Ever since I saw The Avengers in 2012, I’ve realized that, despite my long-held joy of Robert Downey, Jr. playing the great Tony Stark and Iron Man, it was Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, who truly was my favorite Marvel superhero. While he may not have a powered suit of armor or divine birthright or unstoppable strength, Cap is the pinnacle of human endeavor and integrity, achieving the impossible with enhanced human potential and never losing faith in his ideals.
In the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, we see those ideals and that strength put to the test. Set two years after the failed invasion of New York, Steve Rogers is still adjusting to life in the 21st century. When someone attacks Nick Fury and he learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised from within, Rogers has to rely on himself, with the dubious help of fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow, who appears to have her own agenda and loyalties. Meanwhile, the cabal in charge sends their most ruthless agent, the Winter Soldier, to dispatch their enemies, which forces Rogers to confront an all-too-familiar face from his past.
Acting-wise, Chris Evans is great as the titular Captain, bringing the same enthusiasm and awkward moments. He provides a lot of great moments with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, especially when she keeps pushing his buttons on trusting people and finding someone to ask out on a date. As always, Samuel L. Jackson steals every scene as Nick Fury, but it’s nice to see him get a lot more screentime and even a nice long car chase sequence. I also didn’t expect to see Robert Redford in the film, but he plays the role of Alexander Pierce with a very subtle and sinister charm. It’s nice to see him in a political thriller again (perhaps as a nod to his role in Three Days of the Condor).
The real surprise in the cast (for me) was Anthony Mackie, who played Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon. I enjoyed his connection with Steve Rogers at the beginning of the film, talking on the level of fellow veterans working through their trauma, which made their eventual partnership as heroes much more believable by the end. And honestly, it feels right to see someone like Falcon (whose flight harness reminds me of the American eagle’s wings) paired up with a patriotic superhero like Captain America.
The film wins me over on the amazing action scenes, from Nick Fury shooting out his pursuers in Washington, D.C. to Captain America trading blows and shield throws with the Winter Soldier, whose appearance and fighting is wonderfully silent and pragmatic. The CGI is also dropped a notch compared to other Marvel films, which made me appreciate some of the hand-to-hand fight scenes more. It felt like watching The Bourne Identity with even more superpowers.
What got me stuck, however, was the reveal of the villains and their plot. It’s not that they want to make the world “safer” through questionable means, but that they’re willing to resort to incredibly obvious and very expensive superweapons to do it. I mean, if they can turn human beings into living weapons like the Winter Soldier (who was already said to have “shaped the century” through an impressive record of assassinations), then why not create a few more of those elite troops and scare the world into submission that way? But I suppose it can’t be helped. If you’re going to have a giant, explosive climax for a Captain America movie, you might as well try to justify your special effects budget in the plot.
What I enjoyed most about this movie was how the plot allowed us to see more implications about Cap’s presence in the modern era, with his idealism clashing against the pragmatism of men like Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce. He sums it up in one bit of dialogue during the climax:
Sam: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?
Steve: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!
Overly simplistic? Definitely, but it also fits the attitude that Steve and the US had in WWII: the Nazis are threatening to stomp all over Europe and we need to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves. While it does unbalance the film’s tone from its cold discussion of pragmatic solutions to complex security issues, it does at least affirm Captain America’s dedication to justice through hard work as opposed to “easy” solutions that the villains pursue.
All in all, I think this film’s a better installment of Phase 2 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s more topical than most superhero films (akin to The Dark Knight), with so many parallels to modern debates about NSA surveillance and the use of drones in the War on Terror, but in the end, it’s got plenty of heart and enthusiasm, putting an earnest hero right in the line of fire for an appreciative audience.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is showing in theaters now, available through Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Bibliography: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Based on the comic by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Perf. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: April 4, 2014.