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Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Premise: A sequel to the 2011 film. Captain America faces off with a Cold War era super soldier and discovers a conspiracy that extends inside of SHIELD.

What Works: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a very good sequel and among the best of Marvel’s Avengers movies. The first film, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, mixed a superhero origin story with the conventions of a Hollywood World War II picture. The result was a vision of the superhero that was more Superman than 2013’s Man of Steel. As portrayed in The First Avenger, Captain America was the Greatest Generation on steroids, combating fascism and fighting for the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way. That picture was followed by 2012’s The Avengers, which did very little with its characters but did hint that SHIELD, the agency that coordinates superhero activities in the Marvel universe, was potentially compromised. That minor revelation of The Avengers is followed to its logical conclusion in The Winter Soldier and it introduces Captain America to a much more complex world. Although superheroes frequently operate outside of the law, they do typically reinforce right wing cultural values and there is an inherent fascistic streak to their stories, something played upon effectively in Watchmen and The Dark Knight. The filmmakers of The Winter Solder recognize this and they’ve devised a smart and even slightly subversive take on those themes. Having saved the world from Nazis in The First Avenger and then from an alien invasion in The Avengers, Captain America comes to realize that fascistic values have not been defeated but have gotten sneakier and the film dramatizes the way a march toward total security inevitably leads to a police state. This is done very well in the movie and the story invokes current events like the use of drone warfare and the public exposure of classified state secrets without getting too obvious or didactic about it. The film also smartly matches this political content with the stories of the characters and that is one of the aspects that distinguishes The Winter Solider from other Marvel movies. Most of the Avengers pictures bypassed character development in favor of action movie thrills but The Winter Solider presses the characters into situations that require them to make choices. This is done especially well between Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), characters who are in many respects opposites. Captain America struggles to maintain his commitments while Black Widow must choose between her own self-interest and higher ideals and that tension makes the characters more compelling and gives the political subtext dramatic heft.

What Doesn’t: The plotting of The Winter Soldier is not airtight and parts of the mystery don’t make sense. The picture opens with SHIELD agents raiding a ship that has been overtaken by pirates. It’s later revealed that these pirates might have been working on behalf of SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) but this subplot is dropped as the movie charges into other plot twists and set pieces. Also, the complexity of the movie isn’t embraced as fully as it ought to be. The film does recognize a greater complexity to the moral and political questions that underscore this and other superhero stories but the solution to that complexity is ultimately simple. A complex story conflict requires an equally complex solution or at least a solution that requires a sacrifice but the filmmakers don’t allow for that. They appear to do so at first, and it is implied that a major character is killed halfway through the movie but ultimately the filmmakers walk it back. This has the effect of cheapening the drama in what is otherwise an intelligent story.

Bottom Line: Captain America: The Winter Soldier does everything that a good sequel should: it broadens the story palate, raises the stakes, complicates the themes, and develops the characters. Even though parts of it are a little unsteady, the movie as a whole is impressive and sends the Avengers in more mature direction.

Episode: #486 (April 13, 2014)