Deep Freezes: Captain America, The Winter Soldier and the Long Shadow of World War II
“Oh, man. I am so fired,” moans Stan Lee in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a 2014 blockbuster from Marvel Studios. Lee’s cameo as a security guard for a Smithsonian exhibit on The First Avenger’s World War II days presents a hugely ironic moment in the film. One of the prime movers and shakers of the Marvel Universe’s nascent days in the 1960s, Lee made comic books relevant to the larger social shifts in the United States. As the spokesman for Marvel in later decades, Lee continued to propound his spandexed musclemen as not only culturally hip, but politically modern—super-powered metaphors for contemporary times.
No wonder Lee, outfitted as a guardian of Americana, sighed at the theft of Captain America’s garb. The Winter Soldier is not the only frozen relic in this movie.
Captain America’s premise positions the superhero as a man out of time. Not only does the World War II-era protagonist have to catch up on modern culture—he scratches Star Wars off his list—he has to contend with the changing political landscape. To help keep the peace and champion the American Way, he has affiliated himself with S.H.I.E.L.D., a government agency whose acronym reflects the obsession with homeland security. According to Marvel lore, S.H.I.E.L.D. emerged during the Cold War as a byproduct of World War II to help maintain the post-Hitler Free World. Captain America, forever entombed in patriotic fervor, aids them, if only because a former flame had helped found the agency. Theoretically, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Cap mutually battle the extralegal threats no one hero could withstand.
Rooted in World War II, Cap has trouble keeping up with S.H.I.E.L.D. The agency’s current plan is Project Insight, the name of which indicates the surveillance-oriented goal of keeping tabs on the planet’s inhabitants. Although S.H.I.E.L.D. maintains a theme of national security, Captain America harbors doubts about the infringement of civil liberties and privacies. Unbeknownst to the good Captain, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s satellites do more than track suspected terrorists: heavily armed, Project Insight can also execute anyone on the planet with the flip of a switch. Captain America doesn’t see this as freedom, but fear—a claim which the movie does not elaborate, but evokes one of the Four Freedoms President Roosevelt had famously dubbed an American idiom and a universal human right. Captain America, a wartime relic from that era, clearly sees the nation he protects veering too close to fascist fashion.
Captain America and The Real America
The movie’s timing coincided with real-world concerns. The United States has come under criticism for its reliance on surveillance drones which, like its cinematic counterpart, serves as a government watchdog on individuals, but can also remove potential threats. Produced in 2013 and 2014, the film capitalized on Edward Snowden’s infamous leaked documents concerning investigative government agencies such as the National Security Agency, the F.B.I., and the C.I.A. Their ties with drone-killing programs have continued to make headlines, with harsh condemnations concerning the contentions between the program and the ideologies of American freedom and democracy.
Hollywood’s exploiting current events and controversies have been around since the birth of the nation’s movies. But to link a filmic N.S.A. as an inherently flawed institution—nay, a breeding ground for the antithesis of un-American activities—with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s failure to keep the peace could invite some heavy feedback and, given the movie’s paranoia, unwanted attention from Higher Ups. And to suggest that the Home of the Brave could be un-American would make our star-spangled hero seem a bit silly. To avoid controversy, the producers at Marvel reveal their villains not as Americans-gone-wrong, but were, in fact, not really Americans to begin with. For the heavies, Marvel turned to the age-old standbys: the Nazis. Not only did Hitler’s stooges serve as the villains in the first Captain America movie, the Third Reich’s deserved reputation as one of the worst regimes in history allow the filmmakers to portray the fascists in all their sneering, heavily-accented depravity without ruffling feathers.
Captain America Rewriting History
The Nazis’ overarching villainy not only encourages the audience to sympathize with Captain America’s struggle, but also rewrites history as a convenient conspiratorial plot. As Captain America: Winter Solider reveals, the emerging Cold War in the late 1940s motivated the American government to recruit German scientists to fight on their side, rather than allow the Soviet Union to trap them behind the Iron Curtain. Historians have contended the U.S. revitalization of Western Europe in the postwar aftermath, including the Marshall Plan and German Airlift, certainly emphasized enfolding Western Germany within NATO and other U.S.-led organizations, including the development of nuclear weapons and the arms race. Marvel’s spymaster Nick Fury doesn’t rehash any of this history; he merely chastises Captain America that the “Greatest Generation” wasn’t all that squeaky clean when it came to dirty jobs.
Cap agrees the battle against the Axis precluded some “nasty stuff,” but he counterbalances these activities with the wartime emergency: “We did it so people could be free.” Since Cap disappeared from history before the war ended, he himself is absolved from the Cold War that broke out after the Allies won the peace. One such scientist recruited for the U.S. was Arnim Zola, whose genius served the Free World during the Cold War; so crucial was Zola that the U.S. preserved his brain in a living computer after his death. Unfortunately, Zola’s same brain power positioned him to form a neo-Nazi group, Hydra, within the heart of American intelligence. Like its mythological namesake, Hydra’s multi-headed schemes has corrupted America from within—conjoining S.H.I.E.L.D. as two sides of the same coin, as one villain notes. But Hydra is more than just a name-change; the film implicates the Nazis-cum-Hydra as the instigator of the Cold War. Their secret weapon, the Winter Soldier, is a Nazi pet project: Captain America’s former World War II ally, Bucky Barnes, now brainwashed into a dupe for evil, sports the Soviet red star on his arm—and, in comic books, was reconstructed as a stinkin’ Commie agent. Here, the Russians get off scott-free, sticking the blame on the swastika-ed Baron Strucker.
