When the credits started rolling for Captain America: Winter Soldier, I managed to initiate a round of applause. It was slow in building, but eventually it picked up. This was surprising and reassuring, given that the audience doing the clapping was in Alabama, thought to be one of America’s many centers of jingoism, and since, unlike many other “action figure” movies, like the “oo-rah” Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises, the movie’s over-arching message was radically anti-jingoistic, and can even be interpreted as radically libertarian. [Spoilers ahead.]
Captain America (played by Chris Evans) works for SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division), an international agency run by a shady “World Security Council.” The big twist in the movie is the revelation that SHIELD, virtually since its World War II inception, has been deeply infiltrated by HYDRA, a terrorist network bent on world conquest and named after a mythical many-headed snake-like monster. HYDRA has been using SHIELD (as well as its operative “the Winter Soldier,” played by Sebastian Stan) to surreptitiously foment world chaos for 60 years, with the purpose of whipping up so much fear that the public will seek security in HYDRA’s slithering totalitarian embrace.
This SHIELD/HYDRA conjunction is a splendid analogue for the State itself. The illusion is that the State, like SHIELD, is a “shield”: an essential protector of life, liberty, and property against criminals, foreign and domestic. The reality is that the State, like the HYDRA-infested SHIELD, is a monstrous institution, shot through with the most dastardly criminals of them all, and hellbent on ensnaring in its coils as many people as possible, and as tightly as it can get away with.
The State, like the HYDRA-inflested SHIELD, either produces or induces most of the violence in the world; and then it turns around and uses that very turmoil to play on people’s fears, so as to justify its expansion (like the proliferating heads of the mythical Hydra) and its even tighter constriction of society, allegedly so it can “keep us safe.”
The closest specific analogue, in this regard, is the Federal state centered in Washington. Like SHIELD, it arose in and after World War II as the “world’s policeman.” Like SHIELD, it posed as heroes protecting world peace from villains, starting with Nazi Germany (in the films, HYDRA originated as a rogue Nazi cell) and Imperial Japan.
But, also like SHIELD, Washington and its allies were themselves infected with the same statist disease as their foes. They countered the infamous Nazi (National Socialist) domestic policies with the economic regimentation and civil-liberty squashing of the New Deal and of wartime controls, and answered the Nazis’ Holocaust with holocausts of their own, most demonically in Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. (What can be more diabolically super-villainous than the incineration of whole cities, overwhelmingly populated by women, children, and the elderly?)
Like SHIELD/HYDRA, Washington (through such “Hydra heads” as NATO, the U.S. military, the CIA, the NED, etc) has used mass deception and covert interventions (both hard and soft) to generate chaos so as to precipitate its own overt interventions, and to extend its hegemony. World history since the Second World War has been a tissue of such incidents.
The alien invasion of New York City in Marvel’s Avengers (the previous movie in the Marvel cinematic franchise) was SHIELD’s “9/11,” which it used in Winter Soldier to justify an extreme expansion of its power, in the form of “Project Insight.” Thanks to an algorithm invented by Captain America’s old nemesis Arnim Zola (played by Toby Jones), and the agency’s total access to private data (hello NSA!), SHIELD/HYDRA’s computers can predictively identify anyone in the world who will likely threaten the agency’s power and plans.
This data is used, along with a network of spy satellites that can pinpoint the exact location of anyone on the planet, to target three heavily-armed, autonomous, and stratospheric “Helicarriers,” which are essentially supervillain-scale versions of the drones that are today raining terror, dismemberment, and death throughout South Asia and the Middle East. And note the parallels with Obama’s “kill list” and with the close cooperation among the NSA, the CIA, and the military in the drone program.
With this invincible marriage of omnipotence and omniscience, SHIELD/HYDRA intends to conquer, rule, and minutely manage the world, smart-bombing sedition before it can even form.
In recent real-world history, after the actual 9/11, the frightened American public wanted a bigger Shield. Of course, what they got was a bigger Hydra, with new serpentine extensions.
