Most people go the the movies for nothing more than entertainment. Big blockbusters are designed to maximize profits by being fun without offending in any way. Strong political or social stances are relegated to preachy movies for small audiences with high opinions of themselves, and usually designed to win awards. Movies like Money Monster or 12 Years A Slave are so obvious you can practically hear them coming. This is the social contract we agreed to; no one wants to see the Armenian Genocide shoehorned into their lighthearted musical. That’s why it was so surprising to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier take on such a big and controversial issue.
Marvel Studios made an unexpected choice when they hired the Russo brothers, a directing team who was mostly known for TV comedies at this point. Their fresh blood infused this movie with a type of action unseen in the MCU. Since there are no norse gods or giant monsters here, the action remains closer to the ground and veers towards militaristic, varying between frenetic and brutal hand to hand combat and heart pounding shootouts that impart an energy closer to a Bourne movie than The Avengers. The biggest gamble the Russo’s made was the strong stance Cap takes against the government overreach and pre-emptive killing program SHIELD intends to deploy. It was a bold move that taps into the zeitgeist of 2014, directly addressing the anxiety from recent revelations of the presidential kill list and Edward Snowden’s leak of government mass surveillance and data mining. This tactic might have backfired and alienated large chunks of the audience, but the filmmakers managed to pull it off in a way that was palatable, and solidifies Cap’s unwavering morality that now feels more timeless than a relic of the past.
We catch up with Cap trying to find his place in modern times; he carries a list of things to catch up on that he missed while frozen, his old timey boxing based fighting style has been replaced with a new MMA badassery, even his old duds have been swapped out for a slick new costume. His work for SHIELD leaves him repeatedly upset about being deceived, even by Black Widow who is by his side for the bulk of the movie and becomes one of his closest allies. She is clearly acting different here, perhaps adjusting herself to put Steve at ease, but she is not the duplicitous double agent from Iron Man 2, nor is she the quippy team player from The Avengers. With the flirtatious banter and constant threats to set Cap up with dates, she lands somewhere between sister and love interest. Anthony Mackie also joins the cast as another ally to Cap, a hero called The Falcon who is able to fly with the assistance of a winged jetpack that looks much cooler than it sounds. Mackie brings a lot of character to this movie and I am happy to have him, but given Cap’s increasing paranoia due to the constant betrayals he experiences, it’s a little odd he is so quick to trust Falcon when he knows so little about him.
The movie refreshes our memory of Cap losing his best friend Bucky during WW2 to remind us he is essentially alone. The only person alive he knew from before he was frozen is suffering from dementia and can’t offer any meaningful companionship. This is probably why Cap eschews most social contact and throws himself into his work for SHIELD, which makes SHIELD’s repeated deceptions all the more upsetting. The consequence of those deceptions is the Winter Soldier, a walking force of carnage that destroys anything between him and his mission. The Winter Soldier’s ruthlessness, extreme strength and proficiency outmatch Cap in nearly every way. So when Cap finds out halfway through that the Winter Soldier is Bucky, brainwashed, experimented on, and kept in cryogenic suspension for decades, it devistates him. Cap is not prepared to fight him in any sense, so his focus shifts to saving Bucky, the only friend he has from his own time. After several movies of punching and kicking his way out of every problem, Steve Rogers has finally run into one he can’t beat and is willing to lay down his life to bring his friend back.
The marketing for this movie put the mystery of the Winter Soldier’s identity front and center, so it came as a total shock when they twisted into the story’s major turning point: the silly bad guys from the first Captain America movie, HYDRA, had snuck into SHIELD and been festering for decades. Shifting from a militia to a spy group, HYDRA has been secretly infiltrating institutions of power and sowing chaos around the globe until people became willing to give up their freedom for the sake of security. They intend to use the massive amount of data available to identify potential threats to their rule and kill millions of people that might eventually undermine HYDRA. The fact that Cap is willing to destroy SHIELD to fight HYDRA tells us we should join Cap in his paranoia and break out of our post 9/11 complacency about government overreach, as the deep well of data is a danger too great to accept.
It is not exactly correct to call Captain America: The Winter Soldier a political thriller. With the betrayals and paranoia of institutions of power, it borrows a lot from that sub-genre, but this is unmistakably Marvel ramen, albeit with a political thriller flavor packet. This is a dense movie. It has the most complicated plot in the MCU, contains significant character development, takes on the arduous task of dismantling SHIELD, and even pushes hallmark characters like Nick Fury and Black Widow in new directions. The reveal of HYDRA was so impactful, it will reverberate in both directions through the canon, casting old movies in a new light. The fact that the Russo brothers were able to accomplish all this and still make a movie that is exciting, interesting, and at times touching is truly a marvel. Even the score kicks ass. Iron man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were just keeping pace; this is the first post Avengers movie with a firm identity. It breaks the trap so many post Avengers movies fell into, and it did it effortlessly. This is just a great movie. 4/5
Coming up next: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)