To save the world, Captain America must buck-up against his former friend. He’s not alone: Cap teams-up with Black Widow, an Americanized ex-KGB agent “going straight” after a disillusioning stint working for Moscow. Together, this dynamic duo symbolically represents the old alliance from the Good War and they channel that synergy to mimic a new Double-V at home: over Hydra and to redeem Bucky. The Cold War had turned the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. into bipolar enemies, but the movie presents the Nazis as an ubermensch foe—one that can elicit universal condemnation. Fortunately, Cap plays the American savior and, by restoring the Winter Soldier, saves the American Way. By donning his old World War II costume and quoting dialogue from flashback sequences, Captain America evokes the shared memory of their wartime experience and shakes the Winter Soldier from his long Cold War slumber. Bucky quickly re-educates himself via Smithsonian placards—where Cap has presumably restored his wartime togs—and the Americans will undoubtedly find another hero to join their ranks.
The Winter Soldier as WWII Veteran
Bucky’s story highlights another aspect of warfare: casualties and the rehabilitation of veterans. Captain America volunteers his time at the local VA to help soldiers suffering from PTSD, the walking wounded that America has never been comfortable handling once they make it back alive but hardly in one piece. The movie does not overemphasize the importance of caring for the troops once they are stateside, but lightly touches on the notion that in every war, no matter how just, tragedies still happen. We watch the Captain struggle the morality of going to war against the price that must be paid. Bucky was a similar casualty that despite impossible odds still managed to be brought back from the brink.
And the U.S. will need his help. Hydra is still going strong. Aside from the poor dupe Bucky, the neo-Nazi group maintains other operatives, including a bloated lothario U.S. Senator, a cabinet secretary who had turned down the Nobel peace prize and genuinely believes murdering twenty million Americans and scaring the populace into submission will enhance world security. In addition, special agent Jasper Sitwell—whose surname reflects his comfortable position within S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ranks—leads the un-American rank. Sitwell’s disguise as a hyper-American comes from 1960s comic books as an overeager whiz-kid who constantly barks out the then-mod slogan “Don’t Yield, Back S.H.I.E.L.D.!” Here, Sitwell’s turncoat serves as an ironic twist for longtime comic book readers, but for the movie, Sitwell’s introduction, betrayal, and squeamishness before Captain America merely serves as a convenient plot device. The other Hydra agents, mainly anonymous extras, demonstrate Hydra’s serpent-stranglehold on America’s government. Then again, audiences can breathe easily knowing none of these G.I. Joes are “real” American heroes.
Captain America and The Future of the Nation
With S.H.I.E.L.D. infested with Nazis, Captain America realizes the best thing to do is to scrap the entire institution and start over. Nick Fury has qualms, but understands. His last words—“Trust no one”—underscores the complexities of clandestine Homeland Security where the compartmentalization of everything allows un-American subversives to fester under their noses. Thankfully, the USA has other resources: the closing shots feature leftover S.H.I.E.L.D. agents joining the C.I.A. as they quickly sever the heads of Hydra. The ex-S.H.I.E.L.D.ers may have little to do in follow ups, but the film is OK with that. They have the superheroes instead. Audiences know this because Black Widow says so, as she mouths off at Congress before she sashays from the investigating committee; her special status justifies her contempt for the political due process. As for Captain America, he disavows himself from the government’s impossible missions and becomes a nomad not in search of American Identity, but a solo quest to smash Strucker’s operations. Any disillusionment he has doesn’t stem from homegrown corruption creeping into the Oval Office. Nope, it’s the Nazis—those inglorious, un-American bastards.
Across the ideological spectrum, the nefarious Baron von Strucker—another ageless Nazi survivor—also knows the twenty-first century is a new era where traditional cloak-and-dagger spies play no role. America has little choice but to play second fiddle to the super-men among them. The future of the United States may have stronger protectors, but their antagonists—a quicksilver speedster and a scarlet-eyed witch, and whatever else these lingering Nazis can conjure up—merely point to the greater need for American vigilance. Otherwise, Marvel’s upcoming movie tells us, we risk losing the Marvel Age for the Age of Ultron.
As the need to avenge such wrongs increase, so will the superheroes. Advertisements and Marvelites already know the Nazis’ latest henchmen—twins, no less—will join the ranks of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes by the end of the next movie. Captain America, prominent in the posters, will surely put aside his nomadic quest long enough to “keep ‘em flying,” to borrow the old World War II motto. By using the Nazis as a convenient scapegoat to bolster the American spirit, the film s.h.i.e.l.d.s the United States from the larger issues and the contention between national security and the ideology Captain America espouses. The Nazis, not the deeper fissures of American social and political milieus, become the rallying point for avengers of the American Way to assemble. Captain America’s refusal to reflect and take a stand on the contemporary “crises” in the real world indicates the film’s winter soldier isn’t just Bucky, but the Captain who abandoned his ship in an increasingly uncertain world.
by Patrice Reyes and Peter Lee
Peter W. Lee
Peter W. Lee is a doctoral candidate at Drew University, where he focuses on American history and youth culture. His dissertation examines the construction of boyhood through American films in the early Cold War. Among his most recent publications are chapters in The Ages of the Avengers, Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, and The Journal of the West.
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