Captain America vs. the Surveillance State

I’ve seen some criticism that the new “Captain America” movie is left-wing or pro-Edward Snowden propaganda.  I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, and didn’t get that vibe from it at all.  It’s impossible to discuss the “message” of the film without some plot spoilers, so consider this a spoiler warning and read no further unless you’ve seen the movie, or don’t mind having plot details revealed before you do.

For starters, it’s tough to portray this movie as “left-wing” when every single person in the audience is going to associate the real-world Surveillance State and drone warfare with the most left-wing President of the modern era, Barack Obama.  Nothing about this movie is going to make anyone feel more comfortable with Obama’s Digital Panopticon.  

The film muddies the water a bit by creating a next-level science fiction scenario, in which a rather nebulous super-spy organization called SHIELD (seemingly more of an American organization than they’re usually portrayed in the comics, especially since they somehow obtained permits to build a launch base for flying nuclear aircraft carriers under the Potomac) has developed not only omniscient surveillance technology, but the ability to predict what dangerous people are going to do before they actually make a move… and some kind of weapon system that can instantly shoot them dead.  I’m a bit fuzzy on exactly how that part was supposed to work, but I gather the forest of guns growing in the belly of those next-gen Helicarriers were highly accurate rail guns with incredible range.  At any rate, the SHIELD brass is absolutely convinced they can use this system to kill the varmints that need killin’.

Captain America immediately concludes this is a bad idea, because it turns American legal principle on its head (“I thought the punishment came after the crime,” he grumbles) and because such terrible power would be highly susceptible to abuse.  I guess you could say the former argument boils down to a form of the old saw that “we must not compromise our principles to fight terrorists, or the terrorists will have won,” but at this point in our national discourse, that’s not really a “left” or “right” argument – both sides make it under different circumstances.  

Nobody gets around to asking Cap if he would have liked to have SHIELD’s killer Helicarriers on station to take out Hitler and the Red Skull before World War II got started, which is a pity, because his answer would have been interesting.  I’m guessing he would have said “no” with a heavy sigh, because his point was that free men should battle tyranny, no matter how difficult the fight, rather than seeking to create a more enlightened version of tyranny.  Remember, among the most essential elements of Captain America’s character is that he really hates bullies.  He doesn’t make special allowances for self-righteous bullies.

Alas, we learn during the horrifying third-act reveal that evil forces co-opted this deadly new surveillance-and-termination technology from the very beginning.  (In retrospect, hiring a nutball Nazi cultist to write the operating system might have been a bad idea.)  The bad guys didn’t really lose World War II; they went underground and secretly shaped the entire Twentieth Century, making the world as violent and chaotic as possible so that one day, these very superweapons would be authorized… and instantly reprogrammed to take out threats to the secret fascist cabal.  (They were gonna shoot Doctor Strange before he even got his own movie, for cryin’ out loud!)  

So Cap was more right than he knew; not only could sinister forces gain control of ultimate power, they actually did it a long time ago, back when computers talked like the one from “WarGames.”  Such suspicion of power is as much a conservative or libertarian point as anything else; it could be expressed for any sort of corruptible power, not just the kind that flows from the barrel of a really cool gun in the belly of a flying aircraft carrier.  In the crucial passage where he defends the hard work and sacrifice he and his brothers-in-arms made to defeat the Axis, Cap is basically saying that freedom involves risk, and good men must stand ready to answer evil challenges, rather than trying to automate a system that outlaws evil.  (Interestingly enough, someone will be making the same mistake in the unrelated X-Men movie coming our way in a couple of weeks, with even more hideous consequences.  Self-perpetuating hyper-intelligent killer robots are no way to solve society’s problems!)

I don’t see how any of that is really “left-wing,” unless one wants to reach back and grab some of the anti-war movement’s critique of Bush-era anti-terror measures, at which point “The Winter Soldier” would become something of a bipartisan sci-fi critique of trading liberty for security.  But since the anti-war movement instantly and completely dismantled itself in January 2009, why bother digging up anything they said before that?  They obviously didn’t mean any of it.