Thursday, April 24, 2014

Winter Soldier: Revenge of the Millennials

I know we already did a review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I believe there is still another aspect that needs further exploration. Jeremiah noted in his review that this movie feels a little different than the prior ones. I felt the same way, but maybe not for the same reasons. (*Spoilers ahead*)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is darker than the prior Marvel movies. Of course, there are the obvious political conclusions to be drawn: the danger of an all-powerful shadowy agency out to protect us, the irresponsible use of technology, the latent despotism of a surveillance state.

But I suggest there is a cultural critique, conscious or unconscious, going on that is even deeper. This movie is about the fall of the people and institutions we trusted. It's about being taken advantage of by the leaders we looked up to. It's about being used and lied to by the people we thought were friends. It's about the blurring together of the "good" institutions and the "bad" institutions. And, most importantly, it's about determining who our true friends are--that little pocket of community that we can truly trust.

This is the story of the millennials. The adrift generation, steeped in optimism yet feeling manipulated and used by the very people who they are supposed to save; held to the impossible standard of being expected to clean up an inherited mess without ruffling the feathers of those who made the mess in the first place; deemed by their elders to be entitled, narcisistic, and unable to grow up; and accused of being more wiling to shoot at their own than at the (elder declared) "enemy". But Captain America: The Winter Soldier confronts these tropes head on, and dismantles them.

At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, Hydra was believed to be extinguished. At the end of The Avengers (review here), SHIELD had flexed its muscle and saved the world. Idealism ruled. Now, however, we learn that Hydra is SHIELD. Not only that, we learn that Nick Fury, the current initiative behind SHIELD, has known this for some time and, believing to still be in control, has taken a wait-and-see approach. He has used Steve and Natasha as his pawns in his internal struggle with Hydra's SHIELD, but never bothered to tell them the looming threat. Nick doesn't trust either of them, but he certainly expects them to fix his mess in his way. He lets them think they're heroes, when they're being pawns. "Janitor" is the term Steve uses. In this sense, Steve is no different than Bucky, which probably influences his determination to redeem Winter Soldier.

Notice the themes running through the movie. Steve is supposed to trust Nick on his missions, despite the fact that Nick is not giving him the full story. Steve is looked down upon as young and idealistic, too inexperienced to make the calls that SHIELD leadership has to make (despite the fact that he's decades older than any of them). Yet Steve is expected to repeatedly save the world for Nick. Save it from the mess Nick helped create. And do it the way Nick wants. Respect is a one-way street, and Steve is only allowed the responsibilities, and not the privileges, of growing up.

Natasha Romanova has traded her Soviet past for what she believes is a better future, only to discover that both the "good guys" and the "bad guys" treat her the same way--blackmail her with her past into doing what they want for their own ends. She's never going to be good enough to warrant anyone's trust, and she's constantly reminded of that.

We also meet Sam Wilson (Falcon), who got out of the military after his wing man was shot down and who now spends his days working at a veteran's support facility. Far from being calloused and disillusioned, though,  Sam is simply waiting for someone to follow (just not as quickly). Particularly, someone who will treat him as a friend, not only as an asset. In the meantime, he's doing his best to care for those around him. He meets Steve, not through any formal introduction via an organization or powerful person, but out jogging around DC. The friendship sticks.

SHIELD and Nick see them  as Captain America, Black Widow, and Falcon. But we see their longing to also be known as Steve, Natasha, and Sam. Not giving up their heroic identities, but to be more than icons. From the perspective of Nick, all the critiques of millennials are true of Steve, Natasha, and Sam. But as the story plays out, we see that the accusation is unjust. And not only unjust, but backwords. Of all the characters, Nick is the one most embodying the traits of entitlement, narcissism, denial of consequences, and poor judgment.

Three scenes in particular highlight these tensions. The first is when Steve, Natasha, Sam, and Nick are in the bunker planning how to take down Hydra/SHIELD. Nick begins in the position of command, attempting to deploy the other three the way he had done previously. Steve, however, pushes back, saying that taking down Hydra means taking down SHIELD. He's no longer going to try to save the institution that has betrayed him. It all has to go, and then they can start over. It's a call Nick can't make. He still thinks SHIELD is redeemable. But he is powerless on his own and so must bow to Steve's leadership. The baton has passed, but only after Steve seized it.

The second scene is on the deck of one of the carriers. Steve and Sam are charging into the fight, and Sam asks how they know who the enemy is. Steve responds simply: "If they're shooting at you, they're bad." No longer content to let others decide who the enemy is, a mistrust that has already been validated multiple times over by this point in the story, they are entering the fray in their own right. They have not decided to sit it out and watch the world burn. Quite the opposite. They're engaged to a level that they haven't been previously. It's their fight now. But their engagement comes at a cost. They're no longer content to be shot at by so-called friends. If you're shooting at them, they'll view you as an enemy.

Finally, at the end, the four are again grouped at Nick's gravesite. Nick announces he is heading to go to Europe to try to patch things back together. Although he invites the others, they all decline to join him. Nick is not an enemy, but neither is he counted among their friends. He must live in the world of assets he created, and is judged with the stranded he meted out. Instead, Steve and Sam decide to go after Bucky. They have declared their priorities: the institutions have failed, and good riddance. But a friend is still worth pursuing. He may have been shooting at them, but he his still a friend. And that is worth something.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier explores the cultural themes being experienced by today's generation of new adults. It confronts the critiques, expectations, and challenges my generation faces head-on, and exposes them for the oversimplifications that they are. If the world is to be saved, Captain America, Black Widow, and Falcon must be allowed to act as the people they were trained and expected to be. But heroes ruffle feathers. They challenge preconceived notions. If they didn't, they'd be something other than heroes and shouldn't be expected to do any saving.

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