Back in 2011, in the pages of Action Comics #900, Superman renounced his American citizenship. It was a bold move on DC Comics’ part, but also an increasingly relevant one, indicative of modern globalization in a time in which patriotism and heroism are no longer as synonymous as they were when Action Comics #1 was released in 1938.
As Superman himself put it, “Truth, justice and the American way – it’s not enough anymore.”
Easy enough for an alien from another planet, but how do you question your country’s motivations within the global theater and what it means to be a patriot when your country’s name and your own are one and the same?
The ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain American: The Winter Soldier, revolves around that question. It’s a timely piece that effectively sticks to the Marvel format of presenting as much humor and action per frame of film as possible while simultaneously brimming beneath the surface with questions and ruminations deeper than any its Marvel predecessors had to offer.
Also, there’s this cool part on a boat. No sharks though.
Winter Soldier finds Steve Rogers kicking ass across the globe for S.H.I.E.L.D. while playing a game of cultural catch-up to compensate for the more than half a century he spent on ice.
America in the waning days of the War on Terror is a very different place than America in the waning days of World War II, and as Captain America, Steve Rogers finds himself caught in the chasm of that harsh juxtaposition. Is his embodying America an embodiment of nationalism? Is it the embodiment of a geographical construct? A political one? Religious? Social? Economic? Is it some combination of those characteristics? Are some of those characteristics more important than others?
Also, how’d he get those cool muscles, am I right?
Captain America is defined by, you guessed it, America. But in Winter Soldier what defines America has gotten murkier and murkier by the decade. The film largely deals with Steve Rogers trying to clear up the waters.
Of course Winter Soldier never goes too far down the rabbit hole of the existential crisis of patriotism. It’s a Marvel movie. Its primary concern is being fun as hell and at that Cap 2 most certainly succeeds. But the subtext is there. Unlike The Dark World of Iron Man 3, both of which I enjoyed, The Winder Soldier kept me thinking long after I saw it.
The film’s examination of patriotism isn’t flawless. When Steve Rogers has a conversation with a black former soldier in which he compares the good old days to the now the polio vaccine and the internet both come up as cultural triumphs, but desegregation is entirely ignored. Indeed Winter Soldier can at times lean a little sharply into the ideal of The Greatest Generation, painting rebellion against authoritarian entities more as a response to a national fall from grace, rather than a constant force for social and political improvement.
Also, there’s this one part where he throws his shield around and it bounces off of all kinds of stuff and guys and knocks them all out… and then he catches it! And he does that craziness at least, like, three times.
By the end of Winter Soldier I think it’s safe to say that the Captain’s America is defined by that rebellion against tyranny, no matter the source. Sure, that’s an extremely malleable ideal, as what is and isn’t tyranny changes based on whose dumb signs you’re reading on a highway overpass, but it’s an enviable one nonetheless.
Sure, sure, The Winter Soldier is mostly performances and set pieces and direction and thrilling plot and biff, bam, pow, but it asks questions too. And while The Winter Soldier might fumble in its pursuit of the answers and doesn’t necessarily even end up retrieving answers at all, it asks questions worth considering for yourself.
1. Is the rebellion against authoritarianism a sign of the times, or a cultural constant?
2. Is it wrong that Marvel called a movie “The Winter Soldier” but released it in April?
3. Captain America uses a shield, but then those guys from that thing are also called S.H.I.E.L.D. Am I the only one picking up on this?
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