Gone are the days where you meet your enemy on the battlefield. That was Captain America’s heyday: the glory years of Greatest-Generation-America. Unfortunately for Cap, today’s wars are fought by satellites and algorithms and the bad guys hide in the shadows. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we have a hero who is struggling to adjust, fighting to reorient his moral compass in a complicated world. This is the way an archetype should be handled: big scale action with a solid emotional conflict at its core.
We pick up with Cap as he takes on a rescue mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., doing his part to preserve national security. Before long, we’re down the rabbit hole of corruption and betrayal. S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised by the evil organization Hydra (to which Cap sacrificed himself to vanquish during WWII). A fleet of warships has been secretly built to protect the country, but those ships could do serious harm in the sinister hands of Hydra. Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), S.H.I.E.L.D.’s senior council member, spouts plenty of political rhetoric along the way – all of it entertaining. I mean, it’s Robert Redford.
So while Hydra plans a loosely justified mass extermination, Cap goes rogue with a shortlist of incorruptible heroes. His compatriots include Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and his new friend, veteran-turned-superhero Falcon (Anthony Mackie). As they uncover the clues to Hydra’s plans, a legendary assassin, code name Winter Soldier, pops up occasionally to spray some bullets and launch grenades at them.
Soon enough, the final save-the-world mission is defined. This is where the insurmountable odds stacked against our heroes by an epic enemy are whittled down to one simple objective. Go figure, an international organization that has covertly permeated society for 70 years can be defeated with a few well-placed microchips. They must have hired the same guy who designed the Death Star.
The biggest flaw in any superhero movie, though, is that we never believe that any major character is in mortal danger. There are sequels to sustain, fans to satisfy. No matter how big the enemy or how loud the explosions, the action is uninteresting if we’re just waiting for the hero to finally punch the villain hard enough to knock him out. At a certain point, you’re just banging two G.I. Joes together, and all the big-budget damage is only collateral eye candy. That said, Winter Soldier does feature well-executed action, almost without exception. It has a good sense of space, and doesn’t suffer from those pervasive, excessive, indecipherable close-ups that plague so many modern action movies.
These common, forgivable flaws are less distracting here than in many superhero movies, and the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor present throughout the Marvel universe helps keep this movie grounded. But it’s the strong focus on character development lifts Winter Soldier above most of those franchise films. Cap’s personal journey is tied to his mission, demanding he justify his steadfast sincerity by conquering a complex, ubiquitous enemy. This is the mythology of Captain America: the strength of courage, the power of justice, the application of bold ideals onto an enigmatic system. Even when Winter Soldier’s aim for epic stakes threatens to capsize the movie, it remains anchored by Cap’s iconic optimism.
By the way, where are all the other Avengers while this goes down? Is Iron Man on vacation? Or do those guys just draw straws every time the world’s about to end?