Captain America's first film—the underrated Captain America: The First Avenger—took place almost entirely during the WWII era that spawned the character, and had a refreshingly idealistic, gee-whiz feel that was entirely appropriate. Now, Captain America: The Winter Soldier—directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, and loosely based on a popular comic run written by Ed Brubaker—finds the revived Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) navigating the murkier waters of what America has become in the 21st century.
Fittingly, however, as Captain America straddles the 1940s and the 2010s, the spirit of the film comes from roughly halfway between: the real influences of The Winter Soldier are conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, from the era when the entire country was beginning to grapple—as Captain America does here—with the darker aspects of America's military policies and government corruption.
"The Winter Soldier," of course, is a reference to Thomas Paine's famous words, written during the first winter of the American Revolution. "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." But it is also the name the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) gave to their effort in the early 1970s to shed light on American atrocities. ("We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now," said Lieutenant John Kerry—the future senator and Secretary of State—when he testified about American war crimes before a Senate Committee in 1971.)
The notion that patriotism means not just standing up for your country, but also, at times, to your country, is not currently a popular one. So it's to the credit of Marvel Studios—and president Kevin Feige, the architect of the current Marvel Movie Renaissance—that they chose to make this the central theme of Captain America's second solo-outing, and land Cap squarely in the hard place where idealistic patriotism meets moral ambiguity. Whether the film is quite able to deal with that ambiguity as well as it would like to is another matter.
As The Winter Soldier opens, Captain America is leading missions for the government agency SHIELD, taking orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, enjoying his largest role yet as the lynchpin of the Marvel movie universe). But the Captain is increasingly uncomfortable with what he's seeing: covert ops, secret agendas, and a truly terrifying level of privacy-robbing government surveillance. His discomfort rises to new levels when he learns that SHIELD is getting ready to launch Project Insight, a system of satellite-linked floating arsenals that can preemptively eliminate threats from low-orbit. Captain America, naturally, has a problem with this, and convinces Fury to take his concerns to World Security Council leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). When Fury's reservations are followed shortly thereafter by an assassination attempt by a mysterious figure known as The Winter Soldier, it becomes clear that something is rotten in the state of the nation, and Captain America is faced with sorting through a massive government conspiracy that will shake the foundations of the Marvel Universe for many films to come.
As a Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier is a triumph, and an improvement on the character's previous solo outing. Balancing tones is perhaps the trickiest alchemy for any superhero movie, and the Russo Brothers get the mix just right here: not surprisingly, the film is heavy on action sequences, but they're good action sequences, choreographed with originality and panache and a genuine sense of stakes. (It helps that there are no alien invaders, cosmic relics, or Asgardian gods to contend with this time: the threats are more human-sized, and both the scale and the nature of the conflicts are suitable to Captain America's milieu.)
And, though there is not a lot of time to spend on character development, the very likable Evans is growing as an actor, and appropriately manages to layer a little more maturity, intelligence, and pathos beneath the oh-shucks boyish charm of his Steve Rogers than he did in his first outing. The Russos and returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are also careful to provide some nice character moments for the old soldier out of his element. (I particularly liked an encounter with an old friend—which I won't spoil—and the fact that Steve carries around a little notebook in which to jot down all the cultural references and recommendations of things he missed during his 60 year nap, containing things like "Marvin Gaye," "Star Wars/Trek," and "Thai food.")
It was a good move, too, to give Cap some company on this outing: Scarlett Johansson's super-spy the Black Widow—a character who hasn't had a solo film why, exactly?—holds her end of the fight scenes ably, but more importantly she provides Captain America with a verbal sparring partner, some much-needed character contrast, and even a little sexual tension. Johansson and Evans have decent chemistry, and the uneasy but genuine friendship they develop here goes a long ways towards balancing out the more punishing demolition sequences. (I could have stood for more scenes like the one in which she teasingly inquires as to whether a kiss they share to avoid detection is the first kiss straight-arrow Steve Rogers has had in 70 years.)
Very welcome too is new addition Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former Iraqi veteran turned trauma-counselor who happens to know how to pilot a winged flight suit code-named "the Falcon." The Falcon was the first African-American superhero in the comics, and Captain America's partner for many years, and his inclusion here is a good move on the part of Marvel. We're still waiting for the first black superhero in this shared universe who has a role more prominent than "white-hero's best friend"—Wilson occupies approximately the same position in this film as Terrence Howard & Don Cheadle's Rhodey in the Iron Man movies—but Mackie is excellent here, and both the character and the friendship with Steve Rogers are developed convincingly. Though their wars were more than half a century apart, the two characters share a surprisingly touching knowledge of what it means to be a soldier.
If I have reservations about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they are not so much with the film itself—which accomplishes everything it needs to do very nimbly—but with the limitations of the genre itself. For, while the film draws cleverly on those 1970s conspiracy thrillers I mentioned earlier, it really isn't one. This is, of course, a superhero movie, with a mandate to stage ridiculous but thrilling setpieces around an engaging but truly preposterous plot. If The Winter Soldier is a slightly more sophisticated film than earlier Marvel outings, that comes with a cost: those slightly more sophisticated elements risk crashing headlong into the silly tropes of the film's four-color origins. The Russos mostly pull it off, but making The Winter Soldier feel like a subversive New Hollywood spy thriller just makes stuff like the implausible plot, the absurdly monologuing villains, and the video-game ready climax feel all that more phony. More problematically, flirting with a genuine condemnation of real-world American policies just makes the way the film ultimately cops out on that critique—by locating it in a comic-bookish threat from without, not within—just feel that much more disappointing. It is dangerous to make us expect a superhero film to say something substantive, but The Winter Soldier comes close enough for us to be let down by the near-miss.
As I said, this is not really a critique of the film: this is a comic book movie, and it's one of the best yet produced. But there are moments when I felt it wanted to be a movie movie, and that is something that may simply not be possible in this genre. There is a concept in animation and robotics called "the uncanny valley," which says—I'm simplifying here—that a representation of a human that looks almost human is somehow more repellent than one that doesn't look realistic at all. (See my review of The Adventures of Tintin for a discussion of this phenomenon.)
My point is, I think we need a new, similar term—"the wall of incongruity," perhaps?—to describe the problem facing superhero movies: they can only go so far towards being "movie movies" before the superhero elements start to stand out like a sore thumb. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not All the President's Men with superheroes, and it couldn't be, and it shouldn't be. (Redford—the star of that 1976 political thriller, and others from the era—lends some cultural cachet to The Winter Soldier, but even in his youthful prime he would have looked ridiculous running around Washington in star-spangled blue tights.)
Marvel Studios has done a fantastic job with what had seemed a near impossible task: they've treated their own properties with unprecedented fidelity and respect, and they've delivered superhero movies that mainstream audiences and comic fanatics alike can agree upon. That winning streak continues with The Winter Soldier, but I suspect that, with this film, they may be fast approaching the farthest reach of what is possible in terms of taking superhero stories seriously while still staying true to their roots. The superhero medium was simply never designed to accommodate truly sophisticated issues like a critique of America's foreign and domestic policies: at best, the treatment of such issues is always going to be, as it is here, metaphoric. The Russo Brothers are to be congratulated for working some complexity and social commentary into this film—while still delivering a kick-ass adventure—but, if and when the superhero bubble bursts, I suspect it may be from trying to do too much with a form that is endlessly fun but ultimately limited.
(Fortunately, that bursting bubble shouldn't come anytime soon: the next installment in Marvel's ever-expanding franchise is James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, and—from the previews, at least—it doesn't look like there will be a problem with that film taking itself too seriously.)