I just saw Captain America: Civil War at the theater. I’m a fan of Marvel’s superhero movies, but I feel a little conflicted about this one. For one thing, everyone was out for revenge against everyone else, it seemed, although that turned out to be the point of the movie: revenge doesn’t make you feel better.
The story was intricately woven, even more so than usual, with individual agendas and subplots tightening like a noose around a team already choking on the magnitude and burden of their own responsibility. But I’m not here to analyze the movie plot and characters. I want to fast forward to the end of the movie dealing with Steve Rogers’ friend, Bucky Barnes.
Setting the Story
First, let me recap a bit. In Captain America: The First Avenger, we see a young Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes as inseparable best friends. When Bucky was captured in WWII, a German scientist experimented on him trying to develop a super-soldier like Captain America. After Steve (Captain America) rescued Bucky, they fought together until Bucky fell to his (presumed) death from a train on a mountain cliff.
If you watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you know that the experimentation on Bucky allowed him to survive the fall. The Hydra scientists put him back together, giving him a metal arm and brainwashing him to do their bidding as the Winter Soldier. Bucky spent the better part of 70 years in cryo-freeze, being brought out when his handlers needed an assassin and put back under when he wasn’t needed. At the end of Winter Soldier, Bucky begins to remember the past and he goes into hiding. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson spent two years trying to find Bucky.
In Captain America: Civil War, someone out for revenge against the Avengers tracks down an old paper trail to find the keywords that reactivate Bucky’s brainwashing. Bucky finds himself acting on the impulses of his mental programming once again. It’s a complex and intriguing scenario within the movie, but the writers resolved it in a somewhat disturbing manner.
At the end, Bucky returns to his right mind, but he prepares to re-enter a cryo chamber. Steve is there with his friend:
Steve: “Sure about this?”
Bucky: “I can’t trust my own mind, so until they figure out how to get this stuff out of my head, I think going back under is the best thing for everybody.”
On one hand, I know this is the stuff of fiction. I know that. On the other hand, I know Hollywood is the most prominent shaper of public opinion today. Hollywood pushes the envelope to evoke more thrills from people. When that becomes mundane and culturally accepted, they push farther and farther. Things society once considered inappropriate are now accepted as normal . . . thanks to Hollywood.
The Subtle Message about Mental Health
By framing Bucky’s problem as a mental issue, “I can’t trust my own mind,” the writers made a subtle statement that people who don’t have full control of their minds need to be put away. There’s a subtle inference that for the good of themselves and others, mentally unstable people like Bucky should be put down, put out, locked up, or something. They can’t just run around among us.
I’d much rather have seen a more compassionate end for Bucky. So he is susceptible to the brainwashing he endured at the hands of his captors. Big deal. Very few people would know how to trigger his programming and the villain in Civil War had to work hard to come up with the codebook. Rather than eliminating Bucky, why not accommodate him?
Surround Bucky with safe people like Steve Rogers and the Avengers. In a safe, supportive environment, he is not likely to have his brainwashing triggered (and if it was, the Avengers could handle him).
The same is true of people with mental illness. With proper treatment and a safe, supportive environment, people with mental illness are not a threat to themselves or others.
The notion that if we can’t have a perfect mind, we need to be fixed—even if that means going into cryo-freeze until there is a cure—is disturbing. I want to point this out because I don’t want to see Hollywood push a new normal on how to deal with mental illness or defect in our society.
Images from Marvel.com.