Captain America is a hero of morals and integrity. He represents the American ideal not because of his politics but because of his values. And yet his presence in comics dating back to World War II has always had to contend with the American political sphere. What would be the implications if the values of America’s greatest hero no longer matched America’s behavior?
Marvel took an ambitious step by removing Captain America from his ’40s origin story and dropping him into the modern day. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a film in which Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must now grapple with thorny, ripped from the headlines debates surrounding America’s defense spending, use of military drones and their technological dominion over our privacy.
It’s the first time a Marvel film has presented grave, real-world stakes. In one way, the modern setting makes “The Winter Soldier” feel hardly like a superhero movie at all, closer to a conspiracy thriller complete with modern weaponry and combat. But in another way, Directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s placement of the film well within the Marvel template and “Cinematic Universe” make the presentation of “The Winter Soldier’s” vague political ideas that much queasier.
That’s because “The Winter Soldier” is easily the most bullet-ridden superhero movie ever made. Rather than robots and aliens blasting rockets at a soaring Iron Man or Thor battling titans and gods with a hammer, Cap cowers behind a shield against SWAT teams, secret agents and cops mowing down cars and city streets with machine guns, RPGs and sniper rifles.
This movie’s body count seems higher than normal, and the scarily modern and poignant imagery passed under the gauze of a PG-13 rating and “Wow, isn’t that cool” special effects are often quite unsettling.
The story heavily involves the secret government organization S.H.I.E.L.D., which has been slowly established throughout every Marvel film since “Iron Man 2.” They’re about to launch Project Insight, three massive airships of death capable of using data to eradicate threats automatically, before they happen. S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) bluntly speaks of the necessity to defend against potential terror no matter what the costs, and the similarities to America’s current foreign policy could not be clearer.
But when Fury discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised, Captain America is suddenly a fugitive on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Board of Directors head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and his literal army of other super soldiers, all of them gun-toting marines.
One wonders how “The Winter Soldier” can in the same breath condemn the use of excessive military force while parading such copious, real-world violence. These complaints are not unlike those levied at “Star Trek Into Darkness” or “Man of Steel” for their blatant depiction of 9/11 and terrorist imagery. Marvel has dredged up familiar fears in order to create an epic spectacle, and it rubs me compeltely the wrong way.
All this is a soapbox aside from the movie’s more traditional flaws. The convoluted conspiracy presumes some background knowledge on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s involvement in previous Marvel entries, and the resources both they and Captain America can will into existence (lapel pins that electrocute wearers, flawless digital face masks, lasers powerful enough to burrow underground) remain utterly preposterous. And in traditional Marvel movie fashion, the final battle across multiple locations rages on endlessly; watching The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) spiral and dive midair in avoidance of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most sophisticated military technology arguably makes “The Avengers” look modest.
“The Winter Soldier” likewise lacks the charm of “Captain America: The First Avenger.” That film had a song and dance number and a charming Old Hollywood gloss. This film makes do with Scarlett Johansson as a smooth talking, intellectual vixen, a strong update on her strictly sexy appearance in “Iron Man 2”. She’s a big part of humanizing Steve Rogers as they question whether or not the superhero life is right for them. And although Robert Redford never goes full-on super villain, every moment of him framed in giant windows and futuristic board rooms shows he has more iconography and intrigue than arguably Captain America himself.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the most successful collection of movies in history not merely because they share a plot thread but because they’re safe, familiar films with a recipe for success. Only one movie in the franchise has been directed by Joss Whedon, but they all could’ve been.
Despite the graduated themes, this holds true for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and the cathartic fantasy doesn’t mix with the grim ideas and images. If Marvel wishes to evolve their films to something matching the gravitas and dark nuance behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, they’ll have to break their mold and allow their directors, films and characters to push the limits of traditional, money-making summer fun.
2 1/2 stars