There is a good case to be made that the American criminal justice system is itself criminal. Up until around 1980, all statistics we have suggest that the incarceration rate varied at around 100 inmates per 100,000 people. After about 1977, and especially after about 1982, the rate began to rise; in 2008 it was over 700 prisoners per 100,000, and while it seems to have begun a modest decline in the past few years, it remains over 700. In this context, “American exceptionalism” is not an overstatement; the United States is effectively the largest incarcerator in the world; the only states near us are Cuba and North Korea.
The “postmodern condition,” as Jean-François Lyotard designated it in 1979, is an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” That definition has been recited interminably by those grasping for a familiar sound-byte to encapsulate the significance of postmodernity. In the last few decades it has acquired overtones of a playful cultural experimentalism that has somehow outgrown the need for authoritative accounts of the meaning and purpose of human history.
On the surface Captain American: the Winter Soldier is a cinematic triumph of patriotic romanticism. Whatever injury has been done to the American psyche in the early part of the twenty-first century, Marvel has done its best to bind these wounds and produce a tour de force of idealism for a less than idealistic age. Captain America has done for democratic virtue what the West Wing did for American government.