Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the latest installment of Marvel’s extraordinarily well-planned cinematic business model. I’m not a particular fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve seen the important ones, and they register as generally competent, if not exciting. So far, in fact, I’m only 1 and 3 in the so-called “Phase 2,” post-Avengers series. I passed on Iron Man 3 and I passed on Thor: The Dark World.

So I went into Captain America: The Winter Soldier with only a mild degree of expectation. The first half of the original Captain America stands as among the best in the franchise, I think. The WWII aesthetic was a delightful change of pace, and the more intimate moments served the characters well.

Better than any superhero film to date in fact, Captain America: The First Avenger compels the audience to understand the character’s place in history and popular culture. In 45 minutes the film managed to capture the very essence of what makes the character important to the country. That he saves a hundred men so that they can go back to their wives, in spite of being both a rallying post and laughing stock, is complex and sophisticated world-building. The film places him in its history so deftly, wraps the mythology of the country around him so expertly, that it’s almost like he exists for real in both the fictional world and real life.

Unlike other origin stories, which follow an unknown on his or her path to anonymous greatness, The First Avenger knows that what makes the hero Captain America special is the halo of respect and adoration that its human counterpart, Steve Rogers, inhabits. Batman can be a relative nobody, existing in the shadows and applying pressure behind the scenes. (The point is that he can literally be anybody.) Captain America on the other hand lives in the public sphere because he rests in people’s hearts and symbolizes a large part of their national identity. “Captain America” is merely the story; Steve Rogers is the true hero.

And he resonates in a specific way. Embodying a warmer truth, Captain America inserted into the modern worlds represents a nostalgic sense of simplicity and an idealized era of non-compromised values. Captain America: The Winter Soldier excels because it conveys this idea quite well. It’s an inevitability that the highest-profile hero of all time would be tapped by modern governments to attack disorder and maintain political stability. The Captain’s outdated sense of right and wrong then is the perfect vehicle to shine a lens on the grayness of contemporary foreign and national policy. Ours is now a world of antiheroes and flaw. Superman must be a brooding orphan. Jason Bourne must be driven and compassionate, but broken and destructive. The idea of a role model is old hat. A protagonist can’t simply exist as a force of good anymore, there must be an underlying impetus (usually dark in nature) to compel them to act.

And that’s great. It means characters are more complex and true-to-life. But it’s refreshing to see a more traditional hero once in a while. What The Winter Soldier does so well though is understand its audience’s post-modern sensibilities. Captain America interacts with his new world with the lifetime of experience of an adult man, but wrangles with his own deficiencies in relating to contemporary worldviews like a child. The film knows that we might laugh at the Captain when he has no frame of reference for any given cultural touchstone, but in response it charges his character with enough conviction to demonstrate that raising a red flag when something conflicts with your sense of right and wrong is the truly heroic thing to do.

It follows that as a former soldier, he would gravitate towards people of a similar ilk. Certainly he’s trying to avoid societal re-integration as much a he can by front-loading his life with work. And maybe he’s convinced himself that the “lone wolf” is the path of least resistance. But Steve Rogers is the man at the end of the day, who must ultimately come to terms with the fact that his comfort zone is gone, and the world must now be what he can make of it.

It’s a personal journey, and one that I was pleasantly surprised to see make an appearance in such a high-profile film. Interestingly, it’s not for kids. The dozen or so at my showing were bored at the long scenes of character development and political techno-babble. They came for the big ole’ fight scenes and ‘splosions. And while that’s here, the action is relatively subdued, tempered by real-world consequences and pathos. It’s also surprisingly brutal. The hand-to-hand combat is quick and unforgiving; the violence is explosive and less like a cartoon. (SPOILER: Everybody gets shot.)

But it’s an effective film, closer in tone to The Bourne Ultimatum or Skyfall than many other superhero entries. It places its hero against the backdrop of political intrigue and national security, relevant concerns in the age of the whistle blower. “What would the Founders think of the TSA?” was a concept I was reminded of. At any rate, it’s an intelligent action film, one of Marvel’s best, and is proof that the studio’s multi-film framework is not only a ground-breaking gimmick, but also an electrifyingly fun ride.

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