Five months ago, I wrote about Thor: The Dark World. In that review, I suggested that not only did that movie finally do the Thor lore justice, but that it proved the Marvel Cinematic Universe had reached a stable level of maturity. Captain America: The Winter Soldier continues that tradition.
Before we get to the spoilers (and there will be plenty in a bit), it's worth discussing the tone of this film. It was not that long ago that we were flying around Asgard in giant invisible spaceships piloted by ancient elves who wanted to use a floating red fluid to destroy the universe. In contrast, The Winter Soldier is about a shady military organization conducting covert operations and examining the nature of technology and the power it has in the hands of untrustworthy political leaders. The two could not be more different films.
And yet, the Marvel Cinematic Universe knows no genre. Marvel's president Kevin Feige spoke recently to Variety about the nature of the "superhero" genre. Namely, that it has no strict definition:
"There's an opportunity to graft almost sub-genres onto them. Our first Captain America film was a World War II picture, and the next is a political thriller. They all have their own textures and patinas, and that's what is exciting about it."
It's through this lens that view the second installment of the Captain America solo franchise. This isn't a superhero movie in the same vein as the Avengers. It isn't even necessarily the same as the first Cap film. This movie is a political thriller and, on that front, it delivers.
From here on out, there will be spoilers.
The film takes place two years after the events of the Avengers. Early on, we're treated to a warm-up action scene wherein Captain America saves a crew full of SHIELD hostages on the Lemurian Star. Loyal Agents of SHIELD viewers will note that Agent Sitwell was ordered to report to the aforementioned ship in this week's episode and, sure enough, he's among the hostages in the film. Given the lackluster crossover with The Dark World, this tightly-knit interweaving is appreciated.
Captain America, however, is not in a very appreciative mood when he discovers that Director Fury has Agent Romanoff on a secondary mission while he's attempting to rescue hostages. After a standoff with Fury, the director takes everyone's favorite boy scout into the basement of the Triskelion (read: SHIELD headquarters). Here, we see the film's giant political metaphor: three massive helicarriers, equipped with automated weapons that can kill potential threats from anywhere, completely undetected. The program is subtly named "Project Insight."
If you could swear you heard the characters mention the NSA, it'd be hard to fault you. While the agency is never called out by name, the subtext is as overt as a vibranium disc to the head. SHIELD intends to use massive data collection tools to analyze possible threats and neutralize them using automated aerial weapons. I am neither interested nor well-rested enough to get into the discussion of whether or not data collection and drones are positive or negative influences in the world. Captain America, however, has no such qualms. "This isn't freedom. This is fear," he states in a verbal spat with Fury.
Of course, the big worry with Captain America is that he is, at heart, a simplistic character. After all, his origin story is steeped in World War II. It may not be historically accurate to say that the right moral choice was more obvious back then, but as stories go, "Kill Hitler" seems to be an idea that everyone can get on board with. How, exactly, does the man out of time cope with a world of moral ambiguity and complex 21st century problems?
Well. It's a little hard to say. At first, the film starts to venture down the path of self-doubt and gray areas. In a particularly touching scene, Rogers visits Peggy Carter—now a bedridden elderly woman—and reflects on how uncertain he is about who the bad guys are. What's a man to do when the organization he works for is doing the very thing he's working against?
This is contrasted against Black Widow, who has an anything-goes approach to her work. While we got a feel for her sense of justice in the Avengers—which mainly consisted of keeping red out of her ledger—she sees no qualms about how the mission gets done, so long as it gets done. The fact that she's doing it for SHIELD is enough for her to feel that she's "gone straight," (which later proves problematic, causing even her to doubt her convictions). For Rogers, this isn't enough and a good number of scenes focus on their respective moral differences.
Unfortunately, this complexity gets sidelined about halfway through the film when we discover that there is something more sinister behind the scenes than just a policy disagreement. Rogers and Romanoff discover an old, hidden SHIELD installation where Dr. Zola—the impish scientist from the first Captain America film who created Red Skull's arsenal of lens flare guns—is continuing his work for HYDRA. There is the minor caveat that he is now an AI uploaded to a warehouse full of ancient computers, but this doesn't seem to have impeded his progress.
The scene where we first (re)meet Dr. Zola is perhaps the most difficult to stomach as it smacks heavily of the extra-silly comic book tone that the rest of the movie avoids so deftly. While the Marvel films have not shied away from the fantastic and goofy as a whole, the shift is jarring when we suddenly find ourselves listening to a green, Matrix-style face on a computer screen talking about world domination amidst an otherwise grounded film. Then again, given Dr. Zola's appearance in the comic books, perhaps we should be grateful that the good doctor is as believable as he is.
