Look at the promo picture at the head of this article, and you will see the conflict at the heart of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” captured in one image. Captain America’s iconic “mighty shield” is being used as a weapon against its owner, just as the technological powers of S.H.I.E.L.D. are being used to track down and even kill the heroes it comprises, along with the very people it was intended to protect.
If you remember how the previous “Captain America” film ended, you know that Steve Rogers (Captain America, played by Chris Evans) has been resuscitated after decades in a coma. Rogers is introduced in this new film as very much the strong superhero, but equally a man out of his time. There is an exhibit about him in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where he can see grainy footage of his now dead or dying friends in their youth. He has created a list of things to get caught up on after the 60 or so years he was out of commission. He is nostalgic for his old time, and uncomfortable navigating the new one.
This situation becomes exponentially worse when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up at his apartment, wounded and on the run from traitors in S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury tells Rogers to trust no one and hands him an encrypted thumb drive before an assassin known as the Winter Soldier shoots Fury through the wall. When Fury does not survive, Rogers, accompanied (against his will) by Natasha Romanoff (the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson), continues Fury’s quest to uncover the treachery in S.H.I.E.L.D.
There is a lot that I could praise in this film. It has dramatic battle scenes, corny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one-liners, and an excitingly plotty plot. It raises a wide variety of important issues such as the price of freedom, which makes it very relevant—if you didn’t come out thinking about the ramifications of things like the NSA and drone strikes, you should probably go watch it again. But as I do not have time to write a book, I want to focus on its treatment of cynicism and optimism in light of the reality of our world.
I wasn’t a big fan of “Captain America: The First Avenger.” It surely says more about me than the movie itself that I found Rogers’s Beaver Cleaver decency cloying, but I also thought he seemed to possess more of that “fugitive and cloistered virtue . . . that never sallies out to see her adversary” that Milton rejects in “Areopagitica,” than anything substantive. Rogers had to fight evil as Captain America, but it was an almost unrealistically obvious evil, and it was an evil he never had to understand—he only had to kill it.
Now Rogers’s virtue is tested, because he needs to figure out what is right and what is wrong in a world that is not black and white. He is in the real world, and navigating the real world takes more than his naively optimistic patriotism. “For as long as I remember,” he says, “I just wanted to do what was right. . . . I don’t know what that is anymore.” He wants to fight for his friends and his country, but the government agency he works for is rotten, and his closest comrades are turning on him.
The perhaps obvious answer to his dilemma is provided in his cynical partner, Romanoff. Her identity is hidden inside a Russian nesting doll of cover stories, and when Rogers tries to learn who she is, she asks,
“Who do you want me to be?”
“There’s a chance you may be in the wrong business.”
She tells him, not only that there are no friends, but that there is no truth. “Truth,” she says “is a matter of circumstance . . . like me.” While we might agree with Rogers that “that’s a tough way to live,” the degree to which treachery rots at the core of everything Rogers believed in might make us think Romanoff is nonetheless right: There is no more truth than there is a person to trust.
Which makes it that much more amazing when Rogers continues to fulfill his responsibility as Captain America, continues to love and trust his friends (even if he must be more discerning as to who those friends are), and continues to do what is right no matter the cost, inspiring others, Romanoff included, to follow his example.
This struck me as a particularly valuable film for Christians in America today. We shouldn’t be convinced that our world is always good. We shouldn’t even believe that our United States of America deserves our uncritical adoration. I know that I have Rogers’s tendency to idolize patriotism in myself and I know I am not alone. This country is as full of evil as any other place in the world. But at the same time, I also feel an even stronger urge towards a Romanoff-like cynicism. I might love the abstract idea of a United States of America too much, but as a result, I am perhaps too aimlessly frustrated when I see weak and wicked leaders and their thoughtless followers. And I start to doubt the value of principle on a political level.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” reminded me that there are things worth fighting for, like loyalty and friendship; that there are principles worth dying for, because they are right; and that while realism must temper any optimism about the world, cynicism is as bad as, if not worse than, that untempered optimism.
Things in this world are all tarnished and can be used for evil purposes, just like Captain America’s shield. But as this film reminded me, that never means that we should just walk away and leave them to the enemy.
Image copyright Walt Disney Pictures, via Empire Magazine.
Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell wanted to marry Sam Gamgee for about 10 years of her childhood. Arthur the Labradoodle knows why this is relevant. Do you?