Captain America: The Winter Soldier provides all the action, heroics and CGI eye candy one expects from the Marvel universe, but with an unexpected level of depth, both in character development and political subtext.
Shortly before seeing the film, I had a conversation with my eldest daughter, in which she commented “I’m pretty sick of superhero movies. Special effects and explosions galore, no character development or depth, nine hours long… You’d think in all that time they could give a character believable motives for the things they do or tell us why we should care about these people, but nope.” I am happy to report that Captain America defies this convention. While there are plenty of special effects and explosions, there’s also character development in abundance, everything is motivated by actual human emotion, and we do care about these people, even the ones we’ve never seen before. Coming in at something over two hours, it feels tightly-plotted and fast-moving, a refreshing change from the plodding pace of some recent films. They even make you care about the bad guys.
The story is a hi-tech spy thriller involving S.HI.E.L.D., the international intelligence and police agency for which Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has become an agent in the aftermath of the events of Avengers. When the film opens, Rogers is settling into life in the 21st century and making peace with the fact that virtually everyone he knew before is now dead except old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), whom he visits in her nursing home. He befriends Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a counselor at the Veterans’ Hospital nearby, while both are running in the park.
Soon, he’s called into action to rescue hostages aboard a hijacked boat, working alongside Natasha Romanoff, AKA the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The interplay between the two is great, she punctuating the fight scene with suggestions about women she could fix him up with, he making excuses as he dispatches one terrorist after another.
The upshot of the mission is the discovery that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a rogue element attempting a coup, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is being targeted. This comes at a very bad time, as S.HI.E.L.D. is about to launch a new global anti-terrorist program called “Insight,” and the World Security Council, headed by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), does not want to delay it. The situation escalates with the emergence of an unstoppable assassin called the Winter Soldier; Captain America and the Black Widow find themselves “out in the cold,” unable to trust anyone within the agency. They turn to Wilson for help, and the three attempt to root out and defeat the infiltrators.
Redford’s presence here is appropriate, given that the plot is somewhat evocative of Three Days of the Condor. He brings a commanding performance, his scenes with Jackson throwing off sparks. Jackson, for his part, gets some action this time, no longer relegated to standing behind a desk and glowering at the lead actors. He reminds us that he is one of our great actors in addition to being a movie star.
Some recent Marvel movies have essentially been place-holders, telling a story that fills two hours while leaving almost everything pretty much where it started; Iron Man 3, for example, primarily explored Tony Stark’s PTSD following the alien invasion of Avengers and built on his relationship to Pepper Potts, but nothing in the larger world was affected by the events, and the same is true of Thor: The Dark World. By contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier shakes things up; the events of the film will have major repercussions for every subsequent Marvel movie, as well as for the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. To say any more than that would be spoiling.
Aside from the impact within the Marvel universe, the film is quite timely and more than a little political. The premise of the story, and the events that unfold, raise and address real-world questions that become more important every day. Early on in the story, when Fury explains the Insight program to Rogers, Rogers responds “that’s not freedom, that’s fear,” expressing a concern many have felt regarding actions taken by government agencies such as Homeland Security and the NSA. The film is somewhat of an allegory about the balance between security and freedom and the price we’re willing to pay for either. It certainly reflects the zeitgeist in a way that most superhero movies don’t.
Aside from all that, I believe most people are going to leave the theater wondering where they can get one of those Falcon suits. Once Sam Wilson goes into action, he provides the most exciting flying scenes since The Rocketeer.