I always liked Captain America the best. It wasn’t his patriotism or the super-soldier serum, or even the impenetrable shield that did it. It was the fact that he’s the only superhero in Marvel’s canon who started out willing to sacrifice himself to do the right thing. He didn’t bother with the frat boy antics of Iron Man and Thor, or the rage issues of The Hulk. Captain America’s superheroics aren’t sources of egomania or painstaking angst; they’re a moral opportunity. He never needed to grow up into his role like those others; he was waiting for his role to grow up into him.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s best movie to-date by a huge margin. In fact, I think it’s going to be in the discussion as one of the best films of 2014. Instead of being a superhero movie, it’s a tense, man on the run, 70’s-style spy thriller. It just happens to have superheroes on the run, which means all those midnight meetings in abandoned parking garages are turned into car chases and aerial dogfights that wreck entire city blocks.
Finding himself at odds with SHIELD, the international agency in charge of all things superheroic and alien, Captain America (Chris Evans) is joined by The Avengers teammate Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and newcomer Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Each of the heroes gets his or her own action scene – even SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). These sequences are intense while being more down to earth than the Captain’s previous outings.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with the Captain making a friend, Sam. It’s not something Captain America does easily, but Sam runs a VA group for soldiers having trouble re-adjusting to normal life. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that the United States spends more on our military than the next 10 countries combined spend on theirs. Yet, after they come home, it can take years for veterans to receive crucial benefits that sometimes mean the difference between sanity and agony, survival and death. Captain America promises he’ll visit Sam at the VA, and he does. In fact, he makes a couple of hospital visits that will surprise you. Later, he’s introduced to three multi-billion dollar, sub-orbital supercarriers capable of annihilating millions of lives at the touch of a button.
This is where 70’s spy thriller meets cyberpunk, science-fiction’s least-happy subgenre. The big question The Winter Soldier asks is that, in an age of targeted drone strikes, warrantless NSA phone-tapping, and supersize militaries with less human supervision, what’s the next step in that progression? There’s a messy intersection where governments and corporations meet, and where the Pentagon meets private military contractors.
Sooner or later, The Winter Soldier suggests, someone’s going to take advantage of that in an ideological fashion. Let’s not be reactionary and say that we’re at that point yet, or that George W. or Obama are those people. Neither one is the stuff of worldwide nightmares, no matter how many Hitler mustaches we can Photoshop into witty Facebook posts.
The Winter Soldier has a big, important message that’s worth paying attention to, and it gets there through pulse-pounding action scenes, Marvel’s trademark dose of dry comic wit, and surprisingly good acting. Robert Redford, as villain Alexander Pierce, and Johansson, who’s been getting better opportunities in films like these, stand out.
Some superheroes are escapist fantasies for those who want to be rich and famous, or exercise their anger and vengeance on those they feel deserve it. So are some political positions. I’ll admit it, sometimes those are the heroes I idolize most. Captain America, though? He’s the escapist fantasy for those who want to make the world a better place, who don’t look at that struggle as a battle, but as a decision you make every day when you wake up.
He fights like any superhero does, because an audience demands it. The Winter Soldier suggests the best way of avoiding its cyberpunk allegory of the future isn’t to pick up a gun, however. It’s to offer a helping hand to those who need it. It’s to keep manpower in our military and stomp the brakes on automation. It’s to make secrets public so that we all have a say and not to put power in the hands of the few, or the one. It’s to look at being human, and all of us together a country, as a moral opportunity. So I always liked Captain America the best. I still do.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rated PG-13 for violence, gunplay, and action.