Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Bringing Real-World Fears into Genre Fiction
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we discuss Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and how to write genre fiction that taps into modern anxieties.
When they were making the first Captain America movie, the filmmakers were open about the fact that they had no idea what they would do for their sequel. For this reason, they left themselves a lot of open areas of WWII to come back to if they wanted. That's part of why Cap fighting in the war is mostly handled via montage, because they didn't know if they'd need to cut back to some previously unseen and unmentioned important moment in his backstory.
But The Avengers sets up a dilemma for the character to grapple with: How does he serve his country in a new status quo? This ultimately meant the film would be less based on filling in the blanks from the 40s, and more about exploring the connotations of living in a country and time where CCTV and data mining pose a risk to individual privacy.
This wasn't the first time a superhero film had explored the topic - it's generally taken as an open secret that the end of The Dark Knight is a critique of the Patriot Act. But in that film, Batman is the one who sets up the system of surveillance; in Winter Soldier, he discovers a conspiracy around violating privacy.
With the opening action sequence, the film quickly establishes that Steve is uncomfortable in the world of modern espionage. Then Nick Fury shows him Project Insight, where three helicarriers would monitor and eliminate potential threats. Later in the film, it will turn out that this tool is being used for evil. But that's not why Cap doesn't approve. His problem isn't with Project Insight's potential for abuse, but with its stated goal.
"This isn't freedom. This is fear."
He doesn't approve of how the US composes itself, how S.H.I.E.L.D. uses something like Project Insight to observe everyone and make a unilateral decision about who should be allowed to live.
And in June 2013, the same month this movie finished filming, Edward Snowden told the world that the US government was unethically monitoring its citizens.
This was a surprise to lots of people, for reasons I genuinely don't understand. I mean, we knew that the Patriot Act had opened the door wide for government surveillance via our electronic devices; it was naive to assume that the entire system went away with the Bush Administration.
Snowden's leaks confirmed so many of our fears about what a government could do with our electronic information, but it certainly wouldn't have been a surprise to the writers of Winter Soldier. After all, they had written a film - a major Hollywood sequel - where the bad guys are secret Nazis who infiltrated the US government and created a dangerous surveillance state. They may have accidentally predicted the rise of neo-Nazis in America, but they likely had already determined that our collective fear about a surveillance state would make for a great plot.
And they weren't the only ones. Person of Interest had been on TV for two years by the time Snowden hit the news, and its premise was very similar to Project Insight in Winter Soldier: there is a computer that can predict behavior based on emails and phone calls.
We can even go further back Chuck in 2007, where a nerd accidentally absorbs the data from a supercomputer that gathers all of the national intelligence information about terrorists and evil tech. It's played for laughs on the show, but the core premise is the same: the government has all the information they need, they just need to figure out how to use it.
The fear is the same, and it had been lingering in the US ever since Bush had been in office; even a new president didn't shake the general fear of being watched.
So, what do we know? We know that people were starting to get worried that they were being watched by their government. If this fear hadn't been so pervasive, Person of Interest couldn't have survived on CBS. So the writers of Winter Soldier knew this was a fear that could be weaponized - not just by real-world government agencies or fictional supervillains, but by the filmmakers themselves. They could create a story that would tap into those fears, coating them with the veneer of the MCU.
Of course, Winter Soldier had an advantage - the world was already established by seven prior movies. And many of them - including two Iron Man movies, Incredible Hulk and The Avengers, were structured around the government being untrustworthy and having sci-fi tech at their disposal. It was only natural to give them access to the film's doomsday weapon.
Once you take that real-world fear, fold in an established narrative in the MCU that the government is shady and armed, stir in some comic book supervillains like Zemo and the Winter Soldier, you've got the makings of an allegorical exploration of modern America. And that's the perfect scenario for your Captain America movie. Then you start start in tropes from spy movies, like Cap going rogue (just like Tom Cruise does in every Mission: Impossible movie), or casting Robert Redford (nothing says "spy thriller" faster than casting that dude).
Oh, and because even a great script can't guarantee a great movie, make sure to higher some skilled stuntmen to create my favorite hand-to-hand fight scene I've ever seen on film.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's no longer my favorite movie in the MCU, but damn, it still slaps.