In my first Captain America 2 meta, I talked about a bunch of things, including acknowledging the criticism that the movie accepted “being a soldier” as a pure moral good.
But actually, the more I think about it, it really did interrogate the “goodness” of soldiery. I wrote some meta yesterday on tumblr about the Winter Soldier and Captain America’s shield, and it occurs to me that Captain America and the Winter Soldier are showing the two different sides of being a soldier.
Captain America is the good soldier, the moral pinnacle, in the movie’s morality. He is a team player, but more than that a team leader. He’s all about his fellow soldiers, completing the mission, and unit cohesion. He is also about questioning bad orders, which is something that the US military tells soldiers they have a moral obligation to do, but is very hard to do in practice.
Natasha is shown to be at her best when she’s on board with this. She’s shades of gray. She is a spy.
And the Winter Soldier is all the negatives of being a killer/soldier. He is someone else’s idea of perfection, but it’s a corrosive perfection. He is a pure killer, with no interest in cohesion, no morality at all. He is an assassin.
So this movie does show the shades of soldiery through these characters. (And in that continuum, Sam is another good/right soldier, but not as much of a leader as Captain America. At least in this story, he embodies the moral authority of the soldier who follows the right leader.)
This is why this movie HAS to have the Winter Soldier in it, not just any other assassin. He is the negative that shows Captain America’s positives. He doesn’t have free will. It’s not that he doesn’t have an interest in questioning orders, it’s that his ability to do so has been threatened, beaten, and finally annihilated out of him. He is the horrible perfect end result of the fascist thinking that informs Pierce and Zola. Captain America is the kind of soldier that “freedom” produces; the Winter Soldier is the kind of soldier that “oppression” produces.
The Winter Soldier is the perfect adversary for Captain America in the grand comics tradition of having each hero face his dark mirror(s). (That’s why IMO Dr. Strange is a much better adversary for Dr. Doom than Reed Fucking Richards. I hate that guy.) Steve is a leader who draws people to him; the Winter Soldier works alone. Steve would never leave a man behind; the Winter Soldier, in his most perfect expression, would never bring a man with him. He gives no quarter and expects none, and so he is inhuman.
But of course, a person like Bucky is not capable of being an inhuman tool like that without some enormous amount of twisting and control.
It’s an imperfect world that (arguably) requires violence at all to preserve freedom and justice, but Captain America 2 argues, I believe, that the soldiers who protect that freedom must be in the Captain America mold, not the Winter Soldier mold. They must question, they must lead, they must be part of a team, because it’s what works, because total pragmatism is always barbaric. You can’t protect freedom with barbarity. Those who would trade freedom for security for freedom deserve neither, and, more importantly, will end up with neither.