I remember back when The First Avenger came out and liking it a great deal. (If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on that movie, click here). Part of it is that I have always gravitated to the more true blue/white knight heroes like Cap and Superman. While the emotional angst of Batman or the never-ending conflicts of Spider-Man resonate more with audiences, I like a hero who does the right thing because it is the right thing. Specially in today’s day and age, when heroes are preferred when they’re conflicted and dark and moody.
So how do you create doubt and conflict in a superhero who always picks the right side? Who always knows the right thing to do? That’s the challenge the filmmakers found themselves with for the inevitable sequel. Their answer is to put him in a world of shadows, subterfuge and doubt. You shift the sands from underneath his feet and see how he reacts to it all.
The Winter Soldier starts with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in the employ of S.H.I.E.L.D., the powerful secret agency that acts as watchmen and defenders of the globe. As a man thrown 70 years into the future, he is finding his place in much of the same work he did before he went into the ice – being a soldier, fighting bad guys and enjoying the camaraderie of fellow warriors like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo, The Grey) or in retired veterans like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker). He’s also trying to catch up with the world and make sense of how it has changed in his absence; particularly since he’s something of a living legend to the generations that followed in his footsteps.
But with one brutal attack on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, Col. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Captain Rogers is forced to doubt everything that he’s been led to believe about S.H.I.E.L.D. and about the work he’s been doing. Suddenly he’s not sure if the side he’s fighting for is any better than the sides he’s fought against. Is Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to be trusted or feared? Is the Black Widow on his side or not? And who is the masked hitman who manages to attack S.H.I.E.L.D. with impunity and get away without a scratch? Who is this myth dubbed “The Winter Soldier”?
It would seem odd to give the director’s reigns of a big budget, summer, comic book blockbuster over to the guys who brought you You, Me & Dupree, but that’s exactly what Marvel Studios has done in bringing Anthony and Joe Russo onboard. To be fair to them, they’ve also directed many an episode of “Community.” Working off a screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (The Chronicles of Narnia series), the Russo brothers bring to life a pretty good adaptation of one of Captain America’s best comic stories with a lot of modern flair thrown in. They acquit themselves well with the material and with the characters and manage to make a really good movie.
If The First Avenger was a throwback to classic World War II movies like Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone, then The Winter Soldier is a mix of 70s political thriller like Three Days of the Condor with modern spy movies like The Bourne Ultimatum. I mean, you have Captain America fighting hand to hand with bad guys while shaky-cam films it all. And when he’s not fist fighting or driving and gunning his way through the streets of DC, he’s trying to untangle the mystery of who made an attempt on Fury and why. It’s a modern spy movie with a superhero twist.
Given that this is his third go at being Captain America, Evans finds himself in a groove with the character. His Steve Rogers is an earnest, straightforward person who is trying to make sense of a world different from his own in many ways, but not so different in others. The complexities of modern geopolitics may be one thing, but protecting people and defending their freedom is another and Evans manages to find the space in between for Rogers to be his heroic self. Even so, this is one adventure where Cap is forced to confront the very people he’s worked with and determine if this is what he should be doing.
Alongside Evans is Scarlett Johansson who continues to do great work with Natasha Romanoff AKA “Black Widow.” Her character is much more complex than Evans’, but they manage to have incredible rapport. Johansson manages to find a way to make her seem both a hero and a threat. In a way, the ground underneath Black Widow’s feet shifts and moves worse than it does for Captain America, because for Cap, this is all new and his choices were always limited. For her, it may have been trading one set of nefarious masters for another. And for someone who plays it cool, she still harbors feelings of finally being on the good side. Johansson manages to bring a lot of these complexities to light.
Around them is a very strong cast led by Robert Redford and Anthony Mackie. Redford’s Secretary Pierce is the kind of role he can do in his sleep: commanding, a sure hand that’s always got the pulse of every moment, a man who is smarter than everyone else in the room. For his part, Mackie acquits himself well in the role of Sam Wilson –retired serviceman who counsels fellow vets – and later on as The Falcon, ally and hero in his own right. The sequences were he flies in and out of danger are some of the more exciting and I can imagine that they’ll be every more affecting in 3D. Filling out the cast are Cobie Smulders (TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”) and Emily VanCamp (TV’s “Scandal”) as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and retired UFC Champ Georges St-Pierre as villain Batroc.
Like so many modern spy and action thrillers, The Winter Soldier touches upon several themes: freedom versus security, the growth of the military and intelligence industrial complexes, the overreaching power of technology to be used against society at large and the insidiousness of fear. Obviously, it does not dwell on these themes for too long. It is a comic book movie and, at some point, it must lead to car chases, shootouts and fights above Hellicarriers against henchmen and silver-armed assassins. But they make the backbone of a pretty good comic book movie.
It makes sense that if any of Marvel’s superheroes is going to touch on these themes, it is Captain America. After all, he was created to be a symbol of American might. What’s interesting here is that he does not immediately fall in line with the plans of either Nick Fury or Secretary Pierce. As a man out of his own time, he brings older sensibilities and viewpoints to modern situations and challenges his superiors on their solutions. Even as he’s forced to admit that his own generation made mistakes, he refuses to let the men in power off the hook for the ones they could be making.
Part of that is simply that, though a superhero, Captain America is still quite human. The movie goes to lengths to show that he may be a nigh-invincible, super-strong, super-fast, very noble man, but he is still a man. He can be wounded. He can be hurt, physically as well as emotionally. The cost of being a hero is on display as well. The friends he left behind in the 1940s as well as the love he was denied. The hardships in acclimatizing to the modern world. Captain America may be a superhero, but Steve Rogers finds he has more in common with the wounded veterans at the VA than the strong operators of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Strike teams.
Obviously, this is a fun movie but it’s not a funny movie. The light touch of the first movie is gone and even the tongue-in-cheek humor found in The Avengers isn’t here. There are some jokes, but this is an action-adventure movie foremost and one touching on some heady stuff. So don’t expect the usual comedy of even an Iron Man or Thor. If I have any knock on the movie, it’s that it is far more serious than the usual Marvel fare.
All that said, The Winter Soldier does a fine job of bringing the character into the modern world while, at the same time, expanding the Marvel Universe. By movie’s end, new villains are on the deck, old allies are no longer the same and Captain Steve Rogers finds himself in a position to give himself new missions. The Russos will be back for the third movie and Captain America will be back in the sequel to The Avengers. So the character is going nowhere.
If The First Avenger was about the kid from Brooklyn becoming a superhero, then The Winter Soldier is about that superhero becoming a man once again. It forces someone who is straight and true to assess if his values and his worldview fit into a world that is far more complex and nebulous. Can one live with the evil you do today if it may prevent some greater evil in the future? Or is such an idea wrong at all? Can one remain the good guy in a world of shadow bad guys? And if so, then who are the bad guys?