Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier is what’d you expect from something in the MCU: the familiar 3 act structure, witty dialogue, pretty special effects, less than optimal fight cinematography and popcorn plot. Winter Soldier stands apart though, because of its use of history and related politics. This film’s use of history stands out as promoting a specific mythology. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.
Beware of spoilers ye who enter
The villains of the film, HYDRA, a Nazi off-shoot organization, are revealed to have spent the postwar years infiltrating SHIELD, working behind the scenes to sow chaos. This chaos and instability will then be used as a pretext to install Project Insight, spy satellites with kill capability to seize control. I’ll come back to Project Insight, but first I want to talk about HYDRA’s backstory. Captain America and Black Widow encounter Armin Zola’s brain hooked up to a computer system where he reveals HYDRA’s master plan. A throwaway line from Black Widow about Operation Paperclip is the tip of an iceberg of problems.
Operation Paperclip really happened; the US recruited Nazis scientists and technicians and employed them, most famously Werner Von Braun. The MCU borrowing from real history is one thing, it creates a degree of immersion and contributes to the secret history feel that Captain America has. Tying it into this piece of history and then explaining the Cold War with all of its unsavory actions, is pure fantasy.
The United States did not morph into an empire overnight. While things such as NSC 68 did shape US policy and one can trace a line from that to things such as Operation TPAJAX or Operation PBSUCCESS, or the 1973 coup in Chile or the list goes on and on.. it presumes history started in 1945. The people who orchestrated these policies weren’t foreign operatives; they were Americans inheriting their country’s legacy, a legacy of empire. Thomas Jefferson spoke of how “we should have an empire of liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: & I am persuaded no was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self government.” We conquered Native Americans, tried invading Canada repeatedly, conquered Spanish Florida and Mexico, Hawaii, the Philippines and have a long history of intervening in South American affairs. The pre-WWII era can be best summarized by Maj Gen. Smedley Butler:
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
The United State has always been an Empire, but we’ve decided to forget about that. Instead, we decided to embrace a narrative, a myth, of being a peaceful sleeping giant that awakened on December 7, 1941 and became an empire to save the world for democracy. Any wrongdoing done in the name of Empire, is an aberration, a corruption.
This myth doesn’t play into the film just with SHIELD’s corruption. Captain America is supposed to embody what America should stand for, even if it those are ideals that aren’t being lived up to at the moment, especially if those ideals aren’t being lived up to. His decision to dismantle Project Insight, compared to Fury’s initial desire to preserve the system, is a desire to to rebuke this idea of empire in this reading. It’s a return to a mythical past that never existed.
This myth isn’t something that the MCU invented; it’s incredibly common in real life. Reaffirming this myth isn’t surprising; it just showcases the shallowness of the MCU. Any other reading of the film just runs up against the history and has to jump through more hoops to justify. Next week, I will be taking a break due to the holiday. I’ll be back in December with something interesting, I hope. Till next time.