The images bequeathed to future generations from World War II are legion: the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, Winston Churchill’s V for Victory, men struggling against a hail of bullets up the beaches in Normandy, the mind-bewildering horrors of the death camps. The legacy includes phrases as well: “Never in the field of combat was so much owed by so many to so few,” “I shall return,” and the infamous “I was only following orders” of the Nuremberg Trials.
Steve Rogers, a/k/a Captain America, was a soldier in World War II. In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” we see “Cap” first as a good soldier following orders — in this case, to take a ship back from the “pirates” that have commandeered it. Steve believes his mission is simple: capture the pirates, rescue the hostages, get the ship back to its rightful owners. But during the mission, Natasha Romanov, a/k/a Black Widow, appears to go rogue and disobeys Steve’s orders to fulfill a mission of her own. Steve catches her at it, which is the first step for him down a deep rabbit hole of deceit and conspiracy. Ultimately, Steve realizes that following orders is no longer an option. He too must go rogue in service to the greater good as he fights against a legion of people who have given over their own reason and honor to obey a cause that aims to make Hitler’s death count look trivial.
People who follow orders blindly are vacating their own responsibility and handing it over to someone else. This is not always bad. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin’s protagonist Genly Ai speaks about the joy of serving an enlightened government (which does very little governing in fact, putting most of its efforts into expansion of the human mind and spirit). But there is something about human beings that causes us to be both at our best and at our worst when we work on behalf of others, when we let the needs and will of others be our guiding principles in life. A parent who does their best to foster their child’s growth and the soldier who fights to protect others are at their best. But those who fall under the sway of a corrupt person often take their leader as an excuse to indulge their own worst traits. Would Hitler’s crimes have been so enormous without Goebbels or Goering, without the SS, without the commandants of the death camps?
In Winter Soldier, the ultimate villain was once himself a henchman of another bad guy. That person is long dead, and the henchman dies midway through the movie himself, but it doesn’t matter. Their followers are willing to do what they believe their leaders wanted, and that includes killing anyone, even the most innocent and non-threatening people, to get their way. The followers are worse than the leaders whose orders they are following.
And they include the people Cap reports to. But Cap is an uncomplicated fellow with an innate sense of right and wrong that he relies on as his guide through life. Even as a 95-pound weakling, he would fight when his instincts told him to stand up for the right thing. The conspiracy around him is huge and many-faceted, but Cap’s integrity cuts through it like Alexander the Great’s sword cut through the impossible-to-untie Gordian Knot. For Cap, the world is simple. He ignores all the arguments given by the proponents of the new world order because his heart tells him “this is wrong.”
Throughout the movie, Cap is aided by the Black Widow. Natasha has always been one of the most devious and deceitful characters in the “Avengers” universe. She’s even able to trick Loki, the ultimate trickster, into revealing his secrets in The Avengers because she plays mind games better than anyone. We find out that she’s worked for the bad guys before: the KGB and others. But under Cap’s influence she too begins to see straight. “I used to think I knew whose lies I was telling,” she says to him. While Cap is out fighting the bad guys directly, pitting his moral and physical strength against theirs, Natasha does her own knot-cutting by putting all the secrets–including her own–out on the Web for everyone to see. Social media is turning into the best weapon people have against lies and conspiracies, and so it proves in this movie. One can hear the glee behind her calm demeanor when Natasha says “we’re trending” after the information hits the Web. There will be repercussions for all of them, but the ones who dare to be guided by their own sense of right in the face of evil accept this and forge ahead. They take full responsibility.