Captain America: The Winter Soldier

capt poster

Like the other guy, Captain America fights for truth, justice and the American way. It is that last bit that is put under the microscope in Captain America: The Winter Soldier through its tension between power and freedom. Should S.H.I.E.L.D.[1] be using its vast military power to eliminate its enemies? Or should it, as Captain America insists, fight for the freedom of all people, including their enemies? In short, is the American way the way of power or the way of freedom?

When Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows Captain America three airborne aircraft carriers (or helicarriers) that S.H.I.E.L.D. is building in response to threats like the alien invasion from The Avengers (2012). The Captain is upset because S.H.I.E.L.D.’s stated mission is to protect people’s freedom, while the carriers are meant to control people’s actions through fear. It soon becomes clear to Director Fury and Captain America that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra[2]. Agents of Hydra kill Director Fury and attempt to kill Captain America, who escapes and with the help of Black Widow and Falcon begins dismantling Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. with it. Their attempts are hindered by The Winter Soldier, a legendary and mysterious figure responsible for many assassinations throughout history. The Captain soon discovers that The Winter Soldier is his old friend Bucky, who has been brainwashed by Hydra.

In terms of genre, Captain America: The Winter Soldier would best fit in the political thriller section of you local movie rental store[3]. Though you probably wouldn’t find a section for it, this film also fits the genre of Christ-figure film. In Bible and Cinema Adele Reinhartz offers three criteria for identifying these films: “Bible quotations, both aural (e.g. in dialogue) and visual; plot; and character traits.”[4] Using these criteria the connections between Christ and Captain America are revealed, along with the ways this film offers a critique of, and hope for America.

All three of these criteria are present in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Captain America’s kindness to Black Widow is similar to the kindness of Jesus toward Mary Magdalene[5] (character traits). Though there are other parallels, Captain America’s near death and resuscitation is a clear allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection (plot). Finally, the film borrows the Biblical image of Christ on the cross when, at the end of the movie, Captain America lies unconscious on the ground with his arms outstretched (Bible quotations).

As shown, Captain America: The Winter Soldier meets Reinhartz’s criteria for Christ-figure films. However, this depiction of Captain America resists easy inclusion with other “superhero as Christ-figure” films. Unlike the cape-less crusader described as a zealous nationalist[6] by Jewett and Lawrence in Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil, this Captain seeks not to defeat America’s enemies abroad[7], but to remove the plank from the eye of America[8]. Indeed, through his fight against oppressive systems of power, this version of Captain America embraces the route of prophetic realism exemplified by Moses, Isaiah, and Amos in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus Christ in the Christian Bible[9].

In The Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggemann writes that the role of a Prophet is to “articulate a future that is distinctly different from an unbearable present.”[10] Like Christ in the Gospels, this prophetic task is precisely the one that Captain America undertakes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

For the Captain, the unbearable present is one marked by the power that S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra wields in the name of security. In contrast the distinct future that Captain America attempts to articulate is one of freedom for all. While the movie presents a tension between power and freedom, Brueggemann characterizes the divide in the Biblical text as one between Empire and the Kingdom of God. Throughout the Biblical text Empire is often exemplified by Rome. Rome had it all, money, slaves, and the biggest army in the world. Rome was power. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Hydra is the ultimate example of power. Their helicarriers, equipped with thousands of individually targeting cannons, are like nothing else in the world, and provide Hydra with the ability to wipe out all of their enemies at once.

In the Bible, Jesus Christ is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God, a distinct future different from the unbearable oppressiveness of the Roman Empire. Through his teaching and work in the world Jesus sought to free the oppressed and bring justice to the world. Captain America also articulates a distinct alternative to the power dynamics of Hydra. This is shown in the opening scene of the movie when Captain America frees a group of hostages on a high-jacked ship, and goes into battle with his shield, a primarily defensive device, as his weapon of choice. This is contrasted with the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra who swoop in and eliminate the enemy with high-powered rifles.

The book of Exodus tells the story of how God miraculously frees the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s[11] power. The unbearable present that Moses had to confront was the fact that the people of Israel had been so shaped by the power of Pharaoh, they couldn’t imagine any alternative way of life. Moses’ prophetic task was to articulate a distinctly different future that wasn’t based on power, but justice and dependence on God.

Like Captain America and his shield, the organization called S.H.I.E.L.D. was created primarily to defend others against the threat of Hydra. The problem is that S.H.I.E.L.D. embraced the tactics of power so much that Hydra’s infiltration of the organization went unnoticed until it had already become indistinguishable from Hydra. Like Moses and the people of Israel, Captain America had to remind the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. how to be a distinct organization from the unbearable present represented by Hydra.

Captain America’s articulation of an alternate future is best shown in the climactic showdown between The Captain and The Winter Soldier. It would be easy for Captain America to overpower his old friend and ensure the helicarriers’ destruction. Instead he refuses to engage The Winter Soldier with violence, believing that his friend could be freed from the bondage of Hydra. In the end Captain America succeeds on both counts, but nearly dies in his commitment to the way of freedom over the way of power.

As Jesus and Captain America show, the prophetic task is not an easy one. Both are willing to see their vision of an alternate future through to their death. However, it is precisely through their dedication that we are able to see their vision of “a future that is distinctly different from an unbearable present.” In doing this they bring hope to those who are able to imagine that future with them.

Though marked by some for early retirement[12], Captain America: The Winter Soldier shows the titular hero up to the task of critiquing the zealous nationalism he once embodied.

[1] Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division

[2] The dastardly organization the Captain fought in the 1940’s

[3] That is, if you are lucky enough to still have one.

[4] Adele Reinhartz, Bible and Cinema : An Introduction (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013), 152.

[5] Both women are accepted despite their questionable pasts involving violence for Black Widow and prostitution for Magdalene.

[6] Robert Lawrence John Shelton Jewett, Captain America and the Crusade against Evil : The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), 8.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Luke 6:42

[9] Ibid., 52.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, “The Prophetic Imagination,” (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001).

[11] Another common Biblical symbol of empire

[12] Jewett, 9.

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