Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Smart, intense and action-packed, this superhero movie-as-political thriller expands the boundaries of comics-based films, with a story barely a futuristic step from our troubling surveillance-state reality.

The old ’60s TV-toon theme sang of "when Captain America throws his mighty shield." In today's much different world of dead-serious live-action, Captain America has instead thrown in his lot with mighty S.H.I.E.L.D.—the global espionage agency that after the arrival of aliens like Thor and of miracles and monsters like Iron Man and the Hulk, plus the invasion of New York in Marvel's The Avengers (2012), has been given carte blanche in the name of international security. Unfettered surveillance, wiretapping, data-mining—analogies with post-9/11 America are both conscious and obvious in this ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie/TV continuity. And while previous installments have dealt with weighty issues of survival, sacrifice and family, Captain America: The Winter Soldier expands beyond their heroes' personal concerns to wider sociopolitical subjects. That's a perfectly logical and in fact necessary progression: Newborn beings first have to make sense of themselves, and then of their place in the world.

That this sequel to the World War II-set origin story Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) inspires such considerations says something about the meticulous arc and organic growth of the franchise. Miracles are temporary, whether we're talking refrigerated boxcars that opened the floodgates of food choice or spaceflights to the moon—soon, we take for granted that kiwis come to us in winter and that space shuttles ferry supplies to space stations without it making front-page news. If the Marvel Studios movies continued focusing on the characters' personal stories, the films would become static and stale. Winter Soldier does make a crucial point of Steve Rogers/Captain America's personal disenchantment with his espionage-agency handlers, but it's in the service of a larger story about the political apparatus that, as he puts it, has turned freedom into fear.

Living quietly in a nice walkup in Washington, D.C., going on occasional missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. and acclimating himself to the modern world after decades in suspended animation since World War II, the scientifically enhanced super-soldier (Chris Evans) is a celebrity in plain sight. While he keeps a cap low over his face while walking through a Smithsonian Institution exhibit about him—the screenwriters' quick, clever method of giving his complicated backstory—Rogers can do a morning jog by the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool and chat unselfconsciously with fellow runners like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former Air Force parajumper now working as a PTSD counselor.

When the Lumerian Star, a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel carrying Agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández) and others, is hijacked by mercenaries led by Algerian terrorist Georges Batroc (former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre), Rogers goes in with Agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and a tactical team led by Agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo). The operation's a success—as well as a beautifully choreographed ballet of exotic up-close fighting and clear, cognizant locale geography—but Rogers learns to his dismay that S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had an ulterior motive for the mission.

Fury won't reveal it, but does clue him in on Operation: Insight, a nearly completed project to build three new Helicarriers—airborne aircraft carriers, the first of which was seen in The Avengers—with the ability to link to data satellites that will allow them to target threats proactively. Rogers, stunned by the audacity, nonetheless gets it, and matter-of-factly sees it as a form of oppression at odds with what he fought for in the ’40s. But it ain't the ’40s anymore, and Fury's convinced the carriers are needed to protect the world.

Yet what Fury learned from the ship's database, retrieved by Romanoff on a flash drive, concerns him, and after successfully getting his old friend and immediate superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), to postpone Insight's launch, finds himself targeted by HYDRA—the new-world-order organization from the first Cap movie—and its operative the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). From there, in an orchestrated tour of puzzle-palace double-blinds and double-crosses, Rogers, Romanoff and Wilson—whose Air Force duty included test-piloting the winged, jet-powered Falcon flight suit—confront compromised agents, buried secrets and a decades-long plan to have the world give away its freedom willingly for "security."

The purported paranoia of the 1970s political thrillers that inform this story turned out to be not so paranoiac after all. The government is listening to us, and corporations data-mine down to that unfortunate frat-house beer party you posted on Facebook years ago. Maybe science fiction is the only way left to get the point across and let us see with fresh eyes just what we've allowed to have happen. Because what with the extremely few comic-book tropes here—Rogers' government-issued red-white-and-blue uniform, mostly—this is a grown-up political action drama gutsy enough to not only examine the dangers of the surveillance state but, and here's the most amazing thing, give the opposite view, the super-secure, Darwinian cost-benefit-analysis view, in the reasonable, rational language that likely will be used when the time may come. Hell, some of what Rep. Paul D. Ryan is saying already sounds like it.

Evans once again precisely nails where old-fashioned ideals meet hardnosed reality, making Rogers fundamentally decent without being for a nanosecond "comic-booky"—he's a soldier, and has no compunction about doing what has to be done. Mackie treads an equally fine line that make utter sense in the story: Yeah, he was a test pilot, one of the best of the best, but if you're working in tandem with a legend, you take your lead from him.

The technical aspects are expectedly state-of-the-art, and brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, who co-directed, must have sold their souls at the same crossroads as Robert Johnson—that's how sharp-eyed and well-paced these former TV-comedy directors have made this epic-scale film whose nearly two-hour-and-20-minute length flies by like Iron Man. Cinematic superheroes do exist, and we're not just talking about the people on the screen.

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