Thus far, the post-Avengers MCU wasn’t looking very impressive. We first had the disastrous Iron Man 3, then the underwhelming Thor: the Dark World. The real question was whether the solo films could really do anything interesting or new after the huge team-up.
Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Oh, boy; they knocked it out of the park with this one!
We find Steve Rogers still adjusting to life in the modern world, running covert operations for SHIELD. But he finds himself increasingly frustrated by the evasion and deceit in the intelligence business and uncertain about the role he is actually supposed to play in this new world, which seems to have deteriorated so much from the one he knew.
“All my life I’ve wanted to do the right thing,” he tells a now-old and ailing Peggy Carter. “I’m just not sure what that is anymore.”
Meanwhile, Nick Fury and his old friend, Alexander Pierce, are preparing to take SHIELD to the next level with a new fleet of advanced Helicarriers that can eliminate threats from the upper atmosphere with precision guns without even having to put boots on the ground. Fury, however, notices some inconsistencies in the program and tries to put it on hold until he figures them out. This results in him being attacked on the streets of Washington, first by men disguised as police officers and then by a formidable masked figure with a metal arm called ‘the Winter Soldier.’
It soon becomes clear that SHIELD has been compromised and bigger plans are afoot, and it’s up to Captain America to untangle the conspiracy while figuring out whom he can trust.
This is a fantastic premise for a Captain America film; Steve Rogers tackles Deep State conspiracies in the nation’s capital. Along the way he also struggles to come to terms with the way the world has changed and, significantly, whether sincere patriotism, honor, and heroism have any place in this cynical new world.
Again and again, especially in the early phases of the film, we’re reminded of how society has deteriorated since Cap’s day. Nick Fury tells a story of how his grandfather – an elevator operator in Harlem – went from greeting people on his way to and from work to brandishing a gun at them. Peggy Carter laments that, though Steve saved the world, “we rather mucked it up.” Steve himself rejects Fury’s attempt to draw a moral equivalence between SHIELD’s shady dealings and what he and other soldiers did during World War II, saying that, whatever they did in the context of a war, they did so that people could be free. “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.”
Steve does try to look on the bright side – “no polio is good” – but the sense of something lost and corrupted, maybe beyond saving permeates the film. There is, as Peggy comments, no going back. This is reflected in her aged, deteriorating state, as well as in revelations about both SHIELD and the Winter Soldier. It’s also echoed in the subordinate theme of homecoming soldiers; Steve befriend Sam Wilson, a fellow former soldier who now helps counsel servicemen and women suffering from PTSD (The way the two connect immediately over the shared experience of war, despite those experiences being separated by several generations, is excellent, by the way, as is the lighthearted one-upmanship they engage in upon meeting). The question, again and again, is how much, if anything, can be saved, whether of SHIELD, America, or the characters themselves.
In this regard, it’s significant that two of the main villains – Pierce and the Winter Soldier – are good, or at least apparently good men corrupted. Pierce is an old friend of Fury’s who declined the Noble Peace Prize (though whether this was ever more than a pose is ambiguous), while the Winter Soldier, of course, turns out to be Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes, brainwashed by Hydra and the Soviet Union into being an assassin. One of them is clearly too far gone to bring back, the other is perhaps not beyond saving, though that’s far from clear for most of the film (even Sam comments that he’s “not someone you save; he’s someone you stop”). This parallels that state of SHIELD and America; one is too corrupted to save – as Steve sternly tells Fury when the later wants to try to salvage the organization – while the other is, perhaps, salvageable.
Of course, this fits perfectly with Cap’s status as an aspirational hero; he is uniquely placed to uncover and defeat the conspiracy because he is someone that people look up to and trust. When he goes rogue and SHIELD is ordered to put all its efforts into finding him, Agent Carter – who is also Steve’s across-the-hall neighbor – bluntly demands “If SHIELD is conducting a manhunt for Captain America, we deserve to know why.” And it is clear that at least some of the agents in the room don’t buy the excuse Pierce offers. Later, when Sam volunteers to join the party, he explains his motives as, “Captain America needs my help; there’s no better reason for me to get back in.”
This only works, though, because, as before Cap “lives up to the legend,” being not only an extremely competent and dangerous soldier and skilled commander (as demonstrated in the excellent opening raid on a pirate-held ship, where he devises a workable strategy for subduing the bad guys and rescuing the hostages within moments of hearing the situation), but also a thoroughly good man. During that opening mission, his first concern is for the hostages, and he’s angry with Natasha when she goes off mission for that very reason. We later see him tenderly visiting with Peggy, bantering with Sam, and dropping by a Smithsonian exhibit on himself (an elegant way to recap the first film), where he shares a silent moment of recognition with a little boy. And all the while, he is constantly questioning whether he is, in fact, doing the right thing. The film, like its predecessor, sells Cap as someone you can always trust and always count on.
