Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Altruism vs Utilitarianism

School is over for the spring semester, which means I am now free to see ALL THE SUPERHERO MOVIES EVER! And like everyone else on WordPress with a blog, I saw Captain America 2, and now I must write about it.


But you don’t need me to tell you if Cap 2 is good or not because by now you should know it’s been getting very positive reviews. For a superhero film, its one of the best. But what struck me as one of the more interesting features in the film I happened to coincide with one of my Spring classes.

I took an Ethics & Governance class, which basically means how the government can make ethical decisions, and the philosophy behind them. Naturally, a large focus of our talk was between Kant’s altruism and Bentham’s utilitarianism, and a few in between. As boring as the class sounds to some, it was actually my favorite class of the semester, and I’m glad to pull something from the class I’ll continue to take with me.

For those who don’t know, altruism is basically selfless actions for the good of mankind. A more detailed look at it would be selflessness and maximizing the happiness of everyone without sacrifice; the polar opposite of selfishness. Kant didn’t create the notion, but he applied that it was societies duty to try for an altruistic Utopian society. I have several problems with Kant, but here isn’t the place, this is just framework for the movie.

Utilitarianism isn’t the opposite of altruism, but it is an opposing viewpoint. To myself, it’s more like applied altruism. Basically, utilitarianism is maximizing the happiness of everyone, while minimizing the negative. Utilitarianism is a more real and practical form of altruism, believing that it’s impossible to not have some form of sacrifice, but to those in power, they have a duty to the people they represent to do what’s best for them.

I knew I was going to like the class when during the first day, he compared altruism to Captain America, and utilitarianism to Iron Man. Iron Man is willing to sacrifice other timelines and others in order to protect his own people. Captain America says that there must be another way, and that if sacrificing other universes or timelines means they survive, then it’s not worth it. This is the central conflict in the second Captain film, and it’s played out beautifully, but not always gracefully.

Spoilers for The Winter Soldier below.

So in Captain America: Frozen Communism, we see a direct sequel to not only the aftermath of The Avengers movie, but to the very first Captain America film. I know next to nothing about Captain America, much less the Winter Soldier arc, so I came into the movie expected just a sequel that dealt with the aftermath of The Avengers. I have friends who love the Captain, so the identity of The Winter Soldier was already spoiled for me, but I thought that was the extent of the involvement of the first film. Turns out I was COMPLETELY FUCKING WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING IN LIFE. Most the major villains stem from Hydra, the Nazi offshoot who desire world power for Nazi offshoot purposes. Instead of going away like most failed organizations do, they survived within the newly formed S.H.E.I.L.D. unit, and identify each other by hugging and whispering “Hail Hydra”.

Photo courtesy of Google

Photo courtesy of Google

First off, that’s really stupid. How do they form new members? Do they brainwash them? Do they whisper Hail Hydra to everyone, and the ones that respond NOT with “Stop whispering in my ear bro” are induced? If they whisper in the wrong persons ear, wouldn’t someone alert someone else that touchy-feely Nazis are whispering sweet nothings to people? I kept wondering why neo-nazism would continue to spread, but then I remembered that Hydra was just “kinda-sorta” Nazis, and instead they just wanted to hold all the power over others. Whatever, Hydra motives aside, how the insurgency culminated in the film was cool.

Image from Google

Image from Google

Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, is your everyday boy-next-door nice guy who also happens to be at the very peak human condition. What I loved in the first film, and continued to love in this one, was that yes, Rogers is above and beyond a normal being’s prowess, but it’s actually his ideals and moral compass that make him a true super hero. This was represented the best in the first film with Rogers jumping onto a grenade, thinking it live, while the others ran. It’s a powerful scene that establishes his personality better than any of the other “good guy” qualities the film set up for him. Rogers will do everything he can to protect everyone.

