Hollywood used to keep its political allegories in the subtext, especially when it comes to fanboy franchises with scifi premises and blockbuster budgets. It’s a smart policy. A little political subtext gives a mass consumer product a twist of relevancy while maintaining plausible deniability should some rightwing commentator accuse Hollywood of promoting a liberal agenda. Fanbases can be even touchier, preferring their escapism untainted by cultural context.
I’m not sure how anyone who saw John Carter of Mars (and I know that’s a small subgroup) could not acknowledge its all-but-overt parallels to the war in Afghanistan and global climate change—and yet when I mentioned these at a fan site, I was accused of imposing a political agenda on an innocent Disney movie. Iron Man 3 fans couldn’t pretend that a soldier dressed in a metallic flag didn’t bear at least some relation to the U.S. military—but that didn’t require every viewer to see Tony Stark blowing up his armada of remote control suits as a condemnation of U.S. drones policy. Ditto for Star Trek Into Darkness. Not only do you have nefarious drones run by a secret and unregulated government agency, but a rogue Starfleet ship named Vengeance reenacts 9/11 in a CGI orgy of collapsing skyscrapers.
That’s what used to pass as subtle in Hollywood. But now Captain America: The Winter Soldier pulls off the allegorical kid gloves. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune points out, the movie “bemoans America’s bloodthirsty, weapons-mad impulses” and, according to the Washington Post’s Zade Rosenthal, it taps “into anxieties having to do not only with post-9/11 arguments about security and freedom, but also Obama-era drone strikes and Snowden-era privacy.” Both reviewers are right, but since they each afford only a sentence to those political messages, a reader might think we’re wading into the gray zone of interpretation. We’re not.
The latest Marvel Entertainment installment is about the head of a massive government agency struggling to the do the right thing for his country. His name is Nick Fury, and the fact that Samuel Jackson and Barack Obama are both black is the film’s only coincidence. Robert Redford plays the Bush-era neocon on Nick’s rightwing shoulder while on his idealistic left Captain America still believes in American values like freedom and honesty and not shooting people because surveillance software predicts they’ll commit a crime.
The plot mechanics pivot on three mega-drones and their promise of Absolute Security. They lurk in a shady labyrinth beneath an innocuous government office building, and when they come alive all of America will finally be safe. At least that’s what Fury-Obama wants to believe. But Redford was beamed in from a Cold War espionage film to provide an internal Evil Empire. It’s not just that the NSA-SHIELD has been infiltrated; the organization was corrupted from its founding. That’s what President Eisenhower warned back in 1960. He called it the Industrial Military Complex. Marvel calls it HYDRA. When those three mega-drones go online, they’re going to combine into a Death Star that only the rebel alliance of Captain America and his kick-ass sidekicks can stop.
It’s a familiar formula. Peter Weller played Redford’s role in Star Trek Into Darkness, and both platoons of secret thug agents wear black and neglect to shave. Instead of a villainously superpowered Benedict Cumberbatch we get a villainously superpowered Sebastian Stan, both of whom emerge from cryogenic suspension. Which is not to say directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely lack all subtlety. I quite like how the nefarious HYDRA hangers rise from beneath a cement pool that echoes the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool that Captain America sprints around in the opening shot. And the film’s use of the Smithsonian Museum should win Best Exposition Gimmick of the year. Costumer designer Judianna Makovsky scores points too. When the Captain finds cause to go rebel, he morphs into a white t-shirted, motorcycling James Dean, and when Nick sees the error of his ways, he trades in the leather of his Matrix wardrobe for a hoodie and shades.
That’s how Hollywood would like Obama to dress now too. Like his alter ego, the President needs to recognize that all his well-intentioned spying and droning violate the freedoms he’s trying to safeguard. That’s the film’s overwhelming message. And the fact that it’s being shouted by a massive, profit-hungry corporation says even more. Marvel Entertainment doesn’t represent the liberal left or the libertarian right. They shoot straight down the middle at the bottom line.
I doubt Obama will follow in Samuel Jackson’s footsteps and gut the NSA, but the film’s overt political commentary is drawing votes at the box office, earning over $10M its opening night. Marvel is literally banking on the new anti-surveillance alliance of liberals, conservatives and independents. It’s almost enough to make me long for those innocent days of apolitical, escapist entertainment.