*In part two of the Thinker’s Captain America series, I continue to analyze the manner in which the franchise depicts conservative themes and modern America. To read the first article in the series, click here. The series contains full spoilers for all three films, as well as for any other relevant Marvel films.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is often considered one of the best Marvel films of all time. It has the full package: great action, plot, and characters. However, TheWinter Soldier stands out, because it’s more than a fantastic superhero film. The movie is also a phenomenal, and increasingly relevant, political analysis.
TheWinter Soldier grapples with the safety versus liberty debates of post-9/11 America and the digital age, while also addressing cancel culture years before its rise to extreme prominence. With the advent of COVID lockdowns, the film’s theme of liberty versus safety is particularly relevant to present-day viewers.
Safety Versus Liberty
At the start of The Winter Soldier, viewers are introduced to a post-Avengers Steve Rogers (Captain America), who is now working with S.H.I.E.L.D.; Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and purveyor of the Avengers Initiative; and Natasha Romanoff, an Avenger known as the Black Widow.
Cap and Romanoff are tasked with saving hostages from a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship that’s been captured by pirates. Cap later discovers that the pirates were funded by Fury, in order to recover important S.H.I.E.L.D. data from the ship. Cap saves the hostages, while Romanoff recovers the data. When Cap confronts Fury over Romanoff’s secret mission, Fury reveals Project Insight, a system of three Helicarriers capable of taking out threats preemptively, using a computer algorithm.
This framing yields one of the most important political dialogues in the film, in which Cap and Fury’s opposing ideologies clash. Cap favors liberty, while Fury favors safety—thereby inspiring the film’s ideological conflict. Fury says that S.H.I.E.L.D. will “neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.” Cap questions this, remarking that he “thought the punishment usually came after the crime,” to which Fury remarks that “we can’t afford to wait that long.”
Fury asserts that his ideology will prevent casualties, to which Cap comments that this “safety” will come at the cost of “holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection. […] This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”
Despite his good intentions, Fury believes that safety is always more important than liberty—no matter the cost. This is the same philosophy that has inspired real life legislation like the PATRIOT Act (a massive infringement of American liberty) and the COVID lockdowns (which have not even been effective).
Conversely, Cap stands for liberty. He argues that holding a gun over everyone’s heads to keep them “safe” constitutes neither safety nor freedom. Ruling by gunpoint is ruling by fear, and it is antithetical to American ideals.
Ruling by gunpoint is ruling by fear, and it is antithetical to American ideals.
The Death of Liberty
After being unable to decrypt the ship’s data, Fury confronts Alexander Pierce—a member of the World Security Council who is later revealed as HYDRA’s leader—about delaying Project Insight. Fury is then attacked on his way home by a group led by the Winter Soldier, a mythic assassin in the intelligence community. Fury escapes, in order to give Cap the data that Romanoff recovered. He is subsequently assassinated by the Winter Soldier.
When Cap refuses to give the data to Pierce, Cap and Romanoff are declared fugitives, and S.H.I.E.L.D. begins to hunt them.
Using the data, Cap and Romanoff find a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. supercomputer containing the consciousness of a HYDRA scientist named Armin Zola. This discovery leads to the big reveal of the film in a crucial moment of dialogue: HYDRA has infested S.H.I.E.L.D. and plans to use Project Insight to enforce its own world order.
Zola details the history of HYDRA and its takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. He explains that “HYDRA was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom.” However, HYDRA found out that “if you try to take [people’s] freedom, they resist” and that “humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly.” Thus, “HYDRA created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security.”
The relevance of this dialogue to modern America cannot be understated. While Nazis are no longer threatening to take over our world, the principles remain the same. In an unsafe world, we sacrifice liberty on the altar of safety.
In an unsafe world, we sacrifice liberty on the altar of safety.
This is the philosophy underlying the left’s push for “common sense” gun control. The left seeks to confiscate firearms and encroach upon Americans’ constitutional liberties, in order to supposedly keep us safe. And this same principle is invoked to justify COVID lockdowns and mask mandates. The idea of always “just wear a mask”—despite its encroachments on personal liberty and irrespective of an individual’s vaccination status—is pushed via the argument for “public safety.”
