Whether punching out Hitler or hanging up his shield, Captain America has always been a barometer for America’s political atmosphere, a reliable gauge for what’s on the minds of the nation. In his latest adventure, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he is again, standing as a voice of reason in a high-octane action drama that concerns itself with the all-too-pertinent debate of freedom versus security. Those who found the first Cap adventure distasteful in its hamminess will be pleased to know that CA:TWS contains nothing of the kind, being a grim-faced thrill ride with no time to talk and no room for cheese. The jokes in Winter Soldier are spare and barely land, a testament to the film’s hard edge. But, unlike some of its dark-and-gritty peers in the superhero genre, a touch of darkness serves this sequel well, working for its covert ops setting instead of against it.
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Cap (Chris Evans) is back, still trying to piece together the 21st century after the events of The Avengers. Thinking he’s found a place as a black ops leader for S.H.I.E.L.D., jumping back into a soldier’s game, Steve is in for a rude awakening in the tricky world of spy versus spy. Caught between a sneaky Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who may be gathering or selling intel illicitly, and the scheming World Security Council member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Steve must figure out whose side he’s on, if any. Pierce seems too eager to go ahead with the insidious Project Insight, a weapons system of three Helicarriers linked to a satellite network that can pinpoint an individual target essentially anywhere in the world. But Project Insight isn’t the only piece on the board; also in play is a mysterious, deadly Soviet agent known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Deeming the price of ‘security’ too high, Steve teams up with superspy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and VA buddy Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to get to the bottom of the intel mystery, and stop Pierce from holding the world hostage for its own protection.
A timely topic keeps CA:TWS on point, giving the story a place to focus and build. It’s a potent mixture of superhero flick and political detective story, with some straight-from-a-comic twists, like the revelation that HYDRA is secretly controlling not only S.H.I.E.L.D., but the larger course of history since World War II. Nazi scientist Dr. Arnim Zola’s reappearance as a consciousness trapped in an enormous computer bank is unexpected, but CA:TWS makes sure never to veer too far off course into ever more fantastic territory. Instead, it keeps its sci-fi elements to the bare minimum, mostly concerning the eponymous Winter Soldier.
The action is plentiful, delivering sequences that keep the tension high, and give the impression that our beloved heroes really are in danger. One piece, featuring Nick Fury fleeing from a gang of hired hitmen posing as police officers, is especially nerve-racking. We know our protagonists will probably survive, but how they’ll get out of the jam they’ve found themselves in is a real trick. Other scenes are just good, dirty fun, like the trailer-featured elevator fight between Cap and a collection of goons. Johansson, I am pleased to note, gets her fair share of screentime kicking ass, though I was displeased to see her kept out of the Big Climactic Battle, even if she gets to play a key role on the ground. Mackie’s play, meanwhile, is more about avoiding being hit by enemy fire, though he does get to take down a few flying bad guys before his wings are clipped.
Given the poor track record of representation in modern films, it’s perhaps of great significance that Captain America’s support team consists of two women and two black men. Quietly, and with blessedly little fanfare, CA:TWS continues the tradition of Cap’s stories reflecting his time, in this case in the roster of good guys. Race and gender remain present, but they are subsumed by across-the-board badassery. Mr. America may still be as blonde and white as they come, another hurdle yet to be jumped, and one higher than any of us in our hopeful forum conversations can know. It doesn’t mean we aren’t getting closer, though, or that CA:TWS isn’t a marker of possible (good) things to come.
CA:TWS is utterly competent, tickling off boss fights and big battles sequences on a neat checklist that never bores, but never surprises, either. With fast action and a whizzing camera, two hours and fifteen minutes flies by, and, as far as the MCU goes, there are worse ways to spend that time. Don’t get me wrong, I liked, and was highly entertained, by CA:TWS. I just felt like there was a piece missing, some undefined element that was absent from the surfeit of explosions, machine gun fire, and mean right hooks.
The missing puzzle piece, at least for me, was a thoroughly filled-in background for the relationship between Cap and old war pal Bucky Barnes who, thanks to Soviet brainwashing and cryogenic technology, has been turned into enemy number one, the Winter Soldier. Like many of you, I had both seen the first Captain America movie, and am aware of the iconic Ed Brubaker arc involving the Winter Soldier. But that background was what I brought with me into the theater, more so, I felt, than what was presented to me onscreen. Yes, there is a flashback to the good old days of pre-serum Steve and his best bud as they once were. Yes, we’re told by both characters and a helpful Smithsonian exhibit who he is and what he means to our hero. For me, at least, I needed a bit more. The tragedy of Buck Barnes is material rich for mining, yet I felt that in the crowded field of battle that is CA:TWS, there was precious little time for that tragedy to play out. Perhaps it’s a lot to expect from a fast-paced film that has so much to cram in. However, given how essential it is to know that character in order for the final confrontation to hit us hard, we need a little more time with him.
The question of whether freedom should be compromised for the sake of individual or national security is a contentious debate in our present, and, though that debate is at CA:TWS’ core, there’s no ambiguity here about what side our hero is on. Steve Rogers as a character is the moral center in a world of deceit, and it’s good fun to see him get knocked off balance, if only in brief. Behind the shield, after all, he’s just a man trying to find his way in a complex, sometimes brave, new world. I may chide CA:TWS for being somewhat stone-faced, yet, all said and done, its sincerity is the thing that, amidst a symphony of destruction and bullets, lets this film ring true.