It's going to be very interesting to revisit the current era of superhero films in about twenty years and dissect what they say about the culture and politics of the early 21st century. While plenty of them are escapist in nature, there are some like the Nolan Batman trilogy that make some very pointed statements about our post-9/11 world. When that thesis is eventually written, you can bet that Captain America: The Winter Soldier will certainly have a featured role.
It's interesting to see the progression we've taken in the more than a dozen years since September 11th. We've gone from wondering if audiences will ever take city-wide destruction scenes as mere eye candy again, to seeing the 9/11 imagery become the standard look for third-act skyscraper destroying battles, to seamlessly incorporating the "security vs. liberty" issue into an escapist comic book blockbuster. It's hard not to wonder if what feels dead-on relevant today will hopelessly date the film down the line.
The Winter Soldier is as much a sequel to The Avengers as it is the first Captain America. Enough time has passed that Captain America is now regularly running missions for Nick Fury's S.H.I.E.L.D. with Black Widow, but not enough time that he's fully assimilated into the 21st Century. Cap's a soldier and a patriot. He does what he's told, but his 70 years-removed perspective means that he's got some misgivings about Fury's latest project. The launch of three Hypercarriers (the floating aircraft carriers from Avengers) is imminent and Fury boasts how they'll be a major tool in becoming more pro-active in taking down threats to national security. The good Captain snarks that they usually wait for people to actually commit a crime before taking them down, and is reminded that they deal with the world as it is, not what they wish it to be.
Fury expresses a lot of pride in his new toys, saying that at last his organization is in a position to do some good and "after New York" it was clear the old ways just weren't enough anymore. He's referring to the alien assault on New York depicted in The Avengers, but it's really hard not to read that as a reference to 9/11. In the Marvel Universe, the invasion was their equivalent of the attack on the World Trade Center and the measures Fury pushes for in response are fairly analogous to the Patriot Act and Bush Administration views on national security.
Here's my usual warning about spoilers. I'm going to blow a lot of surprises in this review, so don't say you weren't warned.
Before long, Fury is killed while Cap and Black Widow have reason to believe that everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. is a possible traitor. While on the run, they uncover a disturbing truth - since its founding post-WWII, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra, the fascist organization once headed by the Red Skull.
With sleeper agents at the highest levels of the organization, they're at last poised to reveal themselves and seize control. Fury's Hypercarriers will combine with a new A.I. to instantly identify and target individuals who will be a threat to Hydra's agenda. How are they identifying their targets? Basically through all the surveillance means at their hands - phone records, credit card purchases, internet postings.
They'll have the ability to carry out 200,000 simultaneous assassinations and seize control before anyone is able to formulate a response. Even the President of the United States is on their hit list, and Cap and his allies have only mere hours to stop the Hypercarrier launch before Hydra's victory is assured.
This perhaps isn't quite as compelling and ballsy as it could be. While the film raises the question of if it's worth sacrificing some individual liberties and privacy for extra security, any real debate is nullified by making all of this a Hydra plot. It's compelling when we see Fury spouting platitudes that probably make Dick Cheney's pants feel a little tight, but the script doesn't allow us to see much merit in his approach. It's not totally a strawman position, but it's close.
I couldn't help but think of The Dark Knight, which had the guts to put its hero in the driver's seat of a massive Big Brother operation and presented it in such a way that a number of right wing viewers came out of there feeling it supported their agenda. By making the dichotomy into Team Captain America and Team Hydra, The Winter Soldier takes a far more black-and-white view of the situation.
The other issue I have with revealing all of this as a Hydra plot is that it's hard not to equate Hydra with the SS. So to my mind, within the Marvel Universe, anyone who's actively and knowingly a member of Hydra had to make the mental leap of, "Yeah, maybe the Nazis DID have a few things worth co-opting." Even among modern fascists, you won't find many intelligent people looking to Hitler as their patron saint. So would all of these Hydra sleepers really associate themselves with the Red Skull?
To my mind, the more compelling way to develop this would have been to make our high-ranking Hydra officials genuine patriots who believed that what they were doing was right. Fury's the only "good guy" shown supporting these plans. Everyone else involved is just using the plan as a feint for world domination. And Hydra's plan can ONLY be cartoonish super-villainy world domination. You're not going to kill 200,000 people at once and hope it slides under the radar. Hydra isn't out to gradually subvert the government and keep a large populace unaware. This is going to be a bloody, violent coup. Because of that, it feels like a failing of the film not to show us what Hydra's next move is five minutes after they eliminate every force for good.
Just think of how much more chilling it would have been if the plan was to eliminate all of those threats quietly and under the radar. What if instead of "At last Hydra will rule the world!" the leader of this operation made a compelling argument that all this spilled blood would ensure no further wars, no more terrorist attacks, no more assassinations. It's probably not fair to penalize the film for NOT being more of a political thriller, but it is a little frustrating that it walks right up to some truly compelling questions and then makes the conflict too easy in the end.
Which is not to say I didn't enjoy the film. I enjoyed it a helluva lot. It's not only the best Marvel movie other than The Avengers, but it's got some really great action scenes. The third act lacks the thrill of The Avengers and I'm really starting to weary of the orgy of CG battles that has become the standard for superhero films. We're at the point where Avengers 2 is going to have to bring something new to the table because three superhero films a year is starting to make the once-impressive into the mundane.
I haven't talked much about the eponymous Winter Soldier. In a way he feels forced into a plot that doesn't totally require him. His connection to Cap is the source of a lot of angst for our hero, but that particular plot is left unresolved by the end of the film. By now, Marvel and the audience both have the assurance that there will be future chapters, so the dangling thread doesn't feel like the cheat it once might have. I do expect that that will be one aspect of the film that will seem less compelling on repeat viewings, though.
The real delight of the film is the interplay between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. I've seen the cries of "Why can't Black Widow have her own movie instead of being a sidekick here?" Trust me when I say that Black Widow is more of a co-lead than a sidekick. She's such a good foil for Cap that I vastly prefer the notion of her being in this film than I do sending her out on a solo mission. There's fantastic chemistry between the two, which allows both actors to shine in their scenes together. The movie might as well be called CAPTAIN AMERICA & BLACK WIDOW and it would be a horrendous mistake to break up this partnership in future films.
The film also finds room for new addition Anthony Mackie as The Falcon. I was worried that we might be in for another Iron Man 2, where the new additions only cluttered up the film in the name of Marvel synergy, but the character is used well here and is another one I wouldn't mind seeing return in a later film.
Samuel L. Jackson is finally given more to do than just being the glue that ties most of the Marvel movies together. Fury's a character who's probably more effective the more mysterious he remains, but I like that this movie peels back some of his mystique just a little bit. And who would have thought we'd ever see Robert Redford pop up in a Marvel movie?
Overall, I came out of the film largely satisfied and impressed that it used S.H.I.E.L.D. in a more compelling way in two hours than Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has pulled off over most of the season. The ending of this film is going to force some major changes on that series, as the world it inhabits is pretty much upended. I have the hope that whatever the TV show becomes now is what it was always meant to be and the meandering quality of the first season has been due to them being forced to mark time until the movie facilitated a relaunch.
But more than that, this film made me really anticipate the Avengers sequel being released next summer and the Captain America movie that will follow in 2015. Most of the Phase One Marvel films varied wildly in quality, but if they can maintain this level, Phase Two will be a helluva ride indeed.