By Melissa Agar
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Marvel Entertainment/Walt Disney, 2014) – Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo & Joss Whedon (post-credits scene). Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (s/p), Ed Brubaker (concept and story), & Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (comic book). Cast: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Maximiliano Hernandez, Emily Van Camp, Hayley Atwell, & Toby Jones. Color, 136 minutes.
It is hard to go anywhere these days without encountering people complaining about the state of our world and reminiscing about the “good old days.” I’ll admit to moments of being guilty of this myself, but working with high school kids does give me a chance to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, my students are outfitted with technology I could only have dreamed of when I was in high school, but the core of their identities haven’t changed all that much. Our kids are still driven by the same things that drove us – a desire to be free, an unflinching loyalty to friends, and a fundamental belief in justice and fairness above all. Those values may get lost in all the twittering and instagramming, but they are, indeed, still there. This truth also runs through the core of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest installment in Marvel Studios’s epic series.
It is a truth that our hero, Steve Rogers (Evans), is struggling to discover. After decades in deep freeze, Captain America is still coming to terms with the world he’s awoken to. He embraces the technology that allows him to play catch-up to all he missed during his nap, but it’s the obscured motives and shady politics that leave him questioning what role he can play in the contemporary world. It’s hard, in a world filled with terrorists and counterterrorism agencies, to tell who the good guy is and who the bad guy is, and that is taking Cap a lot longer to adjust to than iPods and the Internet.
When Nick Fury (Jackson), a guy who has always kind of walked that line between trustworthy and shady, is attacked by shadowy forces that may or may not be connected to SHIELD, Steve finds himself on the wrong side of power and on the run with only Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) to keep him company. Steve and Natasha turn to Steve’s new friend Sam Wilson (Mackie), a war veteran who has his own heroic secrets. Their quest to uncover why Fury was targeted leads them to uncovering shadowy figures lurking within SHIELD and governments all over the world and puts them in the line of fire of a mythical assassin known as the Winter Soldier. All of this leads to the looming launch of a project known as Project Insight, a counterterrorism strike so awesome that it could eradicate the globe of all known terrorists and potential terrorists within seconds of launch.
There is a dual core of cynicism and hope running through the core of The Winter Soldier. On the one hand, people who lie and kill to get what they want surround Cap. Nick Fury tells Cap to trust no one, and it’s a lesson our hero learns time and again as he finds himself face to face with betrayal and danger. Even the motivation behind all of this subterfuge is a masquerade of sorts. The powers that be, in launching Project Insight, claim that they are striking terrorists before the terrorists can strike us, but when targets listed include Bruce Banner and Stark Industries, it seems as if there is more going on than just some preemptive strikes against national security threats. The film becomes, then, a political thriller and commentary on our own counterterrorist policies. Surely, I’m not the only one who thought of drone strikes as Fury lays out the awesome potential of SHIELD’s latest weaponry.
On the other hand, there a sense of hope and belief that people are still good deep down and will stand up for those core American values when the chips are down. Cap finds solace with friends like Natasha, Sam, and Agent Maria Hill (Smulders) who are willing to lay down their lives to protect innocent (and maybe even not entirely innocent) lives. When Cap issues a challenge to SHIELD employees to do the right thing, a war erupts as agents turn on each other as Project Insight’s coming to fruition looms.
Thematically, there is a lot going on in The Winter Soldier. There is a lot going on visually, too, although the film is less reliant on CGI effects than other Marvel films. (Looking at you, Thor!) At times, the action does become a bit chaotic and overwhelming, a truth of many contemporary action films who seem to feel like it’s just not good enough unless the entire frame is literally PACKED with imagery. When you factor in the 3D (and I did opt to see the film in 3D after having enjoyed its use in the first Captain America film), the hyperkinetic energy of the action sequences can be a bit overwhelming. The 3D here was also not as effectively utilized as it was in other Marvel films. Outside of some additional depth, there just weren’t those moments that took my breath away like there have been before. Maybe I wasted $3 for the 3D showing or maybe this is the future of 3D films – added depth and fewer “in your face” moments.
The Winter Soldier is not a perfect film, but its willingness to allow for deeper meaning behind the action puts it a cut above many other comic book films. While I tend to prefer the swagger of Iron Man, the earnestness of Captain America has its appeal and makes for a far more enjoyable afternoon at the theaters than some of the more brooding entries like Thor, The Dark Knight, or Man of Steel. Captain America has awoken to a world far more complicated than the one he left, but it is a world where the inherent values he was so willing to fight to protect still exist even if they are hidden behind greater layers of corruption and greed. In the end, Cap will save the day (we assume) and those values will rise to remind us that freedom, friendship, and justice will always win out in the end.