by Thom Yee
As hopelessly optimistic and cartoonishly heartwarming as Captain America: The First Avenger may have been in telling the story of the greatest hero of our greatest generation, it was tough to swallow that whole pill without noting the bitterness it ended with. If you had any investment in the character at all, it was hard to watch him running through the streets, frantically taking in the sights of a world seventy years his senior, and not feel your heart sink just a little bit as he realizes what’s happened and how far from home he will always be. If you’ll remember, The First Avenger essentially ended with Cap’s musings on missed love, ending the whole film on a bit of a sour note before shunting us off to his first modern mission, a post-credits sequence leading into what was, at the time, our first, best look at the upcoming Avengers movie. It’s that man out of time aspect, that sacrificing it all and wondering at the price, that’s at the heart of the character, and if you don’t get that, if you don’t understand that Steve Rogers is someone who embodies the best of many traditional American values without being a slave to the system, then you’ll never really get the character.
For those of you who don’t see that, for those of you who think superheroes are nothing more than adolescent power fantasies, and for those of you who still think Captain America is the lamest, most propagandist superhero of them all… you’re not wrong, just ignorant.
And you should still see Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It’s been two years since the Battle of New York, and Captain America’s debut into a world he barely recognizes. Now an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., leading his own S.T.R.I.K.E. force and finding his way in the 21st century, Cap is troubled with the nature of his missions and the apparent price of freedom in this brave new world governed more and more by fear. But before he can reconcile his thoughts on the matter, Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D., is killed and Cap is forced to go to ground, not knowing who he can trust as he discovers that HYDRA, the renegade Nazi military organization he had fought so hard to defeat decades ago (and one of the few groups in the movie whose name is not an acronym), is still very much alive.
First things first: the Falcon! Anthony Mackie’s Falcon steals the show, and, in my mind, is probably the most appealing Marvel movie hero since Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. He fully embodies the role of an approachable, yet capable hero who may not be as strong or tough as a super-soldier, but who brings his own game to the show. Any hero whose abilities centre around flight is inherently a wish-fulfillment figure, and the joy Mackie displays in his flight scenes is almost palpable and really show you how lucky he feels, as an actor and a character, to be doing what he’s doing. You completely buy the sight of the high-flying hero dodging rockets and jumping off of flying aircraft carriers with guns blazing, all the kind of crazy stuff we imagine in our most primal thoughts of what we’d do if we had powers. Sure, in real life his scenes were largely laborious sessions suspended by wire harnesses in front of green screens, but every moment he’s on screen has a type of magic that you never want to let go of. It’s the work of an actor who wasn’t necessarily in the original plans, but who actively pursued the chance to be a Marvel hero and is in love with the chance he’s been given, and if he’s not a part of Avengers: Age of Ultron (especially with the potential Hurt Locker reunion of Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye and Anthony Mackie/Falcon), it’ll be a shame. Even though I’ll admit that there’s not too much the Falcon can do that Iron Man can’t, alongside Black Widow and Hawkeye, he’d be a great addition to Cap’s contingent of highly trained, street-level heroes.
As with any superhero film, a big part of this movie’s success is the action, but what really sets The Winter Soldier apart is the directorial approach of the Russo brothers, whose most notable credits are almost entirely Community-driven to this point (we’ll just forget about You, Me and Dupree for now). More than any superhero movie (and most action movies), the Russos pull the camera back far enough so that we can actually see what’s going on and comprehend the scene as a whole. The quick cuts make sense, the angles are informative, and there are no attempts to cover up technical inadequacies. What’s more, the directors understand the close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat nature of the title character. This is a Captain America who lands every hit; a true fighter, disciplined, focused and measured, not just a muscle-bound bruiser. Right from the first action set piece on the Lemurian Star, as Cap sprints around the luxury-sized ship quickly and precisely dispatching everyone in his way, you get how truly impressive Captain America is. His fight with the Winter Soldier renders the two as elite and almost perfectly matched combatants, in every way at the pinnacle of their physical capabilities, each with their own artificial advantages — indestructible shield and unstoppable robot arm. Even the Black Widow, who I’ve railed against in my Avengers review, comes off as incredibly competent and largely ahead of the game as a valuable ally and sometimes confidant. She’s strong and unpredictable in a way the Avengers’ producers never seemed to get, makes observations that none of the other characters make, and turns the page from unscrupulous spy to unselfish superhero in a believable fashion, all in a movie that isn’t really about her. Hopefully Joss Whedon’ll be too busy screwing up Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to further ruin Natasha Romanova.
The Winter Soldier is often referred to as a political thriller, but it really only manages to earn that distinction with the presence of Robert Redford, who brings an air of political regality to his role as Alexander Pierce, a trusted advisor to Nick Fury and the film’s primary antagonist after Fury’s death and Cap’s desertion from S.H.I.E.L.D.. Owing to his time in films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, Redford personifies the genre, and for his part, he plays the head of the World Security Council as well as you’d expect, though the comparatively grounded nature of his past roles almost keeps him from fitting in, sort of like a grownup playing with kids. Beyond Redford, there’s nothing especially political about the movie. Though S.H.I.E.L.D., an international peacekeeping force, serves as the backdrop, with all the requisite political affectations, it feels more appropriate to look at the overall movie as an espionage film, made up of stealth missions, betrayals, revelations, and secret societies dating back to Cap’s origins. There’s not necessarily that much to separate spy thrillers from political thrillers, but labeling the movie as political sometimes feels like an attempt to apply sophistication as the reason for The Winter Soldier’s strengths rather than it just being a good movie.