In the post-9/11 era, the thought process is as follows: if it is deemed by elites to be “safer,” then it is better, even when it encroaches on individual liberty. Andthis is exactly the philosophy that HYDRA champions.
Weaponized Cancel Culture
HYDRA-infested S.H.I.E.L.D. bombs Zola’s base, but Cap and Romanoff escape. They recruit an Air Force Veteran named Sam Wilson, who later becomes Falcon, to help them stop HYDRA.
Jasper Sitwell, a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. officer who is secretly HYDRA, informs them that “Zola’s algorithm is a program for choosing Insight’s targets” and that the targets are “anyone who poses a threat to HYDRA. Now, or in the future.”
Cap remains unconvinced: “How could [the algorithm] know?” Sitwell responds by outlining the algorithm’s vast powers: “How could it not? The 21st century is a digital book. […] Your bank records, medical histories, voting patterns, emails, phone calls, your […] SAT scores! Zola’s algorithm evaluates people’s past to predict their future.” Sitwell thus explains that HYDRA intends to use Insight to kill anyone who poses any sort of threat to HYDRA. This, too, has terrifying parallels to modern times.
The entire basis of modern cancel culture is that contrarian opinions threaten “the safety” of the left’s cultural hegemony. If someone like Gina Carano comes out as conservative, then the left believes that she must be canceled. The left cannot handle the idea that a free thinker might question its dominance in the mainstream.
Moreover, the left also attempts to cancel anything that might pose a threat to its power in the future. During this past summer’s BLM riots, there were calls to cancel Paw Patrol, a children’s show centered around a police dog. Lego similarly cancelled advertising for police sets.
It was unacceptable to the left that children might confront a positive view of the police during the “Defund the Police” movement; after all, such confrontations with positive portrayals of police could inspire children to embrace something other than the mainstream narrative. To the left, such confrontations are an existential threat.
And while these were not permanent cancellations, there wereactual cancellations of police television shows. HYDRA’s model of canceling anything that conflicts with its authority is, therefore, the same position inhabited by the contemporary left.
As the movie comes to a close, the Winter Soldier kills Sitwell. This leads to a fight between the Winter Soldier and Cap, Romanoff, and Sam. Cap eventually recognizes the Winter Soldier as Bucky Barnes, his best friend who he thought died during the war (a topic that will be explored more thoroughly in the next film).
Cap and his team are able to stop Insight, Pierce, and HYDRA by causing the Helicarriers to target each other. Additionally, Cap and company publicly expose HYDRA’s takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. Meanwhile, viewers learn that Fury faked his death. Fury remains legally “deceased,” as he heads to Europe in search of the remaining HYDRA cells. At the same time, Sam and Cap go after Bucky.
However, while the film closes with the looming defeat of HYDRA’s philosophy, such defeat is not so easily realized in reality. America has been battling with the safety versus liberty dichotomy for more than two hundred years, and it was recently brought to the forefront by 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic.
Moreover, cancel culture targets anything and everything that endangers leftist orthodoxy. While there are no warships targeting unorthodox thinkers, the left’s push for the “safety” of its worldview over liberty has a real negative effect, which should not be understated.
In short, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a brilliant take on cancel culture and the safety versus liberty dichotomy, more broadly. For this reason, the film has only become more timely since its release in 2014. As a symbol of liberty, Steve Rogers exemplifies America’s inherent conservatism and love of freedom. As Cap himself says, “[T]he price of freedom is high, it always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.”
As Cap himself says, “[T]he price of freedom is high, it always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.”
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Chad Berkich is a Senior Editor for the Chicago Thinker. As a senior at the University of Chicago, he is majoring in mathematics. He is a Christian and conservative, and his other interests include superheroes and science fiction, video games, and rock music. He was the president of the University of Chicago's chapter of College Republicans for the 2022-2023 school year.