Needless to say, thar be spoilers below. On the off-chance I'm on the second-last person on the interwebs seeing this movie, feel free to avert your eyes.
I'm afraid those vague comments are the most complementary thing I can really say about the movie. It's not that I didn't like the character development or didn't laugh out loud at the scene where Fury had his first show down with the Winter Soldier; that bit about the AC working is comedic gold. Stan Lee's cameo was one of the best I've come across. (Pro tip: If you google "Marvel cameo" the first two results are just biographies of Stan Lee.) And the action scenes throughout were really exciting and I found myself holding my breath – and this watching on a laptop rather than at a cinema. It was really quite a lot of fun. It also has some incredible bending of the laws of physics I've seen since Van Helsing but this time those bits were actually fun. This is blockbuster fare; we're not really watching for the plausibility.
The problem is, I have to keep it at a surface level because I couldn't really afford to think about it more deeply, because the philosophy really doesn't make sense. The basic premise is that Hydra/SHIELD/whatever developed a computer program that predicts who's going to be a danger to society. A terrorist, or a murderer, or whatever else. And they've come up with helicopters that will execute these people from the air. The premise is by killing a million or so people, you'd make the other seven billion safe. And the bad guys in Winter Soldier want to do just that. The movie is basically about the good guys trying to stop those helicopters from launching so they can save all those innocent people from being killed.
First, I'm not sure Hydra's plan would actually work. If you call all the terrorists you change the conditions of reality and there will then be other people that are predisposed to cause harm with the way the world is. It's tempting to think if you could just kill all the Nazis or terrorists or whatnot, those of us left behind would suddenly be safe. I like to think the world would be a better place, and it probably would be – I mean, certainly a world with no Taliban is better than a world with the Taliban, even if other groups rise up to fill that vacuum. But I do suspect there's some truth in the idea that you cut off one head and two more will rise up to take its place. So I'm not saying fighting evil doesn't matter – but I'm also not sure it's quite so simple as the movie makes it seem.
But even more than that, there's something about the Hydra drone plan that actually makes some sense. The plan is based on the idea of determinism, which basically says that free will (meaning the ability to actually change what you'll do in the future) is an illusion – that given a certain past and certain disposition, there was only ever one thing we could do. Think of it this way: if you throw a dodgeball with a certain force and it hits the wall at a certain angle, it will always bounce back at you with a certain speed, force, trajectory, etc. Given enough information about the way physics works and given certain starting conditions (which you can't change because it happened in the past, you could tell everything about what that ball will be doing at a certain point in time. Well, we're physical bodies as well (the theory goes), so our future actions are basically caused by physical laws (which we can't change) and things that happened in the past (which we can't change anymore, and which were already determined to happen before they did by other events that happened even further back in the past. Basically, we only ever think we're making choices, and that based on our past and the kind of person we are, there's only one possible choice we could have made. Just as I can guarantee you with 100% certainty that if you throw a ball against a wall with force A and angle B, it will bounce back to you with force C and angle D, I can also be 100% sure that the person with anger issues and a criminal record and a drug habit and lack of education and whatever else you want to throw in there will end up committing a particular crime. He might think he made a choice somewhere along the line, but (so the theory goes again) there was never anything else he could have done.
This is a controversial idea. People think they actually have free will, the ability to make one choice or another, but when you produ under the surface of these beliefs it's had to make sense of responsibility and the way we think of cause and effect if people actually have the freedom to make one decision or another. When I taught thiswith my student we took about three weeks to really work through it al, and I don't want to bore you. But suffice it to say, this idea that with enough raw data we could be absolutely certain what you're going to do in the future has its fans. You hear sometimes of how WalMart knew the person was pregnant before she did based on her past purchasing habits. It's the same basic idea.
Now htrow in the basic idea of utilitarianism: that if we have to choose betwee one million dying and seven billion (or whatever number would be affected by those crimes, if it's more than the initial million), then we should make the smaller sacrifice. Killing the million is the right thing to do, even if it's really hard. It's allowed to be difficult, it's allowed to eat us up inside, but it's still the right thing to do. And maybe we're better off with people in general not having to make that decision if it would make them morally callous and lead to worse consequences in the longrun. But if killing a million really would lead to better consequences for everyone affected than not killing those million, taking into account the loss of those lives and the grief of those families and the loss of trust in the government and the effect on people who pulled the trigger but also all the suffering prevented by that act – it's the right thing to do. And that seems to be the view Pierce is operating from: if you knew a Pakistani terrorist was going to march into Mumbai and round up a bunch of civilians and execute them, wouldn't you kill him before he ever left Pakistan, if you could?
