Freedom or Security? – MCU’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Chris Evans, the actor who impersonated Captain America, said the following words regarding his character’s transition from the WWII era to the modern day: “It’s not so much about his shock with [technology]… It’s more about the societal differences. He’s gone from the ’40s to today; he comes from a world where people were a little more trusting, the threats not as deep. Now, it’s harder to tell who’s right and wrong. Actions you take to protect people from threats could compromise liberties and privacy. That’s tough for Steve to swallow.“ Steve Rogers is now living in Post-9/11 America, in the age of increasing distrust in the institutions and the rising importance of the dilemma between freedom and security.

As the quintessential American (super) hero, Captain America embodies the American values of freedom and individualism, self-reliance and if the odds are against you fighting even harder. Captain America works for the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. under the command of Nick Fury. The latter’s distrust in his associates is displayed early on in the film, and Captain America shows reluctance in following orders when things are shady and his role in the organization is a tough thing for him to swallow.

After a successful rescue operation involving pirates in the international waters, he says: “I’m geting a little tired of being Fury’s janitor.“ In the comic book series Civil War, a govermental registration of superheroes is enforced, and Captain America is leading the side which is against the registration. Working for a government agency, although it is an intelligence agency, goes against the principles of a an individualistic superhero who fights for his beliefs alone, being in fact a renegade, following his own moral code. Fury reveals S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Project Insight to Captain America, and their conversation deserves to be quoted in full, due to its significance:

Nick Fury: These new long rage precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps out outside his spider hole. We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.

Steve Rogers: I thought the punishment usually comes *after* the crime.

Nick Fury: We can’t afford to wait that long.

Steve Rogers: Who’s “we”?

Nick Fury: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once we’re way ahead of the curve.

Steve Rogers: By holding a gun at everyone at Earth and calling it protection.

Nick Fury: You know I read those SSR files. Greatest generation? You guys did some nasty stuff.

Steve Rogers: Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so the people could be free. This is not freedom, this is fear.

Nick Fury: S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. And it’s getting damn near past time to get that program, Cap.

Steve Rogers: Don’t hold your breath.

In the comic book series Superman:Red Son, an alternate reality in the comic book series is explored, in which Superman comes to the Soviet Union instead of the USA and becomes a totalitarian leader of the Union, encompassing the entire world except the USA and Chile. In this comic book series, the possibility of one superpower (embodied in Superman) dominating the world and ruling through fear is explored. Superman does not kill, but the very threat of violence over the entire world is enough to make the regime despotic and governed by ultimate fear. With his powers, Superman is able to oversee the lives of each citizen and builds a utopia where life is prolonged, there is no unemployment etc.

As Mervi Miettinen, in her doctoral dissertation “Truth, Justice and the American Way?: The Popular Geopolitcs of American Identity in Contemporary Superhero Comics“ claims that Superman: Red Son explores the scenario of world domination by one superpower, and after the fall of the Soviet Union it is the USA, and the threat this domination poses to freedom in the name of security and peace. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Project Insight echoes the scenario from Superman: Red Son and explores the scope of the desire for security, while sacrificing freedom of world’s citizens and the obvious implication is that this project is totalitarian.

This argument becomes even more explicit when we find out that the organization standing behind Project Insight is in fact HYDRA, a rogue Nazi organization bent on world domination which Captain America fought against in the WWII, now operating under the Nazi scientist whose mind was preserved in digital memory. Major world events in the second half of the twentieth century are explained as part of HYDRA’s conspiracy which seeps chaos in all corners of the world. One critic has rightfully noted that “this installment delivers a heavy… dose of paranoia” and the explanation of wars and world chaos as a part of a Nazi conspiracy, although they were defeated, seems to give order to the otherwise contingent series of events. This is of course paranoid, and Captain America’s embodiment of the American hero is portrayed in the enemies he fights.

Those are organizations which have totalitarian ambitions of world domination, and the Soviet background of the mysterious assassin The Winter Soldier further emphasizes this notion. What is problematic, and worrying to an extent, is that HYDRA’s project has gained support in S.H.I.E.L.D., an American intelligence agency, and even a U.S. senator is a part of the conspiracy. In this fictional universe the totalitarian utopian ideas have taken hold in the United States as well, and this seems to be an implicit commentary that the values of freedom and democracy are in danger to be compromised by the demands of achieving security in an increasingly chaotic and destabilized world. Near the end of the film, half of the S.H.I.E.L.D.’s forces ally with HYDRA, while the other half follow the command of Captain America who resolutely denies the sacrifice of core American values. This is the portrayal of a sharply divided society. The defeat of the totalitarian forces is imminent, and in this movie the classic structure of an American monomyth is portrayed:

“A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by his fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002)

Another common motif is hero’s sacrifice, and at the end of the movie Captain America battles the Winter Soldier and is ready to be sacrificed for his community: the target of hellicariers, heavily armed warships sent to the orbit, (since aircraft carriers are a symbol of America’s military supremacy, this is another interesting allusion) is redirected from civilians to the airships, and Captain America is on one of them. At the end of the film, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s agents on HYDRA’s side are defeated and in a symptomatic scene, one of the agents who worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. but decided to follow the command of Captain America is shown wearing a CIA uniform.

Thus, the normal order is re-established. The Black Widow, who worked with Captain America throughout the film has a discussion with one of the top government officials and her reply to his statement that she should be locked up due to her service record (she worked for the KGB) is again, symptomatic. She says: “You’re not gonna put me in prison. You’re not gonna put any of us in prison. You know why?… Because you need us. Yes the world is a vulnerable place, and yes we help make it that way. But we are also the ones best qualified to defend it. [my emphasis] So if you wanna arrest me, arrest me. You know where to find me.”

Miettinen argues that the superheroes’ extralegal nature positions them outside the law, but also on the inside. They are the ones who break the law in order to uphold it, to simplify Carl Schmitt’s definition of the state of exception. Although they are in fact renegades, one could say criminals, they are also, as the Black Widow states, paradoxically, the only ones who are capable of defending the democratic order, although they break its principles. In comic books, government officials are often referred to as unable to defend the democratic order due to their bureaucratic nature. Democracy needs the undemocratic super (heroes) who will defend it, even if they break the law. This is the argument which lies at the core of America’s mythology embodied in the comic book superheroes.



Mervi Miettinen (2012), Truth, Justice and the American Way?: The Popular Geopolitics of American Identity in Contemporary Superhero Comics (Doctoral dissertation)















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