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This diary contains unmarked spoilers for recent Marvel movies and real life events including but not limited to Iron Man 1, 2 & 3, the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, Captain America 1 & 2, the NSA leaks, and The Avengers. By reading past this paragraph you accept responsibility for learning things that you might rather not have.

In Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has a common antagonist: The American military-industrial complex. In each case a military contractor uses a foreign terrorist to attack Tony Stark. In each case, they see Tony Stark as their primary obstacle to gaining vast wealth and power. Tony then proceeds to kick their ass. Focusing on a single heroic protagonist makes these movies less obviously political, since the personal drama is front-and-center while the allegory remains in the background.

Nobody in the Iron Man movies comes right out and says The US military and its merchants of death have far too much political and economic power, but I personally believe that the way the real bad guys use Not-The-Taliban in Iron Man, Some Russian Guy in Iron Man 2 and Not-Al-Qaeda in Iron Man 3 to enlarge their domestic fiefdoms cannot be a coincidence. The fictional defense contractors are doing things that real politicians and war profiteers are doing, but in a simplified, comic-book conspiracy fashion.

There are, of course differences. Only the most loony conspiracy theorists believe that the US secretly sponsored the Taliban and Al-Qaeda so that they would attack us later, false flag, yadda yadda. (The US actually secretly sponsored Islamic militants in Afghanistan to draw the Soviet Union in, so that it would become the Soviets' Vietnam.)

As political commentary, the Iron Man series is pretty thin, but there is definitely something there. On the one hand, I'm glad that the military-industrial complex is treated with at least some skepticism, but on the other hand Tony Stark gets a free pass to fly around in his super suit and kill people without any form of legal authority to do so.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, puts its devastating critique of the American surveillance state front and center. The ultimate reveal is that the bad guys are using dragnet electronic surveillance to create target profiles based on patterns of behavior which they then use to determine who they want to kill with their flying weapons platforms.

Sounds evil? Yes, it is. Sounds exactly like what the NSA, CIA and DoD are doing in real life right now? Yes, it is. The only real difference is that the movie bad guys are killing both combatants and civilians in the USA, while the real bad guys have been killing both combatants and civilians outside the USA.

Who saves the day? A small group of courageous patriots, who go against their own bosses and coworkers in order to expose the corruption deep in the heart of the intelligence community. As a last resort, the heroes upload reams of classified data to the Internet so that even if they are captured or killed, the bad guys won't be able to cover up their crimes.

Sounds awesome? Yes, it is. Sounds exactly like what Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and other whistleblowers have done? Yes, it is.

I wrote this diary because I am both deeply disappointed and somewhat disturbed by the numerous reviews that ignore or downplay the political significance of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. From a representative AP review by Jake Coyle:

...Marvel films use a complicated current-events issue - NSA-like spying - to feign contemporary relevance. It's the appearance of having something to say. Captain America, a stand-in for a more innocent, noble America, wonders if the helicarriers are like holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection.

But that's about the extent of such talk in Winter Soldier: a political thriller without the politics.

On the contrary, The Winter Soldier deliberately and explicitly puts forward the idea that toppling governments, killing civilians, ignoring the law and using fear as a weapon is evil no matter who does it and no matter for what reasons they think they're doing it. It says that it's more important for the public to know the truth than to protect our sources and methods. And it says that if an agency has grown too corrupt, too self-serving, it may need to be demolished. That's not subtext. That's text. It's in the movie. The characters discuss it, out loud, using words. I don't know how much clearer it could be.

There's another significant dig at American authoritarianism that's somewhat more subtle. The title Captain America: The Winter Soldier is very clever. It uses the standard Series Title: Episode Subtitle format, so the obvious reading is that this is a Captain America movie in which he faces off against The Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier in the comics was given that name as one of those typical groaner puns, because, see, he gets put in cryogenic storage when he's not out and about, see, get it, get it? I can forgive people for getting sidetracked by the history of the Winter Soldier name in the comics. But there's another reading which is equally, if not more plausible.

Thomas Paine wrote in 1776,

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
Vietnam Veterans Against The War called their public hearing on US war crimes in Vietnam the Winter Soldier Investigation because it was their intention to serve their country by telling the public what was really going on in Vietnam. At the time, summer soldiers and sunshine patriots bought into the official, false story that US soldiers didn't commit atrocities or war crimes. That the US military did not have policies in place that encouraged atrocities and war crimes. That the Vietnam War was a just war. The Winter Soldier Investigation, and others like it, dispelled that fantasy. More than a hundred eyewitnesses testified about the atrocities or war crimes that they had personally committed or seen committed. The US Military's own Vietnam War Crimes Working Group investigated and found evidence of hundreds of incidents.

Future Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry testified before a Senate Committee about the name:

We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.
Which brings me to my point: In this movie, Captain America is The Winter Soldier. Yes, they do use that name for the dude with the metal arm, but he's only a Winter Soldier by virtue of a goofy pun. The name better applies to Steve Rogers. The authors of this film took the apolitical title from the comics and made it political. A Winter Soldier stands by his or her country, even when it may cost them their freedom or even their life. But they do not stand by blindly. They expose the secrets, the silence and the lies that our government tells us.

In the movie, the Winter Soldiers are people like Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Nick Fury, and Sam Wilson. In real life, our Winter Soldiers are people like Daniel Ellsberg, like the participants of the Winter Soldier Investigation, like Chelsea Manning, like Edward Snowden. The real people are no less heroic for the lack of CGI explosions and choreographed fight scenes. They are more heroic, because the consequences to real people don't end when the credits (and stingers, this being a Marvel movie) do.

I'm unsure whether reviewers are too stupid to see the parallels (unlikely), too full of themselves to take of all things a comic book movie seriously as political commentary (very, very likely), or have given themselves over to HY...

...I've said too much. I have to go now.

P.S. I wrote most of this before reading "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" Is About Obama's Terror-Suspect Kill List, Say the Film's Directors which confirms what I just said.

Update 1: Edited to reflect the fact that the name The Winter Soldier is used a few times in the movie to refer to the dude with the metal arm. Thanks to Whimsical for the correction.

Originally posted to Certifiable Genius on Wed Apr 09, 2014 at 09:08 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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