How I Learned To Stop Using the Internet and Foil Nazis – A Review of ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’

In his review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Robbie Collin from The Telegraph states that “you can’t help but feel disappointment that a film with a relatively spicy premise becomes, in the end, so risk-averse.” Upon first reading that sentence, I was nodding my head, feeling like here is a guy who is looking past all the hype and recognizes that Winter Soldier feels like it starts a few really important conversations (namely about the exchange of freedom for security and the dissolution of privacy in the Internet era) but abandons the conversation for the sake of a climactic, shield-slinging, knife-tossing introduction to the summer blockbuster season. The more I think about the movie’s refusal to answer the questions it poses, the less convinced I am that it has any responsibility to do so and the more I realize we’re actually having the wrong debate.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with Captain America going on a tour of the basement of S.H.I.E.L.D (the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division), where it is revealed that they are putting the finishing touches on three enormous helicarriers, capable of killing hundreds of thousands of specifically-targeted hostile individuals within a matter of minutes. Immediately opposed to the idea of these titanic machines of death looming over America, Cap refuses. “This isn’t freedom,” he states, “this is fear.” The line immediately brings to mind images of full body scanners in airports, wiretapping, data mining, and all of the other compromises to privacy that have come about in (and I hate myself for using this phrase) a post-9/11 society. It’s a topical discussion and we are given characters who have the opportunity to explore the issue. Captain America speaks for the freedom-first argument where Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D, sees himself as a pragmatist and a realist, saying that he “sees the world as it is, not as it should be.” The movie teases that their debate is going to come to a head and make a statement about whether security is worth the abandonment of freedom but the conversation ends up being hijacked by a third voice, against which Cap and Nick can unite.I doubt that when Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely sat down (or whatever position they preferred) to write a sequel to Captain America, that they expected to create a story that would provide a solution to a sociopolitical debate that has been going on for centuries. Luckily, no matter how incompatible two characters’ opinions may seem, you can always get them the ignore their differences by introducing Nazis into the equation. Almost immediately after Cap and Nick’s views are expressed, a conspiracy comes to light  that makes both of their arguments moot. The systems of protection that S.H.I.E.L.D has developed to preemptively prevent crimes and acts of terror are hijacked by HYDRA, holdovers of a secret science-based branch of the Third Reich.

So yes, initially, it does seem like Winter Soldier is “risk averse,” as Collin said. Nazis are the easiest villains to introduce in order to unite characters and the audience to a common cause and to avoid having to answer the original discussion. Still, it’s important to recognize the threat that these Nazis represent, not just as stock villains but also in exposing a third, more dangerous voice in the debate.

What Nick Fury (aka the NSA) and even Captain America fail to recognize is that their debate is already tenuous when the assumption is made that all parties will remain in control of their own systems. S.H.I.E.L.D’s surveillance systems and helicarriers are the most sophisticated technology on the planet and their use is already a moral debate when the assumption is that they are to be used for their intended purposes. No one gives any cause for concern about what could possibly happen if someone else somehow ended up in control of this technology. The same concern applies to the real world. Look at the Xbox One, for example. It’s a machine that sits in your living room, perpetually capable of recording your conversations and activities. Its morality is already a subject of debate when we are assuming that Microsoft are the ones holding the reins. Even if we assume that their camera and its potential for data collection is benign it still creates an infrastructure that, should the system become compromised, has the potential to cause harm far beyond what the Microsoft ever intended.

The other terrifying part of Winter Soldier‘s Nazi plot is how little espionage they needed to perform in order to identify and obliterate anyone who could be harmful to HYDRA’s plans. —SPOILER— It is revealed that one of HYDRA’s scientists has developed a piece of software that essentially reads the Internet. It gathers all of the information stored online and creates profiles of every person with an online footprint in order to assess the individual’s threat to their Final Solution Part 2. Most of the information has already been provided voluntarily but unknowingly by the individuals, as they update their social media, blogs, and make purchases. All that the Nazis have to do is develop an Internet Rosetta Stone in order to interpret the information that is already self-published for mass consumption.

It’s neither the side of freedom nor security that leads to destruction. The real threat is a hidden, internal one that learns to a) take the information that is disseminated by entitled self-promotion and b) co-opt, hijack, and otherwise misappropriate well-intentioned systems for destructive purposes. Thus, the attack on freedom is threefold: it is given for free by the opportunity for global celebrity that the Internet provides, it’s stripped away systematically by military and corporate entities interested in promoting their own notions of security, and the final nail in the coffin is by the abuse of both. Captain America: The Winter Soldier challenges its audience to see beyond the two-sided debate and recognize that big ideas are never that simple. It asks us to question whether or not a behaviour of constant online auto-biography is counter-productive to freedom and it encourages military and technological reluctance, not just because of current risks but moreso because we never know who will be in control next.


Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.

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Captain America: Winter Soldier is also available on Amazon.

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