From this point on, the movie brilliantly sidesteps its own moral dilemma by clearly labeling the bad guys: SHIELD has been slowly and purposefully infiltrated by HYDRA and the organization intends to use Project Insight to make the world submit to order, thus ensuring humanity's security. It's an awkward bit of retcon as the HYDRA from the previous film didn't seem to have much in the way of idealistic goals. However, Dr. Zola now insists HYDRA's core belief was that "humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom."
More importantly, it renders most of the characters' internal quandaries from the first half of the film inert. The problems still exist and they're still sort of discussed. But there's no longer any real need to figure out who the bad guys are. As Captain America says to Falcon as they board the giant evil death ship: "If they're shooting at you, they're bad." The early subtext of government surveillance and moral nuance is revealed to actually just be a simple case of "Kill all the secret Nazis."
This doesn't exactly ruin the film, thankfully. It's still a fun ride and, if I'm honest, I don't really want Captain America settling this problem anyway. Superhero stories—even one so grounded as this—are generally ill-equipped to tackle such complex topics. While it was fun to see Batman destroy his omniscient computer, the reality is more difficult to deal with and no matter what stance you take, you're not likely to do the argument justice with costumed heroes. On the other hand, it would be exceedingly boring if the film ended with Congress passing a law that dictates how, when, and under what conditions national security agencies can monitor an individual's digital communications. To put it simply, we need to blow some shit up.
If the battle against HYDRA were the only plot to the movie, however, it might have fallen into mediocrity. Thankfully, the other title character picks up the moral and emotional intrigue where the NSA subtext drops off. Steve realizes during his second encounter with the Winter Soldier that the man he's fighting is actually his old friend Bucky Barnes, whom Rogers thought was dead. Bucky has been a shadow agent for HYDRA (SHIELD?) for decades. Outfitted with a robotic arm, superhuman abilities similar to Captain America himself, and a completely wiped memory, the Winter Soldier is one of the few people who can take the Captain in a fight...and the one person Cap doesn't want to fight.
In the end, Captain America's moral stance remains poignant, even if it shifts gears. In the beginning, Nick Fury states that SHIELD will eliminate targets when they are only suspected of being a threat. At the end of the film, Rogers refuses to fight the Winter Soldier even when he knows he is a threat. It's only by Bucky's good graces that Cap even survives their final encounter. While he does flee, a post-credits scene shows that Bucky is beginning to remember who he is. There's little doubt left that Rogers and Barnes will be reunited in a future film. If not Avengers: Age of Ultron, then certainly the third Captain America film.
It's worth pointing out that this also makes the Winter Soldier only the second villain in an MCU movie to not disappear as a one-off, shallow baddie. Iron Monger, Abomination, Whiplash, Red Skull, Aldrich Killian, and Malekith all come and go in their respective movies with naught but a monologue and a fight scene. Loki singularly stands out as the most intriguing and multi-layered villain of the Marvel universe so far. The Winter Solider could almost be considered the second great villain* (and with a nine movie contract, Sebastian Stan will certainly be around for a while) if not for the incredibly likely fact that he will come back around to the heroes' side long before he can gain a reputation as a regular villain. Still it's nice to see a bad guy with more depth than just wanting to blow shit up.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the introduction of the Falcon. In what seems to be becoming a Marvel trend of giving the main white male superhero a black male sidekick (Warmachine for Iron Man, Heimdall for Thor), the Falcon is introduced in the very first scene of the film as a running buddy for Rogers. Later on, he is recruited to help Steve and Natasha once they're on the run from SHIELD.
The Falcon damn near steals the show not only with his Marvel-trademark quips and admirable character—we see him counseling post-war vets at the VA office in a particularly touching scene that shows us just a shred of the cold reality of war—but with his amazing flight suit. In the early action scenes, Captain America demonstrates what a super soldier should really be able to do with all that power. By the end of the movie, I wanted nothing more than to watch Falcon zip around the three helicarriers, dodging attacks and taking out baddies.
All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a grown up movie in a universe that's traditionally been seen as very kid-oriented. In spite of the minorly disappointing mid-movie Godwin shift to a more obvious villain, the film maintains its adult nature and manages not only to tug on our heartstrings, but to make us take superheroes seriously. In fact, between Black Widow, Falcon, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill, it's hard to even say this is a superhero movie at all. It's just a damn fine film.
* - Strictly speaking, Thanos could be considered another great, long-standing villain of the Marvel universe since he was not only the mastermind behind the Avengers, but is clearly being set up as a recurring foe throughout many Marvel films including the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy. Until you can't count the number of minutes he's spent on screen with one finger, however, it's difficult to justify ranking him on any list.