When Marvel Studios announced their Phase 2 they made a point that their films would feel more like genre pieces with superheroes in them. Guardians of the Galaxy was going to be their answer to Star Wars, Thor: The Dark World was their answer to Game of Thrones (how wrong we all were on that one), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was going to be a political thriller. While Phase 1 were mostly superhero origin stories and one team-up film. Phase 2 was going to be their chance to make more interesting superhero films.
How effectively these films stand as genre films rather than superhero films is still up for debate with one exception. 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier genuinely showed how a film about a guy wearing an American flag punching "bad guys" can actually deliver some genuine commentary. Upon release Winter Soldier immediately took it's place as one of the best, if not the best (in my opinion it is) Marvel Studios film to date. The scary thing is just how prescient it would become in a 2017 where Donald Trump is President of the United States.
Let's briefly recap the film [beware spoilers]. The Winter Soldier takes place chronologically after The Avengers, which culminated in the Battle of New York. The final showdown of The Avengers is essentially the Marvel Cinematic Universe's September 11th. There was a sudden and highly destructive attack in New York City that left the country shaken. Suddenly their sense of place in the world and security were challenged. And for the entire franchise, this was the moment when everything changed.
The September 11th attacks also motivated deep changes to how the government operated as well. Our country was now at threat from an ideological enemy, the Patriot Act gave the President new power to investigate potential terror threats, there is a highly controversial drone program, and the issues of surveillance versus security are in public debate. The White House has more power now through increasingly powerful Executive Orders.
In the film, the World Security Council immediately develops Project Insight as a response to the Battle of New York. Similar to 9/11, they are shaken, and feel the best defense is a strong offense. Project Insight is a new defense initiative that involves three heavily armored S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarriers given permission to strike at targets deemed a threat before they have a chance to manifest. Essentially it is a kill list. Project Insight would devise an algorithm for determining these future threats through data gained from surveillance of everything from social media, bank statements, cell phones - essentially any and every digital device that tracks our activity.
Captain America naturally finds this troubling. As he so eloquently puts it...
Rogers concerns are ultimately vindicated. In the big twist of the film, it is revealed that evil organization HYDRA has secretly been lurking within the highest ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. all along. Project Insight isn't so much targeted towards terrorists so much as our own civilians apparently, and as Rogers observes, they'll be killed before they even commit a crime. HYDRA is on the verge of eliminating most of their resistance for - sigh, world domination - in one fell swoop.
HYDRA has been secretly sowing chaos for decades in an effort to get S.H.I.E.L.D. to this point. We can assume they finance terrorist activity worldwide with no real agenda other than getting citizens so scared of going outside that they'll sacrifice their personal liberty for security. And they will let the government do whatever they deem necessary even if it means that we give up our personal freedoms. And many have observed that our freedoms and right to privacy since 9/11 have been compromised similarly. The United States increasingly employs more surveillance tactics on their own citizens.
Of course Captain America, Falcon, Black Widow and Maria Hill save the day in an explosive showdown symbolically set over D.C. (well Georgetown). But in 2017, this film starts to feel much more relevant.
During the campaign, Donald Trump's rhetoric was increasingly one built upon fear. Master of the catchphrase, he immediately took ownership of the phrase "Build the Wall" based on his speech that Mexico was only sending north it's "bad hombres", drug dealers and rapists. He preyed on economic anxieties by identifying outsiders and immigrants from war-torn nations as the problems and blaming them. His plan is to improve border security, and yet the methods he does so are suspect. For instance, his travel ban was sold as being to increase security. The seven nations in the ban were all predominantly Muslim, and none of them produced terrorists who were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Many note that the countries where he has business interests seem left out of the ban which would indicate that xenophobia is more the motivating factor rather than national security.
Trump also believes our military and defense are under-funded (they're not) and expressed desire to increase our nuclear capabilities signaling his intent to use military as a way to further ensure our national security.
