I was rather fond of the first Captain America film. It was relatively understated and had its heart in the right place. Despite the flag-waving bluster inherent in the name of his alter ego, the lack of machismo in Steve Rogers’s patriotism before he becomes the Captain gave the film an earnest appeal. There was simple power illuminating some of the dialogues – particularly Dr. Erskine’s rationale for selecting the physically unsuitable Rogers for the super solider program: ‘the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion’; and ‘You will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.’ First Avenger didn’t celebrate the concept of a destroyer, but rather that of a brave weakling given a chance to do good. Many of the best moments in the film came in the early stages, before Captain America is born. And the way it integrated the comic book character into the film’s world without resorting to breaking the third wall or some post-modern gimmickry made me appreciate it more. It wasn’t the sexiest superhero movie, nor was it the most exciting. But it was different to the others. Unlike the likes of Peter Parker, Logan or even Tony Stark who all have greatness thrust upon them, Rogers has no reservations about the power he acquires. Most of the other heroes struggle with the implications their (often accidental or unwanted) abilities have on their psyche or on the world around them. Captain America doesn’t have this problem, and indeed the main theme in First Avenger was a broader one of holding onto the sense of decency and justice while in the possession of great strength, something that the film hoped for America itself in the present world.
On another level, the film expressed a type of American sentiment that was different than its Marvel stablemate Iron Man. If Iron Man was a projection of America’s foreign policy desires in a post-9/11 world – an irresistible, non-nuclear precision weapon that could be deployed at any time anywhere without the shackles of political considerations – First Avenger harked back to an age when things were more straightforward and America’s enemies less ambiguous. It longed for the return of values like liberty, defence of the weak and basic human goodness that have been diminished by Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, values already embodied by Rogers pre-serum and maintained after his transformation. It was still an action blockbuster with its trappings, but First Avenger had a certain amount of pathos and heart that I found surprisingly affecting.
My concern with The Winter Soldier was that without the context of Rogers’s origins, the appeal of his character would be muddled. Adopting the themes of 1970s’ conspiracy thrillers is an ingenious move, however: it updates Captain America for the modern times while holding onto his sense of virtue and moral strength. Steve Rogers, once again played with Peck-ian charm by Chris Evans, is now the star player in S.H.I.E.L.D., carrying out missions for Nick Fury with superhuman effectiveness that amazes his fellow spec ops members. Problematically, Rogers is being asked to fight in clandestine situations, not open wars, for purposes whose ambiguity troubles him. S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing to launch something called Project Insight, which would allow it to strike potential threats before the fact a la Minority Report, and this further fuels Rogers’s unease. The movie moves up several gears in gravitas with the introduction of Robert Redford as a top S.H.I.E.L.D. official, and in excitement with an assassination that sends the Captain on the run.
The Winter Soldier‘s paranoia-tinged build-up is expertly handled by the Russo brothers, and is probably the best hour that Marvel Studios have given us since the first half of Iron Man. Action is snappy and kinetic – the gunplay is refreshingly old-school – and every scene moves the plot forward. Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson are watchable as ever, and new characters like Anthony Mackie’s Falcon are introduced naturally and confidently. Things reach a peak with a scene that is both a blast from the past and nicely topical of the current age of the Patriot Act and the NSA. As with everything in the film, the socio-political allusions aren’t subtle but effective and never outstay their welcome. First Avenger was at its most compelling when the characters were simply discussing their ideology rather than shooting and fighting. Same holds true this time around: Rogers’s laconic, straight-laced responses to his less principled friends and foes provide some of the more enjoyable moments. The closer we get to the climax, however, the action becomes bigger and louder and less personal, and the finale is an inevitable bacchanalia of CGI that bores more than excites.
There’s little doubt that The Winter Soldier is superior entertainment. It’s the most serious and coherent movie to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, and puts the series in a fine fettle for future installments. Having said that, I still miss the World War II setting of the first film. Steve Rogers was at his most heroic in those training sequences before he is injected with the serum. His personal bravery and moral conviction in spite of his physical weakness defined him even after his transformation. I didn’t think Winter Soldier would work without the connection to this past, but I am happy to be proven wrong. For the third film, it will be interesting to see how Marvel and the returning Russo brothers will continue to keep Captain America relevant.