Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Producer: Kevin Feige
Studio: Marvel Studios
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford
Without a shadow of a doubt the smartest, mature, and contemporarily significant entry into Marvel Studios library: a serious look at the nature of modern hyper-security and curtailed civil-liberties. It truly feels as though it has been inspired from the headlines we see adorning our news channels more than a comic book.
At this point you’d be forgiven for assuming that you’ve seen pretty much everything a Marvel film has to offer. We have Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man providing dry humor and charm set in the backdrop of corporate espionage. We have Chris Hemsworth’s Thor traversing the cosmos battling all manner of fantastical creatures. We have even had a serious look at the major downsides to being a ‘tragic superhero’, in the form of Edward Norton’s (sorry, Mark Ruffalo’s) Hulk. This is what made the first Captain America film ‘The First Avenger’ stand out from its peers, it was a more light-hearted throw back to ye olde days of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films that still managed to end on a rather somber note. Fast forward past The Avengers and the other phase-two entries in the Marvel universe (Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World) and we find ourselves here, at Captain America: The Winter Soldier – An entry in the universe that really pushes the envelope as to what can be portrayed in a ‘mere’ comic book film.
As with Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, Winter Soldier picks up an unspecific time after the events of The Avengers. While Tony Stark went home to Malibu with his new best-buddy Bruce Banner and Thor returned to Asgard with his captive step-brother Loki in tow Steven Rogers found himself stranded in a world he could not recognise and identify with. As it transpires, after the events in New York Rogers decided to put his skills as a super-soldier to use and joined S.H.I.E.L.D under the pretense that it would help him protect people. After undertaking a mission with suspect ulterior motives Rogers is forced to face the reality that modern politicians, those who claim to guard us, may not have our best interests at heart and he ends up becoming a fugitive against a S.H.I.E.L.D that has lost its way. As Rogers wages war against his former allies he is pursued by a mysterious assassin dubbed “The Winter Soldier”.
How does a man of the early 20th century react and adapt to suddenly finding himself a 21st century that bears absolutely no resemblance to the world he once knew? This sense of dislocation carries over to many aspects of this story as Rogers struggles to comprehend our modern world. Discarding the majority of the supernatural Marvel studios have decided to get political with this story. Rather than fighting against evil industrialists with aspirations of domination or against porcelain-wearing elves seeking the macguffin of destiny Rogers finds himself grappling with identifiable real-world issues such as hyper national security, the progressive curtailing of civil liberties, and excessive intelligence gathering. It’s really something to see and Marvel deserves credit for taking what has someone who as been seen as their most ‘cheesy’ character down an incredibly dark and realistic path. It doesn’t go completely overboard with ‘darkness’, like something we’d expect from Christopher Nolan’s Batman, but it’s certainly more grounded in reality than practically any other entry in this franchise.
If we all live in constant fear what did those who gave their lives in the Second World War die for?
Can you really put a price on freedom? If so, who is responsible for the sale?
What does ‘freedom’ even mean these days when our governments spread as much, if not more, fear than those who allegedly threaten us?
Over the course of the three films he has starred in Chris Evans has made the role of Steven Rogers his own. Here he goes from the idealistic ‘do-gooder’ we saw during his battles against the Nazis to a remarkably jaded and intelligent person. In a sense he is the epitome of ‘true’ American patriotism; leaving jingoism and exceptionalism by the wayside and just doing what he feels is right. Rogers is firmly grounded in reality, which is quite something in a universe that has often gone off on fantastical tangents and shows no sign of letting up doing so. Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Natasha Romanov and plays a pivotal part of the story, which in turn fully fleshes the parts of her character The Avengers did not get around to.
The newcomer to this story is Samuel Wilson, also known by his code-name “The Falcon”, played by Anthony Mackie is instantly likable. In a way, Wilson serves as Rogers anchor as he struggles to come to terms with the 21st century, before going on to become his own distinct character. According to the lore of Marvel comics Wilson ends up joining his new comrade Rogers and The Avengers and. Judging from the ending of this film it seems this is also the path Marvel studios are going down. Beyond any future roles with The Avengers I’m interested to see where Marvel decides to go with his character as, from what I gather the material is certainly there. Recurring supporting characters such as Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury also return with the gusto audiences have come to recognise.
The action scenes here are above and beyond anything Marvel have done before. Fights between characters are fast, frantic, but above all easy to follow. Marvel finally seems to have cracked the code when it comes to portraying close-quarter-combat, something that has plagued them since the first Iron Man film all those years ago. We have hand-to-hand combat, tense shoot-outs, aerial dogfights (very creative ones at that), and a spectacular battle on a freeway that could have so easily gone wrong but is probably the best action sequence in the entire film. Almost as if to debunk a common critique of The Avengers, that nobody seemed to die (on-screen anyway) during the Chitauri invasion of New York, civilians are cannon-fodder this time around. The film doesn’t glorify the loss of civilian life though, it is merely pointing out the realities of urban warfare. I’d even go as far to say that the body-count in this film exceeds that of every entry in the universe up until this point, combined.
Before I conclude I need to talk about the way in which this film commentates on our real world, as some references will really strike some people but others might fly over the heads of others. This isn’t counter-factual history or satire at work here, this is a relevant story set against a backdrop we would and should hopefully recognise. None of these are really spoilers so don’t be concerned about reading on, if anything they should encourage you to see this story for yourself. In the early stages of the story Rogers discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D has been compiling a network of information on every person around the world under the pretense of ‘security’. Rogers disbelief is further compounded when he discovers that this practice has been legally ratified by the American establishment; this is an obvious commentary on “Hyper-Security” in the wake of 9/11 and the ongoing “Patriot Debates”. By an extension, one could interpret this controversial practice being unwittingly subjected on civilians beyond American borders as a reference to the recent PRISM scandal. Completing this rap-sheet is the revelation that, in response to “rapidly escalating threats” S.H.I.E.L.D has been constructing autonomous flying fortresses programmed to kill suspects, using information they have gathered illicitly, before they can commit any potential crimes or acts of terrorism. This comes across as a commentary on the American foreign policy of using unmanned drones in civilian centers. Issues and debates the Russo brothers bring up during the story are not entirely one-sided by they certainly lean towards a more liberal standpoint. Because the subtext and allusions to our own world are so heavily ingrained in this story audience members who do not consume then contemplate contemporary politics may not get so much out of it as others might – that is practically the only drawback I can think of here.
Nick Fury: We’re going to neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
Steven Rogers: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.
Nick Fury: S.H.I.E.L.D takes the world as it is, not how we’d like it to be. This is the program you should have gotten on board with a god damn long time ago. We can’t wait for others who threaten freedom to make the first move with the weapons we have today.
Steven Rogers: This isn’t freedom, this is fear.
On a final note; it should be common practice to stay during the credits of every single Marvel film and the same holds true here. There are two post-credits stingers, one far more heavier than the other. I will not spoil either in this review and I will put up a much shorter side-article to cover them in the coming days. When I’ve seen a film that makes me think as much about the world I know as it does the world it portrays I know I’ve seen something special. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provides a shot of relevance into the Marvel universe and judging on the way it ends… You’d better brace yourself for Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s wider, and hugely significant, themes relating to the realities of our own world may fly over the head of those not attuned to current events but regardless ‘The Winter Soldier’ succeeds as both a pre-summer blockbuster and as an intriguing piece of social-political commentary.