CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Review: Patriot Games
Captain America was my first favorite comic book superhero. He wasn’t the first superhero I remember liking; that was Spider-Man from reruns of the late-1960s animated series. Nor was he the superhero I was most exposed to; that was probably a tie between Superman, from reruns of the old George Reeves TV series; and Batman, from reruns of the old Adam West TV series. And he isn’t even my favorite superhero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); that would be Robert Downey Jr.‘s Iron Man. But when I started collecting comics – I mean picking them out on my own from the squeaky pinwheel display and paying for them with my own allowance – Cap was my go-to.
I liked the fact that he came from the ’40s (an era my grandfather introduced me to). I liked the fact that even though he had “super soldier serum” running through his veins, his talents were purely physical, not borne of super powers or mutant abilities. But I most liked the fact that not only was he a good guy who was motivated to beat the bad guys (like his super-contemporaries), he always strived to do more than just good; he always strived to do right. There’s a line the good guys have to cross sometimes, and Captain America, more than any other superhero, was always in tune not just with when the line was crossed, but how far it was crossed.
That line – and it’s a blurry one – runs through the entirety of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and not only does Cap worry about crossing it, he wonders who around him is on which side of it.
At the film’s start, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is dispatched by his government employer, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division – better known as S.H.I.E.L.D. – to rescue a ship that has been taken by pirates in international waters. En route, he learns that the ship actually belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D., and while onboard, he finds his mission partner, Black Widow/Agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), downloading encrypted data concerning something called Project Insight. Back in Washington after the successful rescue, Rogers questions Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about the S.H.I.E.L.D. director’s intentions and priorities, and the level of secrecy around them. Fury has questions of his own about Project Insight that he directs to Secretary Alexander Price (Robert Redford), his boss and a member of the World Security Council.
When tragedy strikes, Cap and Widow find themselves embroiled in domestic and international espionage, and squaring off against the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious man with strength, speed, and skills equal to Cap’s. With more questions than answers, the only person they can trust to help them is new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), an ex-soldier whose specialties include piloting a winged jetpack. When the true nature of the conspiracy is uncovered, it will take everything that Captain America, Black Widow, and the newly-minted Falcon have to bring down evil and to make wrongs right.
When the buzz was building in advance of the release of this film, I read a quick assessment on the Internet (and I’m sorry I can’t source it now) that said what Iron Man 3 is to the ’80s buddy cop film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is to the ’70s spy thriller. That is a clever and accurate assessment, certainly supported by the who-do-you-trust plot of international intrigue (that is so spoiler-heavy it’s difficult to even summarize) and the casting of Redford, no stranger to the genre (see 1975’s Three Days of the Condor for a choice example). But to hang only that label on it is to do the film a great disservice. This second installment of the Captain America franchise is more than a spy tale. Much more.
While the foundation of the script from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is one of 1970s-style espionage and intrigue, the characters the story contains and the circumstances under which they reached THIS moment in time allow for other eras – and other enemies – to flavor the greater story. As part of the tie-in to Captain America: The First Avenger, this story reaches back to the 1940s, Naziism, and Hydra. Because of Widow’s shady past and some details around the origins of the Winter Soldier, there is an ’80s Soviet Cold War vibe that nips at the story now and then. And other details found as part of the modern day setting – from the invocation of Middle Eastern country names to Falcon’s vocation as a PTSD counselor for those who have returned home from war – bring the ever-present threat of terrorism to the tale. So to call it a throwback to ’70s-era spy films is accurate, but it undersells so much.
To call it a superhero movie would be to shortchange the film again. Yes, it’s a superhero movie – the ninth entry in the Avengers film canon – and I was pleasantly surprised to find a touch of science fiction (just a touch) in it. But it is every bit an action film as well, thanks in great part to the fact that the superheroes aren’t overtly super-powered. They are soldiers and spies, trained in hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and explosives (as well as knives, garrotes, a few other nasty toys and … oh yeah … a shield). No one bends metal or infiltrates minds to make the action happen, and the only person who flies uses what amounts to an enhanced winged version of James Bond’s jetpack from 1965’s (!) Thunderball. Cap’s “super soldier” status might make him a little tougher than most, but he still has to make contact – and take it, too.
The other key element that makes this such a great action film is the direction from brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Every action element found onscreen, most of which are filmed in a torrent of gunfire, is well-paced and well-framed, from the numerous thrilling hand-to-hand fight scenes – including one in a crowded elevator – that are reminiscent of some Asian action films, to spectacular car chases in and around DC; and from arial stunts involving Falcon and S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft, to the larger-than-life set pieces with catastrophic destruction that have come to define summer blockbusters (but in April this time). The Russo Brothers do not hold back, and their editor, Jeffrey Ford, who has edited several films in the MCU, keeps the action seamless and believable.
All of this – no matter the quality – would make the film nothing more than popcorn fare were it not for the depth of character given to Cap by the screenwriters.
Steve Rogers is a man out of time. And although the film works-in the occasional (organic) laugh about it, his plight is not treated as situational. No DeLorean will whisk him back home; Bill and Ted will not pluck him for a school report. Rogers is not a man of his present “stuck” in the future of today; he is a man of the past living in our present day. And even though this film takes place two years after his thaw in the first film, he still has much adjusting to do – not the day-to-day things, but rather a geopolitical landscape that has been 70 years in the making, and a domestic policy landscape that has been in the making for less than 15 years.
In the wake of 9/11 and the events that have happened since, the message preached by Fury and supported by Widow is overt: security trumps liberty. Project Insight, as it’s designed, will neutralize threats to the country before they become threats to the country. Rogers disagrees with the approach, citing that guilt requires proof, not suspicion. From any other character, this sounds like left vs. right, but from Rogers, it’s more than partisan line-toeing; it’s a belief, and one he fought for as part of the Greatest Generation. But the fact that it easily comes from him doesn’t let the filmmakers off the hook. They have to make sure his patriotism, no matter how sincere, doesn’t come off as schmaltzy. It never does. He doesn’t simply wear the flag, he embodies it. But there is more.
Rogers is haunted – not only by his past life (there is a wonderfully touching scene with a cameo I dare not spoil), but by his present struggle with the modern-day political climate of the country. He is a soldier trained to follow orders, born in a time that wasn’t without its murky areas, but certainly one when it was much easier to tell the allies apart form the enemies. He’s tired of being used, tired of being lied to, and tired of being a party to things he probably wouldn’t endorse. Like my comic book hero, this film’s Captain America just wants to do right. It pains him when the times might not let that happen.
When I saw the spectacular The Avengers in 2012, I didn’t think that film would be topped. It just has been. With the odds against it as a sequel, and as a ninth installment in a greater franchise, and as who knows what number in terms of overall superhero films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier , with its strength of character and balance of content, has not only raised the bar in the MCU, it’s raised it in Hollywood, too.