Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Superheroes have it easy most of the time. Sure, it’s difficult to maintain a dual identity and to keep all those deep-seated anxieties in check, but by the time the third act rolls around they’re usually pretty confident about who they’re supposed to punch. Dark Elves want to destroy the universe? Punch ‘em. A mad scientist wants to turn every New Yorker into an iguana? Yes, you can punch him. Captain America isn’t so lucky in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Captain America comes from an earlier era, a version of World War II romanticized into pulp wonder by Joe Johnston in Captain America: The First Avenger. The bad guys wore special patches on their Nazi uniforms (as if the Nazi uniforms weren’t a dead giveaway already). But when he arrived in the 21st Century, The Avengers painted him as a bit of a relic. A throwback to bygone simplicity, and the brunt of fish out of water jokes in practically every scene. Captain America is a man out of time, certainly, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier knows just what to do with him: his heroism throws the 21st Century into sharp perspective, and proves just how bad the world has become without him. But you can’t punch American values… can you?
Marvel Studios seems to think you can, and that mindset has produced their most daring motion picture. Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes an important moral stance that most other superhero movies – or movies of any other kind – are afraid to touch. You can argue that the hero’s ideals are wrong or even simplistic, but you can’t argue that here, for once, is a hero with a clear definition of what they consider right, and what they consider wrong, and who will actively fight for those ideals even when the whole world stands against him. Although Anthony and Joe Russo’s film occasionally fumbles the details and over-edits the action sequences, they have nevertheless produced the most heroic superhero movie since the original Superman. Perhaps even moreso. Captain America can’t turn back time to solve his problems: he’s forced to deal with real consequences.
Captain America (Chris Evans) still hasn’t found his place in the 21st Century. He hasn’t gotten around to listening to Miles Davis or watching Rocky (he’s heard mixed things about Rocky II). Instead of finding a new life for himself he has committed to a slightly warped version of the old one, fighting for the American government but for causes he doesn’t entirely understand, and against threats who remain in the shadows. His latest mission against Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre) uncovers evidence of a conspiracy within the classified walls of SHIELD, and no sooner does Col. Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) bring the news to his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), does Fury find himself under attack by his own men, led by the mysterious Winter Soldier (???).
The identity of The Winter Soldier is no secret to comic book fans (or to anyone who can read an IMDb page), and it’s just one of the dramatic turns that Captain America: The Winter Soldier forces its hero to weather with characteristic idealism. He can’t just kill the bad guy. Heck, even punching him seems wrong. Thrown out of SHIELD and on the run with The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and his new teammate Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Cap is forced to uncover dangerous truths about SHIELD and, by extension, American foreign and domestic policy over the last 70 years. What he finds shocks him, but most shocking of all is that most of these misdeeds have been have been in the news for decades, outside of the movie theater, and we’ve all been letting it slide because unlike Captain America, we’ve let ourselves become jaded.
The Russo Bros. film Captain America: The Winter Soldier like a classic Tom Clancy thriller, full of monuments and shoptalk arguments and climactic moral stands with sweeping significance. Although the action sequences are all exciting in principle, sometimes the film cuts too quickly and prevents the most amazing stunts from providing a real thrill. But the story – though a little on the simple side (the identity of the villain(s) is never much of a mystery) – carries the weight of the world, and the finale stacks the odds against its hero to a nearly impossible degree, with serious ramifications not just for Captain America, but for the world as a whole. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe is about the change, and the impact on “Agents of SHIELD” is bound to be enormous.
But the impact on Captain America is what truly matters. He reacts to this cynical time of ours with enough confusion that we know he takes it seriously, but he settles into a moral certitude we can all rally behind. He resists easy solutions in favor of the right ones, because how a hero behaves defines them as much – if not more – than their results. Regardless of nationality, Captain America is now perhaps the one true superhero of the cinema, a person to look up to, not to simply be entertained by, even though our entertainment is amplified for all his troubles. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a flawless picture, but its portrayal of heroism comes incredibly close to perfection. It finally makes our heroes feel “super” again.