Mistrust seems to be the name of the game in Hollywood these days. After years of media coverage on NSA surveillance, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the question of whom we can trust is being asked by screenwriters from every film studio. That question is at the heart of the latest Marvel Studios film Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was frozen for nearly 70 years between Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. He is a man out of time. When Captain America fought in the Second World War, the distinction between good and evil was clear. Awakened in the 21st century, he is confronted with a world that is not so neatly divided. It’s much harder to tell the good guys from the bad — at least when they aren’t shooting at you.
Every generation has its problems, but it seems generally accepted that previous generations had it easier than we do today. We believe the world is becoming progressively more complex and, if pop culture is any indication, we all wish it was a little simpler.
That is part of the joy of watching superhero movies — problems can be solved by hitting them. At times, comic books seem a bit old fashioned because of this. Rarely are solutions that simple. That may be why superhero films have become so popular lately. At least, that seems to be what Joss Whedon was suggesting in The Avengers when early in the film Agent Phil Coulson told Rogers: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”
At the start of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Rogers is working for S.H.I.E.L.D — an organization that hides the truth, even from its own people — and living in a world that is under constant surveillance. The movie reflects people’s concerns about the United States government and NSA surveillance.
The film is a political thriller for our times, wrapped up in a superhero movie. And the order I put those in is important. There are superheroes and there are grandiose action sequences, but the movie is first and foremost a political thriller.
It offers the same unexpected twists and turns that are a staple of political thrillers, giving moviegoers a more complex story than you might expect from a superhero movie.
The characters are explored in more depth than in previous films, especially Rogers and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). We finally get to see Rogers deal with some of the psychological repercussions of being a man out of time as he reflects on the events of the first film from almost 70 years later and tries to equate his own experiences with the way the modern world looks back on them.
We finally see something real from Romanoff, the spy who is constantly putting on a different persona to fit the job. We learn how important Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is to her, how much S.H.I.E.L.D means to her and what happens when she has to rethink everything she believes in and everything she trusts. That she trusted something so fully, or needed to, is an interesting take on a character who has been through the Russian KGB and a lifetime of spying.
Unfortunately, two other characters are not explored quite as much. Not much time is spent showing how the events of the movie affect Nick Fury, whom should be more affected than anyone by the events of the film. And Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), the newest addition to the hero roster only gets a couple brief moments to explore his background and instead spends most of the movie tagging along for the ride.
Even though it’s a political thriller, there is still a lot of action. All the haters who consider Captain America a pansy should be satisfied this time around. For the first Captain America movie and The Avengers, Rogers rarely exhibited truly
superhuman strength, being more akin to an abnormally athletic human being. The only real exceptions are a few superhuman feats during an action montage in the middle of the first film. But this time out, Captain America is clearly superhuman, especially when not surrounded by characters like Thor and Hulk. At every moment of the film Rogers is clearly superhuman. More time is spent during this movie showing the difference in strength between normal human beings and Captain America than in previous movies.
And Rogers takes a beating. While he was always shown as physically stronger, it was never clear what he could endure. After Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I would not be surprised if he could take a punch from the Hulk and still manage to stand up afterward. That may be stretching it, but not by much. The fights are fast paced and brutal.
The Winter Soldier is relentless. Unlike other villains in the Marvel universe, he doesn’t monologue, he doesn’t question his orders. He is singleminded in his purpose and ruthless in his execution. And he is more than a match for Rogers.
While I wouldn’t argue that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is better than The Avengers, it is the best single-hero film so far in the Marvel cinematic universe. Marvel’s experiment in mixing superhero movies with different genres, in this case a political thriller, bodes well for future films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man which are space opera and heist films respectively.