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 their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
–Thomas Paine, The Crisis

When Thomas Paine wrote these words, I highly doubt that he envisioned that they would be deployed as metaphor in future theatrical entertainment. His words were designed to rally support against what he saw as an encroaching British government, not form the foundation for a production involving overpowered heroes in outlandish costumes. And yet, that is exactly where we find ourselves today with this past weekend’s record-breaking launch of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film which both brings new challenges into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and poses several moral questions that strike at the heart of modern America.


(Seriously, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, please do so first and come back later to finish reading this.)

At the start of the movie, Steve Rogers (Captain America) is still adjusting to being pulled radically into the future. In his film debut in Captain America: The First Avenger, he triumphed over HYDRA by crashing the massive Valkyrie bomber into the Arctic ice cap, becoming frozen until he was discovered by a SHIELD research team and thawed out. After the events of the Avengers, in which Captain America made his re-debut in the world by helping stop the alien invasion of New York, he is slowly getting used to the cultural changes surrounding him. He keeps a notebook in his pocket and lists things he needs to experience, including major movies, music albums, and Thai food. (We know he’s already tried Shawarma.)

The bigger conflict, however, is with his values. Cap still believes in the principles that he upheld during World War II when he fought HYDRA: that liberty and justice must prevail, and that people shouldn’t have the power to manipulate and control mankind. It’s no surprise, then, that the modern information age doesn’t sit well with him: SHIELD and the network of other world governments and agencies it collaborates with have monopolized on surveillance and monitoring technologies. SHIELD’s next big initiative is Project Insight: a series of new Helicarriers (the flying aircraft carriers featured in the Avengers) with massive armaments and a continuous satellite uplink that allows them to find and eliminate any threat on earth.

Ultimately, Cap’s mistrust of this new information and control age is justified: working alongside Black Widow and another new hero, Falcon, he discovers that HYDRA was never truly defeated after World War II. As Arnim Zola, one of HYDRA’s chief scientists, reminds us about the mythic monster: “Cut off one head, and two will take its place.” The survivors of HYDRA worked their way into the depths of SHIELD and other agencies and governments around the world, slowly influencing public policy and pushing the world to a point of so much dysfunction that people are willing to give up their freedom in exchange for security. Project Insight is a key part of their plan, because with it HYDRA will be able to assassinate anyone who currently or in the future–thanks to online tracking and advanced data profiling technologies–poses a threat to their new world order.

There are, of course, other elements to the story: themes of honesty, loyalty, personal identity, and trust. There are also some hints at future romance thrown in for good measure. However, it is Cap’s struggle to find a place for his values in the modern world that drives almost the entire plot.

Steve Rogers is, as his original comic book’s appellation suggested, a “Man Out of Time.” His sense of honor and his commitment to more classic American values are becoming incompatible with the world as it has developed. What Captain America finds himself doing at the beginning of the film–running black ops missions in the dark of night–isn’t what the frail Steve Rogers signed up for when he first joined the super soldier program during World War II. He has found himself square in the middle of a much larger conflict: on one side lies the freedom he once fought to protect, and on the other lies the secretive, powerful, and seductive quest for societal control that currently guides world politics.

However, it is exactly his traditional American values that save the day in the end. When HYDRA comes dangerously close to succeeding, Captain America breaks into SHIELD HQ and announces to the entire organization that HYDRA had infiltrated and taken over. Saying nothing other than the truth, he implores the people of SHIELD to realize what they had become and how they had been deceived into complicitly supporting HYDRA’s designs. Cap’s moral core and values are the rallying point that loyal SHIELD personnel needed to hear, and they spring into action to fight against HYDRA’s influence. The massive infighting within SHIELD that results from these revelations cripples the organization, at least temporarily, but what is left has been purified and restored to a more honest state.

There’s a lot more to the story of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that I will refrain from spoiling here. Thematically, however, this film is yet another example of a slowly-growing trend in movies that are pushing back against a culture that accepts complacency and allows others to dictate major aspects of individual lives. The LEGO Movie, which has itself broken records and been called the most subversive pro-liberty film ever produced, featured this same theme when its chief villain tried to end creativity and originality by using the mystic Kragle (a tube of Krazy Glue) to literally put society in its place.

Some may write off Captain America as just another superhero movie, but to do so would be to completely miss the moral complexities that such stories allow us to explore. Consider the words of Isaac Asimov:

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.

Stories ignite the moral imagination, and give us the opportunity to explore real issues in a creative way. The biggest difference between The LEGO Movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, obviously, is that it is much easier to “subvert” powerful themes in plastic toys than it is to hide them behind a hero who literally wields a red, white, and blue shield.

Captain America’s struggle to root out HYDRA’s influence within SHIELD is the same struggle that America faces today: with a government that has become more invasive than any other point in its history, and is more distrusted than ever before, America continues to march down a path of increasing government power and influence over our daily lives. For many, challenging that onward march is too great a task or carries too great a personal cost. Cap faced the same question, but to him the answer was obvious: justice had to prevail, even if it meant tearing down the entirety of SHIELD to do it.

The question is this: will Americans step up to the challenge and reassert their liberties in the face of such monumental corruption? Or, like the sunshine patriots from Paine’s missive, will they shy away from the task before them?

If enough people see and learn from the messages in this movie, then the answer will slowly become clear: Yes. Captain’s orders.

David Giffin | Wake Forest University School of Law | @D_Giffin