Some extensions reached abroad: overtly into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, turning these and other lands into incarnadined hellholes, while making Americans less safe by engendering even more anti-American hate, and covertly into places like Syria and Ukraine. In Syria, the CIA contributes to the civil-war bloodletting there by actually supporting the Islamist terrorists that are supposed to be Washington’s current arch-villains. And in Ukraine, the State Department, in its reckless efforts to turn that country against its nuclear neighbor Russia with a street coup, supported the local neo-Nazi inheritors of Washington’s former arch-villains.
Other Hydra extensions have encircled the American people themselves. These are exemplified most brazenly in the DHS, the TSA, the NSA panopticon, and the militarized police. And meanwhile, Obamacare and Common Core are sharp constrictions of the coils that the Federal government long ago wrapped around our health care and the minds of our children for the sake of “protecting” us from sickness and ignorance.
One of the greatest moments in the film is when Captain America decides not to try to purge HYDRA from SHIELD, as Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) wants to do, and as some minarchist (utopian) libertarians would like to do with the State. Instead, he realizes that SHIELD and HYDRA cannot be disentangled: certainly not practically, and perhaps not even conceptually.
SHIELD, which during Avengers was seconds away from nuking Manhattan, and which during Winter Soldier would later be a split-second away from preemptively assassinating thousands of potential government critics and freedom-fighters, is simply too corrupt and dangerous to exist. It has to be abolished, the film’s hero decides.
Captain America’s physical heroics prevent the impending disaster, but they aren’t what actually abolishes SHIELD. SHIELD/HYDRA could have quickly regenerated after its decapitation, and grown even bigger than it was before. HYDRA’s motto, after all, is, “Cut off one head, two more shall take its place.” This is a reference to and description of the mythical Hydra’s chief power in ancient literature.
And it is applicable to the State as well. When someone attacks a publicly supported state using the state’s own means of bloodshed and property destruction, not only is it evil (because it invariably involves hurting the innocent and punishing the guilty with criminal disproportionality), but the state can easily use such an attack as an effective excuse for expansions of its size and police power; and it can do so with much support and very little resistance from a populace terrified by the attacks. Whatever short-run “victory” the attacker thinks he wins (cutting off one head) will be more than undone by the reactive swelling of the state (two heads taking its place). This pattern is so clearly predictable that a state will sometimes inflict “false flag” attacks on itself and on its subjects, just to get the same effect (like an ingenious Hydra increasing its power by proactively cutting off its own heads).
Indeed, it would have been easy as pie for SHIELD/HYDRA to use the destruction of the Helicarriers, which were spectacularly shot out of the sky, and brought crashing down to the earth, to frighten the public into funding the rebuilding of the agency, and to accept its even greater empowerment.
So it is not Captain America, but another character that accomplishes the actual abolition of SHIELD: the Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansen). And she accomplishes it not with fists, guns, or large metal disks, but with that ultimate weapon, feared by states and other monsters alike: sunlight. After hacking all of SHIELD/HYDRA’s secrets, she simply uploads the entire trove to the internet, after which she dryly notes, “…and it’s trending.”
As Etienne de la Boetie taught, a state’s true power lies not in its arsenal, its torture devices, and its cages, but in favorable public opinion. The movie’s evil agency would have tremendous difficulty raising its heads again after Black Widow’s “Snowden moment” completely undermined its foundation in public legitimacy by exposing SHIELD as the HYDRA it truly is.
Did the creators of Captain America: Winter Soldier intend to deliver such a thoroughgoing denunciation of the state? Surely not; although, to their credit, the film’s intended message is clearly libertarian, even if it is not as radical as the above interpretation, and even if they wouldn’t self-identify as such.
Did the somewhat-reluctantly applauding audience in Alabama realize they were essentially applauding the causes of Edward Snowden, Ron Paul, and other enemies of the bourgeoning warfare/police state? Surely not all of them; many probably look askance at Paul, and perhaps even revile Snowden. But the overall moral of the film’s story was so clear, that they wouldn’t have clapped at all, if something in it didn’t ring true in their hearts, and if, even inchoately, they didn’t see ominous parallels between SHIELD/HYDRA and the metastasizing, domineering state that rules, threatens, and pretends to protect them. And for that, there is cause to be both grateful and hopeful.