I have been waiting for this since the first Captain America movie, half-certain I would be disappointed. After all, Thor: The Dark World was better than Thor, but Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 were both a step down from Iron Man (though still good). And Captain America himself is a hard character to pull off; he is the Marvel Universe’s heroic paragon, matched in idealism only by DC’s Superman. So, did Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeed? In a word, yes. In fact I think it’s the best Marvel solo movie to date.
WARNING, HUGE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.
(If you have any intention of seeing it, go. I’ll be here when you get back.)
Where the first CA movie was a war-movie, The Winter Soldier is more of a Tom Clancy military thriller. Steve Rogers is working for S.H.I.E.L.D. but is less and less happy about it. This is in direct contrast to Natasha (the Black Widow); since she knows she’s working for the Good Guys, she is content to follow orders and let her boss worry about the morality of her mission parameters. When Director Fury shows Steve the BIG HAMMER that he is preparing, one that will allow preemptive strikes of surgical precision against any developing threat to world peace, Steve is even less sure that he’s on the side of the angels.
Worse, it is quickly revealed that Something Is Afoot. Director Fury smells something rotten and tells the wrong people about it. Admittedly, he had no choice if he was going to delay the launch of the BIG HAMMER until he found out what was going on. He is betrayed, and assassinated by the Winter Soldier (Steve’s old friend Bucky), but not before delivering a critical piece of the puzzle to Steve and telling him “Trust no-one.”
Of course Steve has to trust somebody, especially after a S.H.I.E.L.D. strike-team tries to take him out in the middle of the Triskelon and he goes on the run, and since Natasha ends up holding the puzzle-piece he decides to trust her. The two of them follow the breadcrumbs to a secret base that looks like it might have been the very first S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, and there they find an incredibly old and huge computer system. It turns out that the system is still operative, it contains an AI copy of the mad scientist who worked for the Red Skull in the first movie (the US recruited a bunch of German scientists at the end of WWII in real history, so, sure why not?), BUT, it turns out that our German scientist/AI is secretly working for…Hydra!
“Cut one head off, and two shall take its place!” Was nobody paying attention? At this point the writers very cleverly gave our nefarious AI the perfect excuse for a ranting, hold-nothing-back, supervillain monologue; it can’t stop Cap and Natasha physically, but it can keep them distracted by its horrific revelations (as S.H.I.E.L.D. grew, Hydra cells grew inside it, responsible for machinations triggering much of the world’s current political instability, and now it is ready to come out into the light by seizing control of the BIG HAMMER and bringing order and peace to the world for the low, low cost of 20,000,000 lives). “Bwa ha ha! And by the way, I’ve been monologuing to keep you here long enough for the recently launched cruise missile to arrive. Goodbye Mr. Bond–I mean Captain America!”
Beautiful. I took notes.
So now you’ve got the setup; Cap, Natasha, and Falcon (didn’t I mention him?), along with help from an unexpected quarter, must break into the Triskelon and sabotage Hydra’s scheme to bring peace to the world through irresistible firepower. And of course Cap has to fight the Winter Soldier. Stuff blows up gloriously, much ass is kicked, Cap gives a great speech, etc. I laughed, I cried, I made it part of me.
And Now The Political Commentary.
Kidding. Not much here to say. Hollywood and Marvel actually managed to make a movie about espionage and black-ops that doesn’t paint the USA as the bad guy. It was more than a little on-the-nose in its use of data-mining for domestic surveillance and long-distance remotely targeted Kill Weapons as tools of assassination (drones, anybody?). It also asks you to consider the morality of a policy of preemptive strikes (briefly–this is an action movie after all). But what really struck me as interesting was what the movie showed us about Captain America.
The Soul of a Superhero
One mistake a lot of people make when they talk about Cap’s difference of opinion with Fury, is that they are not taking the time period Cap slept through into account. When Cap went to sleep the world was still locked into WWII, so he missed the whole bit about the US becoming “the world’s policeman.” Most people get this, but for some reason they forget what else he missed; because of that, they think Cap should be uncomfortable with seeing the US in the Supercop role.
But why should he be? Steve Rogers grew up in an America that considered itself the guardian of liberty. Most Americans of his time believed that America was a shining city on a hill, that whatever its flaws its living example of freedom and democracy put it in the vanguard of social and political progress (as opposed to those evil communists who tried to build a better world by killing millions of their own citizens).
More importantly, Steve also slept through the Vietnam War, through the Kennedy Assassination, through Watergate, through the Peace Movement. He slept through the period where the US learned the limits of its power to spread peace and democracy abroad. He slept through the period which taught Americans to distrust their own leaders and “the system.” He woke up just in time to protect the US from another attack.
This is why Steve finds himself so out of step. He is not uncomfortable with the US as the world’s single greatest military power, nor is he uncomfortable with military interventions (he would have been first on the ground in situations like Kuwait and likely Bosnia). Fighting for freedom abroad on behalf of the underdog is what he has been bred to do. He is not comfortable with a world of espionage, lies, and black-ops in peacetime; for him, war has rules and is fought on battlefields against enemies in uniforms.
Steve remains certain of what is right, but he is not certain that his side is playing by the rules anymore. Of course he may also recognize that nobody else is, either, but he still doesn’t fight that way. He is, as Natasha said, “A terrible liar.” And this is part of what makes Cap so effective; in the end, the Good Guys win as much because of Cap’s sincerity and ability to inspire as because of his mad fighting skills. It’s what makes him a hero.