How do you manage to do an apolitical political thriller? It seems unlikely, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier has managed to pull it off.
The title is only slightly misleading because the actual Winter Soldier, while excellently used and portrayed, is not really the main focus of the film. In fact, directors the Russo Brothers, formally major creative forces on TV with Community and Arrested Development, juggle many balls in the air. The film deals with the political intrigue of the spy organization SHIELD, Cap’s continuing work relationship post-Avengers with Black Widow (calling the film a team-up between them would not be out of line), the introduction of his comic book compatriot The Falcon, the struggles with the Winter Soldier himself and his dealings with being a man out of time. Joe and Anthony Russo may have seemed like strange choices to helm a film like this, but like a lot of Marvel’s creative gambles it pays off with them making the transition to an action movie with style.
The plot of the film is straight out of Alex Jones’ worst nightmares. It had the prescience to be written before we found out the NSA was unconstitutionally spying on all of us, but given the ever-expanding definition of the Patriot Act, drone-strikes and the horrors of the TSA, it probably just seemed like an extension of anxiety over a security state that seems at best a necessary evil and at worst something that tentacle hentai could be a metaphor for.* Nick Fury, a major presence in the film, is the keeper of secrets and a spy’s spy. This has caused friction before, but he’s always come across in the films as ultimately a good guy who sometimes makes questionable decisions. But what happens if someone without his shadow of a moral compass ends up in charge of the most powerful intelligence organization in the world? Bad things, as you would assume.
It adds up to a pretty good plot, but what really makes Cap 2 the best of the Marvel solo films (and arguably the equal of Avengers, despite being a very different type of film at its core) is the fact that all of the disparate elements feed into each other and the very well-done action sequences inform the plot rather than seeming like an obligatory pause before getting back to more exposition.
Captain America (or Steve Rogers if you prefer) is sneered at by many of the cynical pop culture consumers these days. Much like Superman, he’s mocked for the very qualities that make him truly different in a sea of post-90s antiheroes and psychopaths in capes. Luckily Chris Evans has succeeded in capturing the qualities which make him interesting and not through mocking him or belittling him for being old fashioned. (For a jeering example of that kind of deconstruction, see Disney’s Lone Ranger debacle.) I personally believe a lot of this success is because of Marvel starting where they did with the character in Joe Johnston’s fantastic go-round showing his origin before dropping him into our modern world as a fish out of water. We’ve seen how he was in his own time and Winter Soldier does a great job building on that foundation. It’s true, there’s a lot of Black Widow and Nick Fury in the film. But this isn’t because Steve’s a weak or bland character. Quite the opposite. It works because it allows these other characters to bounce off him. He is the moral rock of Marvel’s cinematic universe, the personification of a lost era of ideals. Rather than seeing him broken down and compromised, we see him rub off on the others. The reason we need other larger than life characters in Captain America is to show just how much he effects the lives of others and makes them want to be better.
Black Widow has her best role to date and shows that she could carry her own film. Her playful chemistry with Rogers and the way she helps him survive the spy game are reason enough to include her, but her character growth in the process is one of the better arcs that we’ve seen from Marvel. I have always been of the opinion that Scarlett Johanson was serviceable in the role but didn’t bring anything particularly unique to it other than looking curvy in a tight suit. Winter Soldier has made me reevaluate that. She’s slowly made the character her own. At this point, I can’t see another person in the role.
As for new characters, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is a bit bland in design, forgoing one of the more ridiculous costumes in all of comics for some generic military tech straight out of Iron Man 2. However, any visual issues do not extend to the writing. The work by Mackie and the screenplay establish him quickly as a formidable friend to Steve, not just because he’s a good man and a soldier, but because he’s one of the few people who can seem to understand some of the things that Steve is going through as a combat vet.
It’s hard to go more into the film’s specifics without spoiling some of the best secrets and moments, including those that involve the Winter Soldier himself. His identity may be common knowledge to comic book readers, but Marvel and Disney were nice enough to try not to spoil it for new fans and I’ll respect their decision. What I will say is that some unexpected characters return and in every case it is handled deftly and in interesting fashion.
Winter Soldier does a great job building on the films that have come before and even the Agents of SHIELD TV series. I think a person who has seen them will get more out of it simply through the larger context. However, it does a good enough job with the characters that I don’t think having a working knowledge of the film universe is a necessary precursor to enjoying it. It may even bring in some new fans. If this level of development, meaningful action and imaginative world building reflecting a stylized but recognizable reality does not bring people in, I doubt much of anything would.
(Five damns given out of five)
* (I don’t tend to get into politics in this particular site for good reason. I’ll just say I have Ron Swanson as my facebook avatar and leave it at that. Given this film and Iron Man’s penchant for telling the government to screw off, I asked Bryan if I was crazy for thinking that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had something of a Libertarian bent, perhaps as a way of circumventing criticism from either of the more traditional modern political parties. He said I wasn’t crazy. So I could be wrong, but as with all things I’m sure some of it comes down to what you bring into it.)