I’ve seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier at the top of several MCU lists on Letterboxd and I’m inclined to agree. Despite being another piece of entertainment which wants you to abandon the notion of moral absolutes, it’s one of the best examples of the mental prison which defines the dialectics of the modern era.
Using a character like Captain America to make this kind of statement is effective in this case because the Cap is a superhero who embodies a certain kind of moral absolutism: Americanism. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers lives in a world where the moral fault lines were plainly delineated. America and SHIELD represented liberty and HYDRA represented tyranny. Service, duty, honor, loyalty, honesty and yes, patriotism were the highest virtues. But these virtues had to be subordinated to the expansion of human freedom.
As the Cap tries to adjust the 21st century, he finds himself at odds with a world that exploits ethical grey areas and the ability to compartmentalize. When the Cap learns that the recovery of the Lemurian Star from pirates was really a pretext for an intelligence operation, he’s none too pleased. Nick Fury reveals that Project Insight is billed as a national security initiative which could diffuse a global threat before it materializes. Not only is Cap appalled that he’s being sent on missions with SHIELD agents operating under covert instructions, he doesn’t want to live in a world in which the preservation of liberty is upheld through global surveillance and the omnipresent threat of being executed.
As we’ve seen in other Marvel films, there are subtle historical references mixed with fiction. Cap eventually learns that SHIELD conscripted HYDRA scientists through the Operation Paperclip program and this allowed HYDRA agents to infiltrate SHIELD all the way to the top. Subsequently, Operation Insight could be deployed by HYDRA to orchestrate a mass genocide. HYDRA correctly surmised that people wouldn’t willingly give up their freedom if imposed by force, but if you sowed seeds of chaos and promised security in return, people would willingly surrender it.
I’ll let you decide for yourself if you think that this attitude only exists within the minds of the boogeymen promulgated by the establishment.
Nick Fury: These new long range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
Steve Rogers: I thought the punishment usually came *after* the crime.
Nick Fury: We can’t afford to wait that long.
Steve Rogers: Who’s “we”?
Nick Fury: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once we’re way ahead of the curve.
Steve Rogers: By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.
Nick Fury: You know, I read those SSR files. Greatest generation? You guys did some nasty stuff.
Steve Rogers: Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so the people could be free. This isn’t freedom, this is fear.
Nick Fury: S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. And it’s getting damn near past time for you to get with that program, Cap.
Steve Rogers: Don’t hold your breath.