19 April 2014

What Will “On Your Left” Mean?

In the discussion of the political implications of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Greg Carpenter at Sequart found a key in the movie’s strong opening scene. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are jogging around the reflecting pool in Washington, the former (having been injected with the super-soldier serum) much faster than the latter:
Each time Rogers approaches Wilson, he gives the same cautionary warning: “On your left.” They are the first words spoken in the new film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and they lay the groundwork for much of the political perspective of the film. While this Captain America may sneak up on you—you’ll find him “on your left.”
Not everyone caught that, as Alyssa Rosenberg shows in the Washington Post:
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” returns time and time again to the idea that the biggest issue in national security is who controls the apparatus, rather than whether we should use certain technologies or techniques at all.
To be sure, there’s an inherent tension between the superhero narrative, or any hero narrative that focuses on an individual or small group of individuals, and spread-out popular power. As a result, some critics have trouble noting the moments built into superhero films that celebrate the crowd: the scenes in the first two Spider-Man movies in which groups of ordinary New Yorkers stand up to villains when Spider-Man is in trouble, for example.

In Winter Soldier, the conflict ends with the spy agency’s (unspecified) secrets being dumped out onto the internet. The directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, noted that as they were filming Edward Snowden released some secret files from the National Security Agency with the same idea. Of course, Wikileaks and Bradley/Chelsea Manning had done something similar already.

Granted, heroic narratives aren’t good at exploring the actual challenges of broad-based decision-making. Jonathan Stroud’s original Bartimaeus trilogy gets to that at the end of the third volume. George Lucas’s Star Wars films and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series declare the superiority of democracy over dictatorship, but they show actual politicking as pretty feckless. L. Frank Baum’s Oz and other magical kingdoms tend to settle for benevolent dictatorships. But the larger the fictional universe, the more stories bottom-up authority allows.

In an article for Business Insider, Jeff Gomez and one-time Robin/Red Robin scripter Fabian Nicieza analyzed how developments in Winter Soldier open up possibilities for Marvel’s overarching movie narrative:
Feige faced a daunting creative challenge for his thriving film series: while Nick Fury and SHIELD served as the perfect impetus for uniting a disparate band of dysfunctional superheroes [in The Avengers], now the filmmakers were stuck with global icons like Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man effectively bowing to a secret American military organization. That had to end, but the choice of making Captain America cut the umbilical cord? Genius. . . .

The result is the fall of SHIELD, and the vast U.S. military-industrial complex no longer stands as the leash-holder to Captain America and his superhero allies. Steve Rogers becomes apolitical, while still representing the world’s perception of American selflessness, justice, and heroism dating back to World War II.
Already the Agents of SHIELD television show is reflecting the new situation (not that I’ve watched it since the pilot). We’ll see if the next set of Marvel moviemakers can fulfill that promise.

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