Throughout their history, it’s not been uncommon for comic books to jump into significant social commentary. For example, 70 years ago, Superman fought Adolph Hitler (not much of a fight really), and in the 1960s the mutants of the X-Men were a not-very-thin allegory for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Doom’s homeland of Latveria was a fictional stand-in for any of the Soviet satellite countries during the Cold War. So, it will be interesting to see how general audiences respond to the social commentary that abounds in the terrific sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
In a way, we might have Edward Snowden to thank for it.
Whether you think he’s a traitor or a hero, the information Snowden has leaked about the breadth of the NSA’s spying program is going to weigh very heavily on this film, which was well into pre-production before the Snowden story broke. During the George W. Bush administration, we knew there was a domestic spying program in place, but Snowden showed us the extent to which world leaders and U.S. citizens were being surveilled. The short answer: a lot. The NSA is currently building an enormous facility in Utah that is going to store all the data it collects. The Winter Soldier asks some very legitimate questions about spy organizations and the rights we might be willing to give up in order to ensure our safety. There are also some questions about the Bush Doctrine and the policy of employing pre-emptive military strikes. If you like your escapist entertainment to have something on its mind rather than just blowing things up, I think you’re really going to like this.
When last we saw Steve Rogers (the real Steve Rogers, mind you), he had just staved off an alien invasion in New York City. Still trying to adjust to missing out on the last 70 years, Steve has decided to join S.H.I.E.L.D and help with anti-terrorist missions. The film opens with a beautifully staged sequence in which a S.H.I.E.L.D strike team must rescue a ship that’s been taken over by French pirates. It’s Captain America meets Captain Phillips. (The downside is nobody gets to say, “I’m the Captain now.”) Unfortunately, something about the mission stinks. While Cap’s been assigned to save the hostages, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been assigned to retrieve some shadowy intel from the ship’s computers. And, it turns out Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hired the pirates in the first place. That can’t be good.
It also turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D is about to launch a program called Insight that would position three new helicarriers in constant orbit, and, through satellite connections, they would be able to eliminate any threats from the sky. Think drones on steroids. If Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos were a Bond villain, this is what he’d be working on. Add to the mix a S.H.I.E.L.D bureaucrat named Alexander Pierce who isn’t as he appears (Robert Redford) and a creepy assassin called The Winter Soldier. I know most comic fans already know the Winter Soldier’s identity, but Marvel is being very cagey about that in their marketing, so I won’t reveal it here. Also, it turns out that some elements of Hydra are still very much alive and well.
Soon, Steve has to go rogue to get at the truth. He’s aided by the aforementioned Black Widow and series newcomer Sam Wilson [a.k.a. The Falcon (Anthony Mackie)], a former paratrooper who works at a DC-area VA hospital counseling returning vets.
To be honest, I didn’t have the highest expectations for this one. Of all the Phase One Marvel pictures, the first Cap was probably my least favorite. I could see why Joe Johnston was kind of a logical choice to direct since the World War II setting would be a sort of kindred spirit to Johnston’s The Rocketeer, but despite getting better as it went along (Hugo Weaving was a terrific villain.), the first Cap seemed kind of perfunctory to me. It was a film they had to make in order to get us to The Avengers. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not all that memorable either. For me it seemed genuinely uninspired.
When the Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe) were announced as the directing team for the sequel, I was even more skeptical. I am as big a fan of Arrested Development as anybody, but there wasn’t anything on their resume that suggested they were right for this. Their only other feature film was the abysmal You, Me and Dupree, and they’d done a pretty extensive amount of work in television working for Mitch Hurwitz and Dan Harmon. The more I think about it, directing a bunch of episodes of Community might be a great training ground, as that show is an exercise in genre filmmaking from week to week. Fans of Greendale Community College will be excited to see one if its students make a cameo.
Either way, the Russos have absolutely crushed it. I can see why Kevin Feige has signed them up for Cap 3 and why Marvel had the confidence to open that movie on the same date in 2016 as Batman vs. Superman. This is a film made with exceptional skill, and, for the most part, the action sequences seem to have been done in camera with a minimum of computerized trickery. The obligatory, gigantic, third act set piece is a huge one involving the three helicarriers, and it’s heavily dependant on a ton of CGI. But, up until that point, the Russos dish out some great hand-to-hand fight scenes and two very memorable car chases. I’m sure these sequences got a computer-aided boost here and there, but it’s a kick to see things that are mostly done by the stunt team on an actual location. Nobody is going to confuse Captain America with The Raid, but I would submit that the fights here, while not nearly as plentiful or as bloody, are choreographed and shot with the same amount of invention and care. A brawl in an elevator hinted at in the film’s trailers is a show stopper. I can’t explain it, but there’s just something about real action that draws the audience in.
Kudos to the Russos for finally making Captain America look like an actual superhero this time. In the previous two movies, it seemed that the Super Soldier Serum just made Steve Rogers into a really good athlete; he never did anything all that remarkable. He’s very super when he’s in action here. A foot chase sequence where Rogers bulldozes his way through an office building finally lets us see that he has more in common with the Hulk than he does with Usain Bolt. It’s huge fun.
Great action would be meaningless if you didn’t care about the story, and, as is the case in the Marvel films to date, the cast really delivers. He may not get much credit for it, but Chris Evans is doing something really challenging here. For starters, he’s doing a lot of physical stuff that actors (and their stunt doubles) never get any credit for. He’s also playing a guy who is endlessly decent and admittedly kind of a square, but he does it without ever making him a bore. Evans was born to play a square-jawed hero, but he brings a world weariness to dull. Yes, it’s funny to see Steve Rogers discover the virtues of the internet, but Evans never lets the audience forget what Rogers has lost. Johansson continues to get better the more screen time she gets in these movies (and when Joss Whedon is writing for her), and Mackey is a very welcome addition to the Marvel world. Sixty-seven percent of that bomb squad from The Hurt Locker are now in the Marvel fold.
Whoever cast Redford should get a big, fat raise. For starters, he’s great in the role, and he brings a certain legitimacy to the proceedings. This isn’t a glorified cameo; Redford is in the movie a lot, and he’s committed to what he’s doing. He’s not slumming. He also brings with him the memory of some great ’70s political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, movies The Winter Soldier clearly has in its DNA. The movie adds some depth just by him being there.
The directors’ comedy background is often on display, as the film is frequently very funny. There’s a Pulp Fiction gag that was especially fun. It’s a Marvel film, so stay through the end credits as an important set of twins may or may not get introduced.
Again, I don’t want to dish out spoilers, so I’ll be very vague, but if you’re a fan of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, the events of this movie are going to drastically (and I mean drastically) alter that show.
Marvel Studios has made nine films so far. This one might be the best. Good story, great action, some interesting subtext. Believe the hype.