When Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit theaters in April 2014, critics and audiences alike hailed the superhero flick as one of the very best entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In addition to admiring its well-paced action scenes and conspiracy thriller vibe, a whole lot of people praised the film for its politics. From the lefties at Daily Kos to the righties at Breitbart, most everyone seemed to support The Winter Soldier’s political agenda.
So what kind of agenda are they talking about exactly?
Well, in an interview with Mother Jones, the movie’s co-director Joe Russo explained Marvel wanted The Winter Soldier to be a political thriller. Of course, the Russos knew if you were going to make a political film, you had to address current and controversial topics. Sure, the Iron Man (2008-2013) series took a few shots at the military-industrial complex, but this new film needed to be edgier and in your face, politically speaking.
So what topic did the Russos choose to tackle? As Joe put it, “[Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us…And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties, drone strikes, the president’s kill list, preemptive technology…” Like many people, the Russos worried about the Obama administration’s so-called “disposition matrix” (a.k.a. the database that helps track and kill suspected U.S. enemies) and the increasing use of ethically unsettling drone strikes…strikes that don’t only kill bad guys.
Wanting to tackle this topic head-on, the Russos turned S.H.I.E.L.D. into a corrupt institution that plans on neutralizing “a lot of threats before they even happen.” The agency’s plan is to develop an algorithm that can determine who’s a threat and who’s not. (Nick Fury thinks this is all in America’s best interests. Really, it’s a Hydra scheme to assassinate anyone who might oppose their new world order. Either way, it’s pretty unsettling.) Once the program determines a potential enemy, three powerful gunships—loaded down with heavy weaponry—will take out anyone who stands in S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra’s way.
Obviously, Captain America is 100% opposed to this insane scheme and tries to stop Hydra’s diabolical plot. Even before Steve Rogers learns S.H.I.E.L.D. is secretly run by a group of psychopathic Nazis, he’s uneasy with the whole idea of drone strikes. Shouldn’t suspected enemies stand trial? Isn’t assassinating people without due process, you know, wrong? Does S.H.I.E.L.D. have the right to hold everyone on Earth hostage with their super-weapons? “This isn’t freedom,” he tells Nick Fury. “This is fear.”
The Winter Soldier’s political commentary also works on a second level, although it wasn’t completely intentional. Part of Hydra’s plan involves analyzing every scrap of information about every single person on the planet. By looking at people’s “bank records, medical histories, voting patterns, emails, phone calls, [their] damn SAT scores,” Hydra’s algorithm can determine who will submit to their new rule and who won’t. Basically, they’re spying on everyone…just like the NSA. This feels completely intentional, but believe it or not, the Russos were already filming The Winter Soldier when Edward Snowden dropped his bombshell revelations about the U.S. intelligence community.
Still, while the Russos weren’t intentionally referencing the NSA scandal, we can interpret the film in light of recent events. “It was all leading up to Snowden,” Joe Russo explains. “It was all in the ether [already], it was all part of the zeitgeist.” And as the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg* noted, when Black Widow exposes S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra’s secrets online, she’s eerily imitating Snowden’s actions. Only instead of running to Russia, this black-clad whistleblower can just high-kick anyone who gets in her way.
(* It should be pointed out that Rosenberg was not a fan of the film, saying the movie criticizes governments for using extrajudicial violence but gives Captain America and company a pass for more-or-less the same behavior.)