Being that I travel in and around Crazytown, I'm going to talk about this film with regards to an idea known as "predictive programming"- only that is also not what I'm about here, not as is usually said. In other words, this is not a sobfest about how horrible Sauron is and we're best off either bending the knee or fighting a futile battle.
What this film does do, and effectively so, is to tell the truth about what's really going on. That's why it's not predictive programming. Let's start with our star and why this portrayal of the title character is so effective.
Steve Rogers represents the America that both Americans and foreigners believe in, the one we're told is the one that is truly exceptional and is the greatest country in the world, and therefore embodies the ideal America that we--worldwide--are propagandized into believing in. This is not a meta-level quality. The plot of the film, and the other characters who matter in this story, are fully aware of this fact and use that fact actively for their own ends. The critical point of the film is that Captain America walks the talk, he's a true believer, and he puts in the work required to make his belief in the ideal as much of a reality as he can- and the consequence of this behavior is that he acquires a charisma that draws others to him, and those others see him as a leader, a role Rogers accepts in all the best ways and makes work for the good of all.
The story, as should be obvious before you buy that ticket, involves Rogers confronting the global police state. As one would expect of a superhero movie, he does win that confrontation, but he does not do so alone. He directly inspires several others to help him, and in the end is the combined efforts of Rogers and all of his allies that brings down the fictional system depicted in the film. That's where the fantasy lies; what matters, for my purposes, is that (a) the fiction barely covers the real history of how the real global police state came to be and (b) depicts--albeit in a simplified form--what it's going to take to bring it down.
HYDRA, as with the first film, is both stand-in for the Nazis and within its fiction is a secret society within said regime. After World War 2, many of the surviving HYDRA agents and assets are brought over through Operation: Paperclip and go over to SHIELD. Those remnants rebuild HYDRA from within, turning SHIELD into HYDRA in all but name over the post-war decades. They are still after the big goal of World Domination, but they've shifted to doing it covertly by first destablizing nations and regions and then restablizing them via puppets put into place loyal to HYDRA by one means or another; the goal is to get the peoples of the world to willingly accept slavery in return for security. The film's events depict that last step; the new Helicarriers--capable of indefinite flight and tied into a global surveillance system--are able to autonomously kill all targets indicated to them by a complex algorithm meant to predict threats before they become too much for the system to handle.
This system already exists (without the Helicarriers). This is, as the Motherjones article points out, the Establishment's Targeted Killing (via drones) regime. Combined with the para-military law enforcement agencies (which HYDRA's STRIKE teams represent), and a compliant government (the World Security Council and Gary Shandling's return as Senator Stern--last seen in Iron Man 2--represent this), and you have the epidemic of imperial overreach abroad and increasing repression at home. The targeting both known dissidents (Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are called out by name) and unknown individuals whose threat status seems absurd (some Valedictorian in Iowa City) represents the dubious distinctions made in the real world by those running the Kill List.
Characters in films like this are symbols; they stand in for something else. Rogers I already addressed, so here's the other principles and what they represent:
- Black Widow/Falcon/Agent 13: They represent the demoralized, but capable, subset of people who would be the key actors in any successful throwing-down of the system. This is not to be taken literally; they represent lawyers, politicians, businessmen, celebrities, or any other individual of power or influence significant enough to need either suborning or sideline.
- Nick Fury/Maria Hill: Represents the managerial class put in place by the owners of the system, and charged with keeping the people from them. In other words, he's the Praetorian Guard and therefore needs to be kept happy if the owners want to continue enjoying the fruits of their evil. Once this class turns, or is turned upon, the fall of the owners is routinely swift to follow. Solving this problem is a long-standing effort for the owners, something that will be addressed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (and by me in a future post).
- Alexander Pierce: Represents the owners of the system, in their active capacity. The world is increasingly split between the Anglo-American scheme of Inverted Totalitarianism, sometimes called "The Corporatocracy" by folks such as John Perkins, and classic Totalitarianism in both Fascist (Russian) and Stalinist (China) forms. At the very top, these distinctions blur into one big Oligarchy with competing cliques vying for power and control; this is what Pierce's branch of HYDRA is about. It DOES NOT MATTER to him, or his subordinates, which bully-boy comes out on top; they have their hooks in all of them, so it's just a matter of picking favorites, because he (and HYDRA) can't lose so long as the system remains intact. It's the system that has to go down, not just whomever's at the controls. This is a plot-critical point made in the film.
- Batroc/Crossbones/Winter Soldier: Represent the mode of military men as famously described by Henry Kissinger- "dumb, stupid animals" (i.e. useful, but ultimately expendable, assets). They are what the Praetorian Guard class is meant to do by the owners, and when that usefulness is done they are cut loose. (Seen only with Batroc in the film, but heavily alluded to with the other two characters; the Winter Soldier, in particular, is explicitly a MK Ultra mind control victim.)
In addition, the HYDRA moles within SHIELD represent that portion of the population who've already bent the knee and are now active agents in enslaving the world; the remaining SHIELD loyalists represent the rest of us, mostly asleep and duped, but when put to it step up and clean house as best they can. The fight within SHIELD, therefore, represents the struggle by all of humanity against Empire (and you wondered when I would get back to my core thesis) and its Thralls.
The film's core thesis, therefore, is this: the system we were told exists to protect us (SHIELD) is actually there to prey upon us (HYDRA), and that infection is too far gone now- the system CANNOT be saved. It must be destroyed, root and branch, and the ruins salted. For Mankind's freedom, and its future, those of us still capable of throwing down must do so and destroy those at the controls; we can, and will, do well enough thereafter on our own- and with these predators killed off, we can recover, learn, and move on to do better now that we've once more embraced the ideal (Captain America) and let that be what leads us into that better tomorrow- no matter what it costs us.
And that, folks, is what truly makes this film encouraging: a sign from people within Hollywood that not everyone is a shitheel serving Empire. It will fall.