<SPOILER ALERT> The overall film deals with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s infiltration by HYDRA, and Cap, the Widow, and the Falcon’s attempts to take S.H.I.E.L.D. back. Eventually Redford’s Alexander Pierce is revealed as a top-level HYDRA agent, that group’s ultimate agenda to apply S.H.I.E.L.D.’s growing military might to strategically murder anyone determined to, now and in the future, stand in the way of HYDRA’s goals (that freedom is a lie and they should be in charge, which actually ties into Loki’s original goals [“You were made to be ruled”] in The Avengers [though that’s really all any bad guy wants]), including familiars like Tony Stark all the way up to easter-egg namedrops like Stephen Strange. Pierce’s primary ground agent is the fabled Winter Soldier, a ghost of an operative whose exploits (in between brainwashings and cryogenic sleeps) helped to shape the 20th century to HYDRA’s will. If there’s one thing I wish the film did better, it would have been finding more time for it’s namesake, as the Winter Soldier’s backstory contains more than enough material to fill an entire movie on its own. While the sequel will no doubt deal with this backstory further, it’s a little disingenuous to name this installment after him considering how little focus he receives. Just about the only thing accomplished by including him in this film is breaking away from Marvel’s usual habit of not having great villains (see: Iron Man‘s Obadaiah Stane andJustin Hammer), or at least not using them to their fullest (see: Thor‘s Malekith).
Though Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s individual pieces add up to a satisfying whole, what ultimately brings the film together is its resolution and how it fits with Cap’s core beliefs. Early on, as Nick Fury and Cap descend into the Triskellion’s lower levels and it’s revealed just how much military might S.H.I.E.L.D. (and therefore HYDRA) is building, Fury relays a story of how much harder the world’s become since the 40’s and how justified he is in taking a hard-line, surveillance-state approach to protect the world. It’s an idealogical debate with no easy answers, but one that Steve Rogers’ Captain America stands against. His eventual counterstrike against HYDRA, though spearheaded by three superheroes, is carried out in no small part by the individual agents still loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s peace-keeping mandate, as Cap implores each of them to stand against HYDRA’s efforts over S.H.I.E.L.D.’s intercoms. Soon after Cap’s counterstrike begins, we switch to a low-level S.H.I.E.L.D. employee refusing, at gunpoint, to launch weapons on American soil, and though the scene isn’t especially original in theme, it’s executed well enough that you can feel the full reality of knowingly risking your own life for the greater good. It would be simple enough for the screenwriters to build a scenario where the superheroes alone are enough to achieve victory, but the film chooses to show us that people, at their core, are always capable of their own heroism. While that might be easy to show at the screenwriting level, it’s also the fundamental lesson superhero stories teach us to carry into the real world, and the reason why these stories remain important, even if it can all feel a little oversimplified.
For long-time superhero comicbook fans, there can be an overriding numbness in nearly everything we see, a numbness stemming from the certain knowledge that no matter what’s happening or where a storyline is going, we’ve seen it before. After all, most of our favourite characters have had stories written about them continuously for at least the last forty years. We see many of the twists and turns coming a mile away, we recognize the same superhero story beats repeated ad nauseum, and by now even the public in general knows that superheroes (and their compatriots) never stay dead. Big two superheroes (i.e., DC’s and Marvel’s) are evergreen characters, generally maintaining a certain status quo if for no other reason than product and brand recognition, and you can’t sell Avengers bed sheets with all the characters dead, their lifeless bodies propped up Weekend at Bernie’s-style (wait a minute… dead? corpses? I’m gonna get something to eat!). For us, Helicarriers falling out of the sky, the Triskellion in ruins, and the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D are all old hat, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that for many of you, this is the first time you’ve seen stories like this.
That all may come off as a little jaded, and I hope it does. While I’ve generally been impressed by all of the Marvel Studios movies for their sincerity and overall quality, it’s rare for me to find anything truly new in any of them. I think that’s why I’m so blasé about the Iron Man films (which showed me everything I expected) and why I was so impressed with the original Thor movie (which sold me on the family aspect of the character that I never cared about before). So when I tell you that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to superheroes, I hope you understand just how meaningful it is when I call Captain America: The Winter Soldier one of the best superhero movies of all time and easily the best of Marvel’s films.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier final score: 9.5
On the Edge
-Abed! In the house! Woo!
-So S.H.I.E.L.D.’s buying American now, or was it a HYDRA decision to move future SUV fleet orders over to Chevy?
-While a seemingly noble ideal, shutting down S.H.I.E.L.D. has pretty big economic implications. That’s like letting Goldman Sach’s or Morgan Stanley go. S.H.I.E.L.D. = too big to fail.
-Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill without terrible line delivery!
-GSP as Batroc ze Leaper!
-Garry Shandling as the smarmy Senator Stern outside of an Iron Man movie (and with a secret past!)!
-For those of you keeping score, here’s the new Marvel Studios list:
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- The Incredible Hulk
- Thor: The Dark World
- Iron Man 2
- Iron Man
-Now let’s see where Guardians of the Galaxy (August 1) ends up.