Captain America: The Winter Soldier
based on a story by Ed Brubaker and characters by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
On May 6th, 2016, Captain America 3 (No Sleep Till Stalingrad, one presumes) will open opposite Batman Vs. Superman (Grimdark: The Movie, one presumes). This is not so much the two titans of the comic book world taking their eternal battle to the silver screen as much as it is Marvel asking DC and Warner Brothers if they want to see a pencil disappear. As Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes to a close—we’ve only got Guardians of the Galaxy later this year and then its onto phase capper Avengers: Age of Ultron—the success of Marvel Studios (especially now that it’s in the hands of Disney) is envied and unparalleled. DC and Warner Brothers aren’t the only ones attempting to mimic the formula (although they are the only studio hilariously doing it backwards); Sony Pictures wants to do one Spiderman film a year and Fox’s The Wolverine may be the first in a line of films featuring single mutants. (X-Men Origins: Wolverine need not apply.)
But Marvel did it first and continues to do it best. With its three core franchises—Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America—that it then braids into Avengers films, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Loosely, Iron Man and Thor deviate along science fiction and fantasy, but Captain America is the odd man out. Captain America: The First Avenger told Cap’s origin story as a rousing, old-fashioned World War II pictah, but where do you go from there?
A dark political thriller, apparently, which seems both out of left field and perfectly genius. Captain America: The Winter Soldier pits Steve Rogers—the kindest, gentlest, and best man in the universe—against the modern age of intelligence and surveillance. The first action sequence encapsulates this perfectly, eschewing the bright, inspiring set pieces of the first film for a stealthy night mission in the middle of the ocean where Steve stealthily dispatches everyone he comes across with a professional, even grim mien. He only becomes unsettled once he realizes that the Black Widow has been given a different assignment, a feeling that persists and develops once he learns that SHIELD is attempting to put into action a plan that would eliminate targets before they committed crimes. Something is wrong at SHIELD, and as the agency finds itself targeted by the mysterious and deadly Winter Soldier, only Steve, Natasha, and Steve’s new friend Sam can stop them.
I cried through about sixty percent of this movie. (To be fair, they screened the X-Men: Days of Future Past trailer beforehand, so I started crying about Charles and Erik before I started crying about everything else. THEY COULD HAVE HAD IT ALL, PEOPLE.) As AV Club commenter solesakuma notes over in the film’s Spoiler Space feature, Marvel “[takes] the emotional issues of their characters seriously… but they take their world-building and general tone in a lighter, funnier way.” Captain America: The Winter Soldier does not spend time attempting to prove that, say, Sam Wilson’s EXO-7 Falcon wing pack is realistic or exactly how the ultimate fate of Armind Zola happened. These are important parts of the stories, but the film is interested chiefly in the emotional truths of its characters and their efforts against a regime that believes fear is the only way to secure freedom.
Which is why it’s brilliant to pair up Captain America and Black Widow. (Hawkeye, presumably, was getting pizza. For, like, a week? Look, I don’t know his schedule!) Steve’s fierce morality and Natasha’s comfort in her own utter lack of scruples play brilliantly together and allows them to grow and develop as characters—Steve begins to trust Natasha just as she realizes that, under all the cover identities, there might not be an actual Natasha. Their tender, weird flower of a friendship is an utter delight, especially when platonic friendships between men and women are in short supply in the media. (Hilariously, they do play a couple briefly to evade capture, despite Steve’s inability to lie and/or act, and giggle about it while driving to New Jersey. Adorable.)
But it’s the inclusion of Sam Wilson that gets at Steve’s unique suffering as a man out of time. As Gavia Baker-Whitelaw points out in her review, Steve isn’t actually doing so well, despite his sunny disposition. What she calls borderline suicidal, I call fatalistic. Despite Steve’s open-mindedness (he seems pretty sure that he will one day work up to being able to date someone with something so exotic as a lip ring), he is still a product of his emotionally repressive time. Once upon a time, it was Bucky who drew him away from his impulses to lick his wounds in private, but, even as he’s found a semblance of regular life, he no longer has someone who can help him through said impulses. (Natasha can’t do it, because she expresses her emotions to Clint in their own unique spy language, which involves a lot of head trauma.) But Sam, a veteran himself, counsels other veterans returning home from war, and he knows exactly how to help Steve. He never pushes or prods; he is simply there and possessed of the emotional vocabulary that Steve lacks.
Oh, and he’s also good at kicking teeth in for the American way. What begins as an interesting inquiry into SHIELD ends up a little morally black and white by the final battle, although the repercussions of this film are utterly earth shaking. (In fact, they’ve already shook up an episode of Agents of SHIELD. Nice try, show! I’m not watching you again until I get more Asgardians.) Tellingly, the film emphasizes the value of individual freedom by highlighting bystanders and the human cost. The diversity has also improved—this is a mainstream action film that passes the racial Bechdel test, when Sam and Fury snark at each other about numbers, and features three female characters with significant roles. (Does anybody else just call Maria Hill Robin Scherbatsky, AGENT OF SHIELD? Just me? Okay.)
And this isn’t even touching on the film’s major twist, which reduces me to weeping just thinking about how that further impacts Steve’s character development, as well as that of the Winter Soldier. Their relationship is heartbreaking, so nuanced, and not patly resolved in a single film, which it just cannot be. As of late, Marvel films have begin including two credit sequences—a mid-credit sequence aimed at hyping up the next picture (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and a quieter post-credit sequence that ties up a single loose end. Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s post-credit sequence is quite short, but its impact absolutely reverberates. Captain America 3 will deal with that fallout, and I feel pretty confident predicting that it’s going to be much more affecting and engaging than Batman Versus Superman.
Bottom line: Weeping through a superhero film is a good time in my book. Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes a decidedly seventies political thriller tact to explore both questions of surveillance and intelligence in the modern era as well as Steve Rogers’ emotional issues surrounding being a man out of time. Engaging, heartbreaking, and a damn fine ride.
I saw this film in theaters.