Comic fan or not, we live in the era of the superhero film, with Marvel Studios building franchises out of its best heroes and coalescing them into megafranchise teamups. The thing is, many Marvel comics have had interesting story arcs, with plenty of progressive things to say. Captain America: The Winter Soldier wisely followed suit, instead of taking the more brainless, "big guns and bigger explosions" approach we've come to expect from action movies. And it's that sort of risk-taking that made it wildly successful.
The first Captain America film, which took place during World War II, was campy and forgettable. In the space between that film and this one, the Captain (Chris Evans) was cryogenically frozen until he was awoken in 2012 to join a team of heroes in The Avengers. Now the character returns to his own film - a political spy thriller that moves along at breakneck pace. It delivers old school action and an engaging story that involves neither apocalyptic forces nor self-aggrandizing villains. Instead, it deals with a covert threat that exists right at home. In a sense, Capt., a.k.a. Steve Rogers, must fight the corruption within his own country.
Rogers, unlike Iron Man or Thor, has more or less become a government-sanctioned hero, defending his country from supposed terrorists alongside former KGB agent Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson). He's still got that cut-and-dry freedom-fighting mindset of the Nazi Germany era, and therein lies his naïveté, for the world doesn't quite work that way anymore. He learns this soon enough, forcing him to question whether his very moniker holds the same meaning it once did.
Capt. and Widow work for S.H.I.E.L.D., a pseudo-CIA/NSA/Homeland Security catchall type of organization with global influence and, for those paying attention, its own TV series. One of their leaders is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who smells the growing stench of corruption within the agency, but doesn't yet know how to go about fighting it. Rogers gets a whiff, too, when he realizes he was played on a recent mission by the very outfit he works for, in order to secure classified information that even Fury isn't allowed access to. S.H.I.E.L.D., as it happens, is a bit of a puppet for a larger undertaking by fascist group Hydra. When Rogers and Fury start digging, they force the hand that pulls S.H.I.E.L.D.'s strings and attempts are made on their lives. This sets into motion a chain of events that set Capt. on the path to uncover a conspiracy that threatens the safety of the nation - and which involves the planned targeted extermination of millions of people.
Weaved throughout the storyline is political commentary that hits many of America's hot button issues. There are critiques of NSA surveillance and data-mining, the assassination of U.S. citizens without due process, and perhaps most strongly, drone strikes, represented by S.H.I.E.L.D.-controlled weaponized helicarriers. All of these issues snowball into unlimited capitalist control taken to its logical extreme. "The price of freedom is high," says Rogers at one point, and the film indeed goes on to examine the cost. Tapping into the zeitgeist of its viewership could very well have helped The Winter Soldier achieve such success, but the triumph is also owed to excellent directing and a committed cast, even if some actors (Johansson, newcomer Anthony Mackie) got the short shrift this time around.
An interesting side note: The Winter Soldier, in the comics, is a Soviet assassin - a piece of storytelling that came off a bit like an irrelevant relic of the McCarthy/anti-communism era, especially when Marvel has long killed and buried anti-communist propaganda, and even established positive communist characters in titles like X-Men. The film adaptation took the Winter Soldier's origin and skewed it, making him a weapon of the U.S. government itself (albeit serving a de facto German Nazi organization). He's also (spoiler:) Capt.'s childhood friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who has been kept under cryogenic lockdown until needed and brainwashed to forget his identity.
Ironically, and despite being satisfactorily menacing, the Winter Soldier himself is the most unneeded part of the film, and the only character that feels both forced and underdeveloped. His story seems rather hardscrabble when compared to the more fruitful government conspiracy plot. Even so, keep an eye on actor Stan, who has signed a nine-film contract with Marvel and who, rumor has it, will assume the mantle of Captain America when actor Chris Evans' contract is up. (Marvel means business - they've got films and casting planned all the way through 2028.)
Much more interesting is corporate nemesis and S.H.I.E.L.D. senior leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who organizes assassinations and plots genocide with a calm smile and a glass of champagne.
Evans does a much better job playing the Captain this time around, and is clearly more comfortable in the role.
In conclusion, The Winter Soldier takes outdated black-and-white idealism (seen through the eyes of Rogers) and plants it firmly in a world filled with shades of grey, and I think that, more than anything, really speaks to audiences. In one part of the film, Rogers is asked, "How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?" to which he responds, "If they're shooting at you, they're bad." If only the world were that simple.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"
Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Scarlet Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan
PG-13, 136 mins.
Photo: Official film site