But, again, he’s not simply a stiff or an unbelievably perfect character either, as shown straight away from the way he teases Sam after their ‘run.’ He shows a bit of macho pride, as when he puts down his shield at a taunt from Bartok, the pirate captain, and fights him hand-to-hand. He gets angry, frustrated, and freezes in shock when Bucky’s identity is revealed. He also gets flustered when Natasha kisses him (to hide their identities while on the run), and defensive when she teases him about his evident lack of experience in that regard. In short, Steve remains convincingly human while nevertheless being a legitimate moral icon, which is a very tricky balance to pull off, but the film makes it look effortless.
As indicated, this not only is inspiring for the audience, but for the characters as well; Sam Wilson willingly joins up at the chance to help Captain America. Black Widow ends up questioning her own cynical outlook at Cap’s example. And (in one of the film’s best moments) even an unarmed, terrified SHIELD technician finds the courage to do the right thing in the face of almost certain death on “Captain’s orders.”
All this is in the midst of very strong plot, one that is, as indicated, much more coherent and flowing than that of the first film. It moves neatly from point to point, with the characters (mostly) making logical moves based on what they know and are trying to achieve. It makes perfect sense, for instance, that Nick Fury would go to Steve’s apartment following an assassination attempt, as Cap is the one person he knows he can trust. It likewise makes sense that Steve would hide the thumb-drive before leaving the hospital, and that Natasha would be able to guess the move and would wait for him to come back for it, and that Cap would go to Sam after escaping, as someone not connected with SHIELD.
There are a few small gaps; such as Cap and Widow’s ability to steal Sam’s flight suit so easily that it happens off screen (though considering they are, respectively, the world’s greatest soldier and the world’s greatest spy, it’s not really a problem). Likewise their ability to set up their subsequent capture of Sitwell is slightly suspect (how did they make Pierce’s ID appear on his phone?), as is the Winter Soldier’s preternatural ability to track down his targets. But again, that’s not necessarily impossible, just something that isn’t explained. It’s a minor point; something that might make you stop and go “wait…” after thinking about it. I also have to wonder; given the size of those guns on the helicarriers, just how ‘precision’ were these strikes going to be?
There is, by my count, one other major plot question, but we’ll come back to that.
Then there’s the big twist: that Hydra is, in fact, still alive and has been working behind the scenes at SHIELD to bring about its new world order. This was a bold move on the part of the writers, eliminating many possible storylines, but creating many as well. It allows them to turn minor established characters (like Agent Sitwell from Thor and Senator Stern from Iron Man 2) into flat-out villains, while creating ripple effects that will be felt all across the franchise. It brings Hydra back into play and overturns much of what we thought we knew.
When I first saw the film, I wasn’t sure what I thought of this development, and even now it’s probably not what I would have done, but to their credit they pulled it off very well. It was undeniably a gamble, but one that largely paid off.
In addition to Cap’s continued development, we get lots of it for both Black Widow and Nick Fury, especially the former. She’s more or less the polar opposite of Steve in terms of outlook, with a cynical, distrustful nature born of her life as a spy and KGB background, though (amazingly enough), the film actually deconstructs this outlook over its runtime. After the shocking revelations midway through the film, she laments that she doesn’t even know what the truth is any more; she’s compromised so much that she’s lost all sight of what it’s for. Except, that is, for the fact that she trusts Cap and, what is rather more, he trusts her. In other words, though her skill at deception is useful, especially when they have to go undercover (and Steve is, as she says, a terrible liar), it requires honesty and loyalty like Cap’s for it to mean anything at all. People like her are dependent on people like him.
She also shows more of her warm side, of the deep affections and loyalties running below the surface as she is devastated by Fury’s apparent death (“Don’t do this to me, Nick”), and develops a close friendship with Steve. The two actors have excellent chemistry, and part of me still wishes their friendship could have developed in a romance, but nothing of the kind happens. It’s still a great relationship.
Fury, meanwhile, has his largest role yet as the master spy taking on his own agency. He opens up a bit about his background, hints at how he lost his eye, which symbolically plays into his backup plan (and we are going to forget about any possible future retcons there might be regarding the subject). He also shows that, for all his deceit and dirty tactics, he is fundamentally on the side of the angels. When he finds something suspicious in his master plan, he puts it on hold until he can figure out what it is, even at the risk of political fallout or even scrapping years of work because, as he says, “Everything I’ve done, I did to protect the people.” Especially after his more ambiguous portrayal in The Avengers, this is refreshing.
