REVIEW: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'
It’s always encouraging when a superhero film can work in references to the current political climate. It proves the filmmakers want to engage the audience on more than the usual level, the visceral thrills of fight sequences, explosions and sneering villains. In the case of Marvel Studios’ latest entry, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the screenwriters have done just that. While sketching out the titular hero’s latest adventure, drone strikes and government surveillance are cited as examples of new threats that Captain America has to fight, only this time, they’re wielded by his own superiors.
Unsurprisingly, more than a few critics (and many fans besides) have been quick to compare the new Captain America movie to (much greater) films of the 1970s, political thrillers that took the Vietnam War and other failures of leadership to task for oppressing the American people. And it’s clear that the references to these movies don’t go astray in the new Captain America, a franchise that needed something to justify its continued presence on movie screens. But the injection of politics still isn’t enough to bring a capable Marvel release to the next level, or overcome its age-old comic book concepts.
Like Marvel’s last release - the sequel to Thor – the new Captain America picks up in the aftermath of the New York battle in The Avengers. Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is working for the shadowy defense force S.H.I.E.L.D., and trying to decide how he fits in with life in the 21st century (lest you forget, Captain America is a super-soldier who was frozen in an Arctic ice field in 1945 and thawed out to bolster the Avengers team).
Cap’s worries for the future of his beloved country centre on a new S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative called Insight, which promises to simultaneously neutralize hundreds of thousands of “threats” using fancy new Helicarriers (flying aircraft carriers). But as the launch of new weapons draws near, Cap and his friends are implicated in a plot by some old enemies to infiltrate the government and take over the Helicarriers. Captain America must expose the secret organization, all while he grapples with the re-appearance of an old friend from the past.
Perhaps what bothers me most about the new Captain America is how it tries to dress up its “don’t trust the government” undertones as a well-articulated argument. If you look closely, there’s only a hazy parallel between the Insight program in the film and the real American government’s drone policy. If we’re going to have a real “political” superhero film, let’s get past snappy lines like, “This isn’t freedom, this is fear,” and tackle the issue properly.
In fact, the screenwriters actually weaken the concept by revealing that the government in the film isn’t really to blame for the nefarious extra-judicial strategy – it’s just the influence of the villains, who have been secretly guiding world events for generations. So not only is the debate in a “political” superhero film thinly sketched, but it was never really political at all – just a clever bad-guy plot.
Let’s pause for a moment, and consider how irritating that “secret society” concept is. Once again, we’re expected to swallow the age-old conspiracy theory (common in adventure films), which claims there’s some shady organization embedded in the government, responsible for changing history and assassinating “problematic” people. Not only does this sound contrived even in a superhero film, it’s been done so much that I’m starting to wonder if the secret society is actually just a bunch of unimaginative Hollywood filmmakers.
It’s not the only instance of the recycled concepts in the film. We have a friend of the hero who is thought to be killed, only to make a miraculous reappearance. We have a lead character who is supposedly going through an identity crisis, only to forget about it once the villains (conveniently) become the real source of his problems. And don’t forget the third-act action set piece that once again calls up some 9/11 imagery, and tries to haunt us with Big Flying Things smashing into Bigger Stationary Things.
Don’t mistake my cynicism, however, for a complete dislike of the film. After all, this is a Marvel film, and to be honest, they do come with an assured level of production values and engaging performances. Both Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson are given expanded material as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury - Johansson in particular helps humanize the job of keeping secrets and bashing bad guys. Her quieter scenes with Evans and new character Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) are among the strongest in the Marvel canon, which made me wish that the film featured more of their discussion over how to serve their country.
I also have to applaud Robert Redford’s work as Alexander Pierce. I’d argue that it’s not much of a spoiler to say he’s tied up with the villains in the picture, but Redford handles his position as a bad guy with a kind of subtlety that isn’t often seen in comic book stories. In that respect, he helps to make the most of the topical material that the movie does include.
Thematic problems and re-used conceits aside, the new Captain America is still an indisputably entertaining movie. It has everything a Marvel fan would want, and from that perspective it’s largely criticism-proof. But it’s important to note that those overstating the political ideas or character development in this film would do well to revisit the 1970s thrillers that got it right the first time. Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets two and a half stars out of four.
What did you think about the new Captain America installment? Did it set a new bar for Marvel movies, or did you find it was more of the same? Sound off in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!