One of the main criticisms leveled against Captain America: The First Avenger was that Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) was simply a “good guy” and therefore didn’t have any deep inner conflict (i.e. baggage). That was one of the things I loved most about the character. He didn’t need some tragic past to let him know that it was good to be good. “I don’t like bullies,” Rogers said in the first film, and that was it in a nutshell: “I don’t like bullies.” The sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, could have made the character more twisted and melodramatic by plunging him into a darker, more complex world. Instead, Captain America isn’t corrupted by the present day. He’s not even tested. His innate goodness is a beacon; it’s a bulwark against corruption. Captain America: The Winter Soldier celebrates the good guy, and when combined with smart commentary, incredible action, and a wonderful sense of humor, it’s the best Marvel movie so far.
Captain America is now working for S.H.I.E.L.D., but it’s an uneasy partnership. He finds it difficult to trust Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who deal in subterfuge and espionage. He’s also highly suspicious of the organization’s “Project Insight”, which is designed to launch three new helicarriers as a way of neutralizing potential threats. Ironically, when S.H.I.E.L.D. looks like it’s under attack, Cap becomes the prime suspect, and is forced to go on the run alongside Natasha as they attempt to discover a larger conspiracy. To make matters worse, they’re also forced to contend against a mysterious assassin known as “The Winter Soldier” (Sebastian Stan).
Even though there are a lot of pieces in play, the story is easy to follow, especially for anyone who’s seen political thrillers. The movie isn’t so much about twists and turns (although there’s a big one for folks who don’t follow comics or Marvel movie news), and you’ll probably be able to spot the betrayals a mile away. And that’s fine because even though The Winter Soldier wears the face of a political thriller, it’s still about the good guy at the center. It’s not a political thriller featuring Captain America. It’s Captain America in a political thriller. He’s the guiding force, and we never need to doubt him.
That may sound boring since we’ve come to expect tortured inner lives from our superheroes. How can he possibly grow without pain? Because Captain America isn’t suppose to grow. The world is supposed to grow to meet Captain America. It’s so rewarding to see a movie that’s not about tearing down a hero to see how he ticks, but building him up and making us feel good about rooting for him. He’s not perfect. He’s still naïve, but I’ll take naivety over cynicism any day.
The movie manages to have its cake and eat it too by including political commentary and subtext. It’s almost a constant reminder that Captain America is a relic and someone who could never exist. The real world is too complex for him, and there’s no place for a simple hero when geopolitics is at stake. We live in a world of drone strikes and NSA data mining. These are the real villains of Captain America: The Winter Soldier even though they’re never named directly. This kind of paranoia and fear would wear away a lesser man, but not Captain America. He’s better than that.
The Winter Soldier also comes into play not only as a more literal villain, but also as an alternate path. He’s a dark version of Captain America. He hides in the shadows. He’s merciless. He’s a weapon. Captain America may be a one-man army, but he’s not a tool, and he resents being used that way by S.H.I.E.L.D. It may be tough trying to figure out the good guys from the bad guys when it comes to a conspiracy, but Captain America is always sure of himself. It’s a comforting security, and one that’s necessary to ground a world where fear is more powerful than freedom.
These notions of paranoia and mistrust run not only through the story, but the set pieces as well. Usually, action scenes stand apart. They’re meant to be fun and delightful, and then we return to our regularly scheduled programming that will take us to the next set piece. The Winter Soldier goes one step further by bringing the subtext into the action. For example, the tension slowly builds preceding a fight inside an elevator, and it’s a clever way to show the shadowy forces closing in on Cap. In another scene, a character is attacked by henchmen disguised as police officers. The bad guys are hiding in plain sight, and the movie never lets us forget it even when we’re watching exhilarating fights and chases.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have never helmed an action movie before, but here they come off like old pros. They’ve upped the game in clever ways like showing how Rogers’ super strength would work against regular people (e.g. he hits much harder), and they could probably write a book titled “101 Ways to Use a Shield”. The action is wonderfully choreographed, the pace is terrific, and they’ve found a tremendous asset in Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who’s not only a great character, but also provides some nice variety alongside Cap and Black Widow.
If there’s one glaring weakness to the whole affair, it’s that the bad guys’ plan doesn’t make a lot of sense. Thematically, it works, but I didn’t understand how it could be reasonably executed. The silliness of this plot point isn’t really worthy of the movie’s overall intelligence. However, I can overlook this flaw because while it’s an important part of the story, it’s a small piece of a movie that’s filled with excitement, thoughtfulness, earnestness, and humor.
I do have to take a moment to address the humor, because it’s one of the big reasons Captain America: The Winter Soldier is so successful. The movie starts with a joke and even though the plot is filled with serious themes and plenty of drama, it never forgets to make us laugh. They’re not ironic laughs or defensive ones. They’re just good-hearted, clever jokes, and they’re yet another example of why the movie is such a success.
Marvel has not only proven yet again that there is no template for their movies, but also that there’s no template for good superhero movies. Each character has to be taken on his or her merits rather than being forced to appeal to a vague notion of what a popular superhero should be. Some audience members may think they want dark, brooding, and desperate, and that’s fine for some characters. But it’s more important to recognize that audiences need and deserve a different kind of hero. To recognize a hero who reminds us about the greatness of being honest in a world of dishonesty, of being compassionate in a world of selfishness, and of being brave in a world of fear. These values combined with top-notch filmmaking make Captain America: The Winter Soldier not just my favorite Marvel movie; it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.