I didn't mean to turn this into a philosophy lesson. As I said, not everyone accepts determinism. (I don't, on both fronts, incidentally.) And I don't expect a comic book movie to have an in-depth discussion of metaphysics, of course. But the problem was, this raised a question for me and just left it there, unchallenged, except in a pretty immature way. If you put these things together then things like Project Instinct begin to make some sense. If there's no free will, there's no real sense of responsibility – you don't blame someone for not doing something when it would be impossible for them to have done anything else. This is why we send truly mentally ill people who committed a crime to a secure hospital until they're no longer a threat, rather than to jail where they'll be punished and then released when they've paid for their crime: it's not a matter of guilt and responsibility, but of preventing future harm and getting them the help they clearly need. And if people aren't able to prevent themselves from acting badly, it's not like they'll at some point become guilty. Absent that, killing people you know will commit horrible crimes in the future becomes just another kind of proactive rather than retroactive policing.
I really hate to admit this but within the framework of Pierce's assumptions Project Insight ... actually makes a kind of sense. It's precise, much more precise than the incident in Bogota where Fury saved the hostages but I'm sure killed a fair number of terrorists just because they were in the room. It's motivated by a drive to save people who don't pose a threat. I don't agree with it, either instinctively or when I sit down and think about it intellectually.
But my reasons for being so disgusted by Project Insight aren't the ones the characters of the movie give. Fury says what he did in Bogota, he did to save people. That seems to be precisely what Pierce is trying to do, just more efficiently (with less loss of life to people who don't actually pose a risk). Captain America talks an awful lot about freedom, about it having a high price but being worth it – but absolutely no time on what it even means to be free, why this is even possible if Project Insight is correct about what we do in the future being determined by our "data" of who we are right now. Both Natasha and Steve insist to Fury that they can't just root out Hydra, SHIELD must be eliminated as well. This isn't just the difficulty of actually identifying everyone with Hydra connections; it's the realization, I think, that SHIELD is fundamentally corrupt, or at least dangerous, in much the way Hydra is. Instead, we get the Indian politician who's asked if he would save his daughter from terrorists by killing them before they even left Pakistan, answers essentially (I forget the exact line): "Not if you're the guy with his finger on trigger." We get personal conflicts and back-and-forths that ignore the fundamental points being made.
This is frustrating, and it kept me from enjoying the movie as much as I did the first one, because there were moments where you could have had these conversations. You've got the World Security Council scenes, particularly at the Project Insight launch, and the more personal moments between Pierce and Fury that seem made for an ethical debate. Fury has the chance to explain why this is not like Bogota – but he offers the precise goal Pierce is trying to accomplish. Then you have Cap worried about should he leave SHIELD or not and admitting to himself he's basically going off of force of habit and not feeling like he can do anything else – just as he's preparing to risk his life to give other people the freedom of choice. Falcon, who we see counseling returning vets about how to move past their instinctual reactions learned on the battlefield, basically tells Cap that the Winter Soldier may be unreachable, even as we see him struggling (eventually overcoming) his "programming." Natasha says she thought she was making a good choice, trading in the KGB for SHIELD, but now wonders whether one is any better than the other – she all but asks whether there's even a choice to be made here. These are conversations that could have made sense of the basic freedom-versus-control issue that's driving this movie, that just didn't happen. And that's without even going into the Winter Soldier himself, who I found brimming with missed opportunities to delve into all this. That last one makes sense a bit, given what they're doing with his identity and clearly setting up for Cap III, so that at least is more forgivable.
Instead, what we get are long sequences of people shooting at each other and blowing stuff up.
It's not like I expect an in-depth philosophical examination of these issues in an adventure movie, but I do expect basic coherence and an alternative to the villain beyond "but you're just a bad, bad man." And this time around, I didn't really get it. Maybe it's just the mood I'm in, where most things seem like an occasion for philosophical rumination. But it definitely kept me from being able to enjoy this beyond the level of a certain scene being a really cool action sequence. And of course Chris Evans is a very handsome man and it's fun watching him run around in a uniform. I'm not blind to that.
I just wish there'd been more substance. Just a bit, so I could have really connected with the movie beyond that level.