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.
Again, the film plays on today’s anxieties of government surveillance and predictive testing to make its commentary about personal freedom. The bad guys want to categorize individuals and get rid of those deemed problematic. It’s the classic kill a million or two to rid the world of disorder and argument, but the bad guys needed to first amass the means and resources to execute their plan. They used the Winter Soldier as saboteur and assassin for over 50 years to feed crises across the world, creating a climate of fear in which people would willingly compromise their freedoms and/or rights for the sake of protection, thus empowering organizations like S.H.I.E.L.D., an obvious stand in for more real-life institutions like the NSA, that can breech individuals’ civil rights in the name of protecting the nation.
Though the writers began working on this project before the whole Snowden controversy, it’s hard to deny the striking parallels. At the end of the film, Natasha is even put before a committee to answer for her revealing S.H.I.E.L.D’s secrets to the world in an attempt to uncover the conspiracy, or, as one committee member put it, “disabling this nation’s intelligence apparatus.” Sound familiar?
In this, the film feels at once really cool and somewhat lacking. It’s cool because, yeah, superheroes make a great answer to this problem—as a character says at the end, “It’s not a world of spies anymore, not even of heroes. It is an age of miracles.” Unlike Snowden, Natasha can brush off the committee, claiming that while, yes, she is responsible for perhaps hindering national security momentarily, she’s also one of those best equipped to defend it, so they can’t really do anything to her. Fortunately for the inhabitants of the Marvelverse, one needn’t decide between personal freedoms and national security in a world of superheroes—or do they? I’m sure this will be played out further in coming Marvel installments. But here the film also lacks a certain depth—yeah, that’s a cool answer for that world, but it provides little analysis of the occurrences for our's. But perhaps that reflects both a shortcoming and appeal to all superhero stories—they are, in effect, easy answers to the world’s most complex issues. Hopeful and inspiring stories, sure, but perhaps not too helpful.
Despite the fact that the Russo brothers owe most of their experience directing intelligent sitcoms like Community, the film excels in its action sequences. Fancy camerawork and attention to the environment (papers being caught in Cap’s wake as he runs) make believable Cap’s enhanced speed and strength. The fight scenes in the movie are properly kinetic and severe—the choreography makes you believe these guys are like Jason Bourne on super soldier serum. As a credit to the Russo brothers, duels are mostly filmed in single shots pulled back far enough that we can see the combatants from head to toe making move and countermove against one another—no choppy editing to convey a chaotic atmosphere here (cough, Michael Bay, cough cough). There’s even one scene towards the film’s beginning that could have been pulled from a side-scrolling fighting game, and it is a treat. The inventive ways they use Cap’s iconic shield, both offensively and defensively, are also quite fun to watch. And once Falcon takes to the skies in his mechanical wing suit for the film’s final set piece, the audience gets to enjoy the addition of some extremely cool, high g-force dog fights.
Overall, the acting in the film is tight. Evans plays the confident yet out-of-place Captain America well—he’s a polite guy from Queens who happens to be able to survive a fall from 25 stories, not Tony Stark. The witty role in this film goes to Mackie, who, in my opinion, steals every scene he’s in with a perfectly executed, simple, often-times sarcastic one-liner. Johansson yet again shines as the subtle Agent Romanoff, building upon the emotional grounding established for the character in The Avengers, and Windu’s Nick Fury is just as stoic and commanding as ever.
The villains in this film are also among Marvel’s best so far, joining Loki and Obadiah Stane at the top. Redford’s Pierce is smug, witty, and Starkishly confident. His facial expressions became some of my favorite parts of the film, alone conveying calculated contempt. He’s the perfect Machiavellian foil to Fury. On the other hand, the Winter Soldier is more monster than character, as he was designed to be. Racking in a total of six lines, one of which is in Russian (not counting a flashback), the metal-armed assassin is an unstoppable force of cold efficiency and genuinely frightening, especially when accompanied with the unnerving ticking that acts as his “Jaws music.”
Winter Soldier may very well be the best superhero movie to come out this summer. Unlike many of its peers, the film has a tight plot accompanied by some really fantastic action. It’s a mediocre spy movie, an excellent blockbuster and a standout superhero film that both meets the expectations of the genre and uses the genre’s unique elements to delve into some very real issues. As I’ve said, though, a film that, by its very nature, will make as much in toy sales as it does in box office revenue can only do so much. But that is less an indictment of the movie as it is of the genre, which Nolan’s Dark Knight was able to defy through an ambiguous, dark realism that simply can’t be replicated in all superhero films. As such, fans of superheoes or good summer blockbusters have no reason not to go see Captain America: the Winter Soldier.