Much has also been made about Trump's rhetoric that our government has failed us and only he could save us. His speeches are rife with an arrogance that only he can fix things. His idea is that our institutions are in dire need of being broken down and rebuilt. (Drain the Swamp!) Not only is he the only one who can fix things, he's going to do so the way only he deems necessary. Trump's actions signal a desire for removing democratic process from important national decision making.
Trump's Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who is known for his bigoted and controversial views sounds increasingly like Robert Redford's character Alexander Pierce. Pierce is an agent on the World Security Council who ends up being a secret HYDRA sleeper agent. He believes in the strike-first mentality, even if the target is American citizens.
(Side note - I always am taken aback by how this colorful superhero film uses a very recognizable and disturbing real world example to make its point.)
Pierce's views on building a better world are not without some eyebrow raising. Hell, try not to draw the comparisons between the literal words of fictional supervillain Alex Pierce and Trump's chief-of-staff Steve Bannon.
"Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment." Steve Bannon - White House Chief Strategist, Self-Described Leninist & Real Life Supervillain.
"We knew that despite all the diplomacy, handshaking, and rhetoric that to really build a better world sometimes means having to tear the old one down. And that makes enemies." Alexander Pierce - Fictional Supervillain.
Bannon has since been appointed to the National Security Council, which yes, keeps a kill-list. Is this starting to sound like the plot of The Winter Soldier yet? While President Trump doesn't have three heavily armored helicarriers, he does have a drone assassination program that his predecessor made extensive use of.
But most importantly, Trump has reintroduced an Us-Or-Them mentality. He has promised to hire American and only buy American. At one point he used the phrase "America First" which, let's not at all forget, is a spin on a certain Austrian's world outlook in the late 1930s. His rhetoric and actions support a mentality that the entire world is out to get us, and anybody who says otherwise is anti-American. His political agenda since taking office two months ago has been focused more upon matters of national security rather than restoring the economy. And his rhetoric always returns to one ideal in the end: fear. We should be afraid and only Trump can save us.
At the time, The Winter Soldier was a commentary on the surveillance state and government overreach. If Robert Redford was concerned about wiretapping when he made Three Days of the Condor, you better believe things have only gotten worse. Now we have a metaphorical Alexander Pierce in the White House and a President who's attempts to improve national security have wildly been denounced as misguided, xenophobic, and will long term weaken our security. And other civil liberties are at risk too. For instance, our right to peaceful protest is now being challenged by Republicans. He has threatened to pull federal funding from states that don't comply with his agenda. Trump has even suggested sending in armed federal agents to quell the violence in Chicago.
Films that serve as allegory typically go for exaggeration to further disguise their criticism, but much of The Winter Soldier doesn't feel exaggerated anymore. But, as represented in Captain America himself, the last line of defense in these situations is American values.
When confronted with the reality of Project Insight, Rogers immediately recognizes that this is wrong. It's a response to fear, and it's not what makes America great. Rogers, a man who served his country because he believes in its ideals draws a line in the sand and knows when to serve and when to resist. In many ways, The Winter Soldier is the best Superman film never made. They found a way to make an ostensibly goody-two shoes yes ma'am soldier into a genuine hero facing an interesting moral dilemma. They put him into a situation where he would have to question his own values and whether those he serve are always those with the best intentions. And for refusing to betray his personal values, his own government makes him out to be the enemy. I don't really need to elaborate the many ways Trump's rhetoric supports this narrow-minded thinking.
Captain America ultimately falls back on what he knows to be right and he resists. There is sacrifice, but as he says, "The price of freedom is high. But it's a price I'm willing to pay." Rogers even dons his World War II outfit symbolically for the final battle rather than his S.H.I.E.L.D. provided scrubs. Chris Evans has brought genuine gravitas to the role, and it appears even in real life he sees the parallels and refuses to comprimise (just check his Twitter where he has made a habit of fighting real life KKK
figurehead asshole David Duke)
So yes while the Marvel films all do start to feel the same after a while, The Winter Soldier still towers above most of them with a genuinely timely political message. There isn't anything quite as unsettling as realizing there is a rancid part of our country who now have more political and military power than they deserve. But at the end of the day it is on us to fight back. The price of freedom is high, and we all better be willing to pay.