but in the friendships we make and how we treat our neighbors. I'm not talking about socialism. I'm talking about connecting with one another on an real and emotionally true level. Throughout the film Captain America is defined by his loyalty not to his country but to his friends, both old and new. At first, he jokes about having no personal connections or friends and ,in a painful scene with his old lover, he's reminded of what he once had and doesn't have now. Over the course of the story he learns the value of true friendship after his faith in government betrays him.
His relationship with the antagonist,The Winter Soldier is a driving core of the film and the ending choice the two make shows just how powerful a friendship can be. Throughout the film Captain American and Black Widow become true partners not because of their mission but because of their shared grief and past. The Falcon expresses grief at losing friends in war and leads a group of veterans who are looking for a connection in a brutal world. We're only as strong as the people we trust and cherish, a theme echoed in a memorable showdown in a mission control room later in the film.
It's a shame that many people will immediately write off the film as being a "super-hero" film and not see for the bold political warning story it is. The only other film that comes close to examining our current war on terror was "The Dark Knight" but that was before our current NSA reality and that film was focused on anarchy than repression. "Captain America: The Winter Soldiers" is a masterwork that works well as a surface layer blockbuster, but truly excels in what it says about our current political policies and just how much we're defined by our friendships. We may have different definitions of what it means to be American, but I think we all know that sometimes we all need the help of our people, whether they're super-heroes or not.