Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Review by Jim Reed
Firstly, the amount of people in the Marvel® Universe who die and come back because they were never really dead in the first place is astonishing.
But I digress…to the preface.
The first portion of this review doesn’t have spoilers. The second portion just might. By the time you get there I will have decided, and I will let you know.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is certainly an entertaining enough film. There’s plenty of candy to stimulate a visceral response, as the action is well constructed and the set pieces flashy. The story moves briskly, like a set of shiny keys, always carrying us to the next most important thing we need to know. I’m not complaining, they didn’t allow the film to get bogged down by dumb things, like an unnecessary love story, or white people whining about their feelings. But at the same time it is a very regimented, by-the-book sort of movie. Entertaining, sure, but it’s not going to get anyone writing academic essays about the power of forward thinking story construction.
The second installment of Marvel’s® Captain America saga finds our hero (Chris Evans) assimilating nicely into the rhythms of modern life. Sure, he is still getting over what’s been lost over the past 70 years, but duty calls. Only now he is beginning to question his missions. A special operation, known as “Project Insight,” is about to be birthed by SHIELD in the name of protecting freedom. However, as the Cap points out, it smells more like fear. What follows is a classic “nothing is as it seems” plot construction, where villainy runs from the institutional top down to the roots.
It’s funny how distinctly American the Cap is. The United States is a nation birthed from dissent away from top down political and religious institutions. The individual is the sole arbiter of truth while institutions (even the ones you think you trust) are the source of fear and destroyer of freedom.
As an aside (that will actually become a significant portion of this critique and thus fail as an aside): I wonder how they are marketing this film in other countries. It is a distinctly American film, however, in order for these gigantic budget movies to succeed they also have to be successful internationally. The US is liked in some places, but not so well liked in very many others. So the story has to work everywhere. For instance, in Germany the film is called The Return of the First Avenger, with no mention of Captain America anywhere! As an Avenger, Captain America can stand beyond his thoroughly entrenched status and allegiance as an American, and speak almost prophetically over and against the power structures that aim to revoke personal freedom throughout the world.
This said, I now enter the SPOILER portion of the critique (though, honestly, all these movies are essentially the same, are there really any spoilers?). I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
The film deals with a lot of issues currently headlining American pop political culture, such as the issue of surveillance as a freedom protector versus freedom destroyer. Come to find out, over the past 70 years HYDRA (you remember them from the first film, yes?) has infiltrated SHIELD and initiated the process of creating fear in the people. They do this because they recognized after the failure of World War II that people must be disposed to sacrifice their freedom willingly, and that people have indeed done so in the name of security. From an ideological standpoint this plot turn was a bit disappointing, because it gives Americans a common enemy to hate rather than take responsibility for their own mistakes. But this is where the Winter Soldier comes in.
The Winter Soldier is a ghost, pegged with dozens of high profile assassinations over the past… wait for it… 50 years! How can this be? Well as it turns out, after much fighting, explosions, and slow walks up to burning vehicles, the Winter Soldier isn’t a ghost after all, though he does seem to be from another life. In fact, he is someone very close to Captain Rogers, taking by HYDRA during the Second World War and transformed for their purposes. He is no longer who he was, but is still the living memory of untapped potential turned for political gain.
Basically, the Winter Soldier is Afghanistan (see Charlie Wilson’s War). What we have created in the name of freedom and liberty has come back to haunt us. There is this distinctly American sentiment underlying the film that the seeds we’ve sown have produced bad fruit, but that it is incumbent upon us to redeem the fruit and make it good again. Now, as Falcon says, is this the kind of enemy you beat, or the kind you turn? The question feels like it misses the point, but that’s a political and ethical discussion for another time. But! Going back to the above discussion of the Cap as an international, world-saving hero, in the end he is intent on turning the heart of enemy rather than destroying him (which is paradoxically something his own country, by the implications of drone warfare stated in the film, seems unwilling to do).
And so the film stands out as intrinsically American and yet is a working critique of American foreign and domestic policy, as much as pop entertainment can be. On cinematic merits alone the film is fine. As complex as I might have made it sound, it is not a particularly complex film. There are good guys and bad guys, with the good guys working to defend the unalienable rights of the marginalized, which in this case happens to be the whole world. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not bad either. It’s not memorable, but I wasn’t thinking that as I was watching it. In fact, if I didn’t know any better I would say I’m pretty ho-hum about this one. Should you see it? Meh. Maybe Redbox or Netflix it, but don’t drop $60 on a family outing. Unless your kids love Captain America. Then you should probably go see it.
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Redford.