Nov 2, 2014

Winter Soldier and Fascism in Modern Superhero Movies

This is a pretty devastating indictment:

The implicit support of Bush-era security policy is, to my mind, the biggest political problem with modern superhero treatments. As Olson says, the logical conclusion behind most of these movies is that the rule of law and democratic oversight are luxuries we cannot afford if terrorist attacks get bad enough.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (I just caught this the other day) gets closest to why this is wrong, but doesn't quite grasp it. It's interesting both because it illuminates pretty starkly why the proto-fascism of the Yoo/Addington legal doctrine (that the president has no restrictions whatsoever on the use of force, and may kill, kidnap or torture whomever he wants) is so monstrous, and because the last-minute hesitation at closing the case weakened the movie considerably.

So (spoiler warning), here's the basic plot outline. Captain America and Black Widow work for SHIELD, a government agency. It turns out this agency has been infested with a Nazi-descended fifth column called Hydra. SHIELD has comprehensive dragnet surveillance, and is in the process of launching three aircraft carrier-sized floating gunships bristling with long-range guns.

Hydra has infested both these operations, and plans to use them to institute a worldwide fascist dictatorship. They have used the dragnet to construct dossiers on basically every person in the world, and after the gunships are launched, they'll use the surveillance tools to locate anyone who might be a potential threat to their new regime, and will use the long-range weapons to preemptively execute all of them en masse. The overthrow is shown to be quite specific — the president, many members of Congress, and many people in the Pentagon are seen on the targeting screen.

The heroes stop the plan at the last second, of course. But the great thing about this movie is how Captain America is shown to object to the gunships from the very beginning, when their secret construction is revealed to him. He correctly recognizes that such power is highly dangerous outside of any oversight, and insists that the gunships not just be stopped from their current course, but destroyed altogether.

But the dialogue in the movie consistently stops short of laying out exactly why this is. Nobody ever says something like "extrajudicial surveillance and force will lead to abuse" and it's a lost opportunity. It would have strengthened the logic and motivation of the protagonist, and in a way that fits very well with Captain America's old-timey ethos as a New Deal Democrat and earnest do-gooder (in this incarnation, he's been frozen since 1945). In a democracy, "authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force." Or, to quote Julian Sanchez:
The conceit at the center of all of these surveillance programs — of almost the entire idea of a secret intelligence community in a democracy — is that you have elected representatives of the people who are allowed to know what they're doing and keep checks on it, even if these things have to be kept secret from the general public. It's only under these circumstances that you can plausibly think that level of secrecy is compatible with a democratic system.
Hydra is bad not because it's descended from Nazis, but because it is the logical endpoint of the Yoo/Addington political ideology.

But instead, perhaps because this idea could equally apply to most modern superhero treatments, Winter Solider keeps getting tangled up in wishy-washy defenses of extrajudicial vigilantism. At almost the last scene in the movie, Black Widow is called to testify before some kind of congressional committee. A general whines that now they don't have infinite murder power on account of all the gunships got blowed up, and some jackoff politician says exposure of her secret past (she posted SHIELD's surveillance data online, and she used to work for the Russians) means she should be jailed. Instead of plainly explaining the stakes, Black Widow says that they'll keep her around because she and her vigilante friends are the only one competent enough to deal with terrorism:

Democratic institutions are just not up to the task, it seems. Here's how the scene should have gone:

GENERAL: Why haven't we heard from Captain Rogers?

BLACK WIDOW: Subpoena him, I dunno. What more would you like to hear?

GENERAL: He could explain how this country's supposed to maintain its national security now that he, and you, have laid waste to our intelligence apparatus.

BLACK WIDOW: General, are you a member of Hydra?

GENERAL [outraged]: Of course not, and I--

BLACK WIDOW: Then that means that you were on the Hydra kill list. If we hadn't brought down those gunships, then you would be dead, along with every non-Hydra person in this room.

I'm not certain how best to keep this country safe. But I'm certain that the very first thing you ought to do is make damn sure that "intelligence apparatus" you love so much isn't actually pointed at our own government.

POLITICIAN: Some of those on the committee here believe that your service record, both for this country and against it, mean that you should be in a penitentiary.

BLACK WIDOW [annoyed]: You people don't seem to understand the gravity of what just happened. Hydra was this close to instituting a fascist dictatorship. Did you even read the briefing books? [embarrassed coughing]

The entire power structure of this nation was moments from assassination. The president. The Congress [she makes a gun with her hand, mock shooting the politician]. The Pentagon leadership [mock shoots the general]. The press [mock shoots one of the journalists to the side].

Those gunships just might have been greatest threat this nation has ever experienced.

GENERAL: That's ridiculous--

BLACK WIDOW [on a roll]: Yes General, even to national security. Not to your fighter jet budget, or to your ability to use fancy surveillance gear with no oversight. I'm talking about the right of the regular people to be secure in their homes, to live how they choose without fear, and to elect their own government.

I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of in my life. But I've served my adopted country. And if destroying those giant floating murder palaces has so annoyed you all that you want to try and haul me up before a grand jury, take your best shot. [stunned silence]


Ideally, that would be paired with another previous scene where Cap argues for these principles, and convinces Black Widow that democracy is actually good. But you get the idea.