In the second film, Rogers is out-of-place because the people he serves and protects could also be the ones that will be stabbing him in his back. Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) is a S.H.I.E.L.D. director who pretty much screams bad guy the moment he’s introduced, and shocker, he turns out to be. He, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and the other directors begin a project that includes three helicarriers shooting DNA seeking bullets. The plan is to take out threats before they have a chance to become actual threats using satellite images. Naturally shooting someone before they draw their gun is an ideal that doesn’t sit will with the Captain, which raises tension.

Turns out, Hydra was planning on taking out millions of people who could be a potential threat to their new world order. Such people include office workers and baseball coaches. However, by sacrificing these people, the world will know peace, and war will be a thing of the past. Easily we see themes of utilitarianism. Not everything can be perfect, so in order to reach peace, some may be sacrificed. Pierce is the culmination of everything wrong with the theory, mitigating the amount of people who would be sacrificed in order to preserve what he believes is a perfect society (one that doesn’t threaten Hydra). He justifies his actions by putting law into chaos. He knows some eggs must be broken, and he’s willing to do anything for his peace.

Nick Fury is also a clear example of someone who lives using utilitarianism. Fury and Pierce have a strong connection because of this, and in a couple of scenes Pierce points out that this is exactly the reason Fury was given his position he is in now. When Rogers argues with Fury’s methods, it’s because of this central theme. Amazingly, the inner conflict with Fury and Pierce isn’t the betrayal, but how far they are willing to follow the rational thinking of utilitarianism. How much is too much? At some point, the line in the sand is drawn, and Fury draws it just before hailing Hydra.

Ripped directly from the movie

Ripped directly from the movie

To contrast this, we have Steve Rogers aka Captain America. Within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I noticed that the Captain never seems to kill his victims. He throws a heavy shield and knocks them out, but it’s never shown as a death. I kept waiting to see a clear example of him killing someone, but outside a helicopter, I never noticed any. Meanwhile, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) shoots, chokes, and destroys her enemies. Hell, even Nick Fury whips out a gatling gun and mows down armed soldiers. They do this because they have no choice, its kill or be killed. Rogers doesn’t seem to believe this. In fact, Black Widow seems to be almost envious of Rogers’s moral compass. She’s someone who believes in utilitarianism, but wishes for altruism.

A major conflict with him isn’t just the fact he doesn’t know who to trust, but if he can or cannot kill his best friend. This is a decision that seems easy to the rest, but to Rogers he struggles. And in the end, when Rogers has to make a decision to kill or be killed, he decides he would rather die than to kill his friend. Granted, the choice was mostly difficult because it was his best friend, he still chose the selfless route. His character is as naive, and even called so, but Captain America’s actions are the result of not taking the easy way out. To Captain America, there exists black and white within the shades of grey. Captain America has always been a metaphor for the best traits of America, and his desire to protect everyone is at his core, a perfect synthesis of patriotism and high ethical standards.Captain America // artwork by Matteo Scalera and AsylumComics (2012)

Captain America // artwork by Matteo Scalera and AsylumComics (2012)

These were just a few things that stood out. I’m excited to see these themes explored in the next Avengers, or anything else from the Marvel Cinema Universe. The Winter Soldier made me a fan of the Captain, so maybe now I’ll stop sitting on my butt and actually read some of his comics.

Side note however: Did Captain America: The Winter Soldier copy the whole story of Metal Gear Solid 4? I haven’t read the comics so it could be the other way around, but aren’t there striking similarities? A secret organization (The Patriots or Hydra) seeks world domination by using technology (nanomachines or DNA seeking artillery strikes) via a large carrier (Outer Haven or helicarriers) and wish to control the battlefield and stamp out threats before they become one. They are led by older men (Liquid Ocelot or Alexander Pierce) who have turned their back on the government and have traded in their humanity for peace. I mean, it’s pretty damn similar, right?

About Chris "Kodoku" Detrick

Hello, my name is Chris Eric Detrick and I'm a currently a student at Virginia Commonwealth University and a freelance video game writer. I'm stationed out in Richmond, Virginia and looking for work. My blog has been featured in Freshly Pressed and since then I have only grown as a writer and journalist. You can contact me via email:
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