So I finally saw the new Captain America sequel (Oh, and there are spoilers ahead in case you’re planning to see it but are even lazier than I am).
Off the bat, I enjoyed it. It moved along well. Good action, blah, blah, blah.
Then there’s the lunacy of Winter Soldier’s bionic arm. This, too, is a longstanding peeve of mine. You know what you get when a guy with a bionic arm lifts a two ton truck? A truck with a really cool bionic arm attachment and a dude lying on the ground screaming in pain as he looks at the huge gaping hole in his shoulder where his bionic arm used to be. Or you might get a dude writhing on the ground in agony over his two popped knee caps. The weight gets distributed, people.
Okay, now that I got that out of the way. Let’s talk about the political controversy. Many on the right, including NRO’s own reviewer of the film, Armond White, as well as my friend John Podhoretz are dismayed by the movie. John begins: “Aficionados often refer to comic books in terms of eras: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age. The same may now be true of the comic-book movie. Judging from last year’s mega-hit Iron Man 3, and the brand-new mega-hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the comic-book movie has entered the Commie Age.” He goes on:
The great villain in these two movies isn’t an evil alien, or a dastardly villain, but “Fear.” You remember Fear. Fear is what leftists began telling us we were being peddled after 9/11 to advance the corporatist neoconservative agenda to take over the world. There was no real Islamist threat, according to this line of argument; it was ginned up to induce Fear. This was and is the favored line of argument on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” and of the activist journalist Glenn Greenwald, the front man for Edward Snowden.
Meanwhile, a lot of folks seem to think the movie is in fact libertarian. Quite a few people on Twitter as well as students here at Hillsdale have complained that conservative complaints about the movie miss the point somehow.
On the merits, I side with the critics. I think John’s point about the Fear is particularly well-taken. It’s worth thinking about where this notion came from. There are two sources. One is the storied FDR line “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” But there’s a second source of the Fear storyline. It comes out of the liberal-left’s response to the Cold War. The so-called anti-anti-Communist left routinely argued that anti-Communism was rooted in paranoia not reality. Never mind that there really were Communists working for the Soviets in the U.S. government. Never mind that the Evil Empire really was evil and an empire. They held that it was unworthy of America to be overly concerned about such things.
Hence an irony. The meaning of FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” line is that we should confront our fears directly and deal with them. (Sure, in FDR’s case that meant launching a largely disastrous economic policy. But the point is sound.) But the Cold War connotation of the Fear meant something close to the opposite. It meant ignoring, not confronting what we feared because fear itself was worse than the threat. Funny side note: If the government had that attitude in the 1940s, we never would have confronted the Nazis with . . . Captain America. Steve Rogers would have stayed 4-F. Because creating eugenic super-soldiers is an act of fear, something a great nation like America need not resort to.
Now fast forward to today. Here we have a world where — in just the last few years — New York has been all but demolished by an alien invasion. Waves of villainous mutants have launched insurrections. And, in Winter Soldier, we discover a near century-old Nazi cult is alive and well and has infiltrated the government and SHIELD (a multinational super espionage and crisis management consortium). And the wise and idealistic response to this is . . . dismantle SHIELD entirely and immediately! Better to do without the only agency organized for planetary defense, than to, Oh I don’t know, fix it.
But it gets worse: The heroes upload all of SHIELD’s secrets to the Internet. Because there’s no time to waste. We have to destroy SHIELD right away without any serious discussion or democratic debate. That’s the American Way, after all.
Question: Do all of these uploaded documents include the schematics for all of SHIELD’s super-awesome weapon systems? How about the secret identities of superheroes, innocent mutants and, for that matter, SHIELD agents? Did they just upload DIY instructions for Iron Man’s suits? It really didn’t seem like there was a lot of time for the Black Widow to sort through the files and make sure everything she was uploading was safe for wide dissemination. But who cares? It’s the right thing to do, because, Fear.
Bizarrely, Nick Fury who has dedicated his life to protecting America — and humanity — can be convinced of all this in about 40 seconds. Ah, Nick we hardly knew ye.
Now, look, I’ve never really liked SHIELD because it always struck me as the U.N.’s police force (SHIELD’s legal status, much like what the letters actually stand for, have been a moving target for a very long time). But you’d think the citizen-of-the world types would like that aspect of it. This is the long-fabled International Community — with teeth! But no. Because, Fear. And that’s the real irony. It’s Captain America’s response that is based in irrational fear of a threat of what could be versus the threat that actually exists. The notion that this is what smart people would actually do in such an environment is insane. Look how American politics changed — for good or ill — after 9/11. Now imagine an invading supernatural army pouring out of an extra-dimensional hole in the sky, complete with flying monster fish-type things, leveling nearly all of midtown in a bid to conquer Earth and install a global god-king in the form of Loki. (That’s what happens in the first Avengers movie). Show of hands: Who thinks all of the enlightened people would opt for simply destroying SHIELD outright?
In Winter Soldier’s defense, it’s a comic-book movie intended for a global audience. As such it doesn’t really make arguments about anything so much as gestures that stand in for arguments. These gestures provide the necessary punctuation between the explosions. But it’s worth noting that one reason Hollywood is so invested in these kinds of movies is that they translate well around the world (you don’t need subtitles for fireballs and car crashes). And foreign profits are often more important than domestic these days. The same goes for these political gestures. Foreign audiences don’t see the U.N. police force being dismantled, they see the American national-security apparatus being dismantled — and they cheer.