By Travis Trombley
Spoiler Alert: this review contains details concerning the film’s later plot elements and major themes. Those of you who wish to preserve the mystery until viewing, do not read further.
Seriously, I’m going talk about some significant plot twists here…
By reading past these lines, you resign your rights to inflict upon me any pain—physical, psychological or emotional—as a consequence for potentially spoiling the movie for you.
Based loosely on Ed Brubaker’s graphic novel of the same name, Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now the third Marvelverse film to take place in the post-invasion world created by Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, and it is in many ways more of a sequel to that group adventure than it is to the original Cap film. It inherits not only the post-invasion paranoia and Rogers’ struggles to acclimate to the world after a 70-year nap, but also furthers the running theme of surrendering freedom for safety’s sake (recall Loki’s whole shtick about providing a world made free from freedom ).
An quasi spy thriller, buddy comedy and a blockbuster action film all dressed up in the increasingly popular superhero garb, Winter Soldier may be the best and smartest installment in the Marvelverse yet, both keenly aware of what audiences expect from the genre but also unafraid to touch on some political commentary. But, like the Winter Soldier himself, as soon as it starts to find its identity, the creators seem to wipe its memory and have it blow something up.
Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is a man out of his time and element, and the writers play this out to great effect in the film’s first half, starting with Rogers keeping a list of culturally relevant items to look up and, in a touching scene, visiting his aged and sickly love interest from the first film, Peggy Carter, in a retirement home. There’s also a particularly clever scene in which Rogers visits a Captain America exhibit in the Smithsonian while incognito - the scene serves both to reinforce Cap’s longing for the past and to “catch up” those unfamiliar with the franchise. Other one-line reminders of Cap’s age and alienation are spread throughout the film, but these elements understandably give way to make room for the conspiracy plot and lots of explosions in the later acts.
We also see Cap growing more disillusioned with the political climate of espionage, distrust and means-justifying-the-ends mentalities in which he must now operate, a plot thread that also began in The Avengers. The film tries to establish trust as a primary theme, like in other spies movies such as The Recruit, but it too defers to the action-heavy plot.
Cap’s replacing the bright red, white and blue uniform with a subdued blue and silver getup effectively reflects this change in climate—no more is everything as clear-cut as it was in WWII when good and bad were simple distinctions. He harbors doubts about his work with S.H.I.E.L.D., but he has no idea of what else he would or could do in this new world.
Cap’s worries only multiply when Nick Fury (played by the iconic Mace Windu) reveals “Project Insight,” three helicarriers synced to satellites that, in a very Minority Report-esque fashion, will be able to identify and eliminate threats worldwide before they can even act. What could possibly go wrong?
“This isn’t freedom,” Cap says, setting the stage for the film’s major commentary, “This is fear.” And, sadly, that’s really all that comes of this rather controversial program, which, for the most part, is framed for the audience as Cap sees it: self-evidently and categorically bad. Only later in the film does Alexander Pierce, the magnificently malicious political figurehead of S.H.I.E.L.D., played by Robert Redford, make a small, anecdotal justification for what is certainly an intriguing and—to a certain degree—appealing power. Before Cap has time to deal with his conflict regarding Project Insight, Fury is attacked and apparently killed by the film’s namesake, a mysterious and unstoppable foe with a metal arm, setting into motion the film’s primary plot machinery.