As for the villains, Pierce is okay as the corrupt politician (mostly helped by Robert Redford’s excellent acting and continued charisma). He’s not just a powerhungry madman either; he lays out a clear and consistent point of view that, while horrible, is not at all unthinkable. And, for a superhero movie, it is kind of odd to have the main villain be just a guy in a suit.
On the other hand, there’s the Winter Soldier, who is a striking and alarming figure. From the moment we meet him – taking out Nick Fury’s car with a single shot after an entire SWAT team failed – we understand that this is a particularly dangerous figure; an impression reinforced by every subsequence scene. Even Black Widow seems terrified of him, and is clearly outmatched when she takes him on (though she does get a few good shots in), and he’s able to match Cap almost beat-for-beat. This is aided by his musical motif, which almost sounds like an insane scream.
Then, of course, we learn the truth, and the full horror of what Bucky has become strikes hard, particularly when we see him being re-brainwashed (and who knows how many times he’s gone through that process). He makes for a striking contrast with Captain America; Soviet Union versus United States: metal-arm (offensive) versus shield (defensive): brainwashed assassin versus free soldier. It then becomes a question of whether Steve will be able to save his best friend, or will have to kill him to save innocent lives.
On that subject, the action scenes in this film are some of the best yet, starting with the aforementioned raid on the freighter, which is enlivened with great moments such as Natasha using her evident sex appeal to catch one pirate off guard, or Cap thanking Rumlow for his assistance and getting the quip “Yeah, you seemed pretty helpless” (a perfect variation on the ‘what took you?’ or ‘I had him’ cliché; both funny and reinforces Cap’s decency). Then there’s a glorious nine-on-one fight in an elevator, which starts with Cap quietly figuring out what’s going on and asking if anyone wants to get out, which is followed by Cap’s spectacular escape from SHIELD HQ. The fights between him and the Winter Soldier showcase some truly spectacular choreography, as the two supersoliders trade blindingly-fast techniques.
During all of this the film finds a lot of very creative applications for Cap’s powers and shield. How many different ways can you use superhuman physical abilities, plus a shield that can absorb almost any impact? Turns out, quite a few, from jumping out a tenth-story window to taking down a fighter jet, to even just bouncing off of walls to maintain speed around corners. The same applies to Winter Soldier’s single metal arm and Falcon’s wingsuit (few superheroes have made better use of simply being able to fly).
And of course there’s lots of snappy dialogue and humor. Natasha has a running gag of trying to get Steve to start dating again (“Secure the engine room, then find me a date.” “I’m multitasking.”), while Sam gets some good lines as the normal person thrust into the world of the Avengers (“I made breakfast. If you guys eat that sort of thing”). I also like the cheeky way that Natasha is chewing bubble gum when she reveals that she’s already taken the drive out of the vending machine, and Steve’s sweet, if somewhat fumbling efforts to ask Sharon Carter out on a date, not to mention his occasional rueful comments on his own age (“I’m 95; I’m not dead”). There are also some cool little details that you probably won’t notice the first time, like how Steve’s shelf is lined with history books.
I said there was one other possible plot issue to talk about, and it’s simply the question that arose in Iron Man 3: with all this going on, where are the other Avengers? In particular, why didn’t they contact Iron Man? (The question didn’t really come up in Thor: The Dark World, since so little of that film took place on Earth)
But the question isn’t as much of a problem here as it was there. In the first place, Tony Stark is a civilian, and not the most reliable one at that; I can imagine that Cap or Fury simply wouldn’t have considered bringing him in for that reason alone, especially given that he lives on the other side of the country and they don’t have many secure communication options. For another, per the events of that film, Tony is (apparently) retired from being Iron Man, so contacting him might not even have done anything. Besides, events move so quickly, and the characters are so uncertain of whom to trust, one could argue that it simply wasn’t a viable option for them.
Whether those explanations work or not, this is at least a clearly different scenario than in Iron Man 3, where we had an on-going, months-long terrorist threat directly and publically targeting the President of the United States, yet with no sign of either SHIELD or Captain America. That is a scenario where it makes no sense at all for Cap to not be involved, whereas in Winter Soldier, the characters would have had to go out of their way to bring Stark in, and though he likely would have been useful (depending on whether he had any functioning suits at the moment), it isn’t necessary.
I’ll be honest; Captain America is my favorite hero in the MCU (and one of my all-time favorites), and Winter Soldier is pretty close to my ideal of a Captain America film. He’s out there fighting for freedom and the ideals of his country against corrupt spies and politicians seeking to “build a better world by tearing the old one down,” while also trying to save his friends and acting as an inspiration for others to take up the good fight. It’s not quite my ideal, but it’s pretty close, as well as being one of the best entries in the MCU thus far.