Captain America becomes a hero for the 21st century

Review of Captain America: The Winter Solider, Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, and Joss Whedon

For a film with hardly a single original moment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier performs surprisingly well. Wrap Bourne, Minority Report, and Olympus has Fallen into a Marvel film and you get Chris Evans at his finest, beating up the baddies and saving the day in the capital of the free world.

It seems every new Marvel film has been upping the ante on action sequences, and the Winter Soldier picks up where Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 left off, except instead of an army of Iron Man Suits or Dark Elf spaceships we have dogfights around not one, but three (count ‘em!) hover-carrier-gunships. During it all, Captain America repeatedly demonstrates his prowess in hand-to-hand combat and indestructible-shield-throwing. It’s cool and all during the first action sequence when Captain and company free hostages on a hijacked ship, but two hours and countless bodies and bullets later, even when he finally meets his match in the cyborgian “Winter Soldier,” we’ve started growing desensitized. How many punches, stun guns, and hundred-foot falls does it take to bring down Captain America? We may never know.

More irksome than the action sequences are the huge technological leaps the film takes in order to further the plot. Instead of deus ex machina we have technica ex machina (I know, I don’t know Latin and kind of made that up, but you get the point).  Is our hero in a tight spot? Why not give him a handy little tool that can melt through ten feet of asphalt in seconds? No way to infiltrate enemy headquarters? Well, it just so happens that Black Widow has some shape-shifting material that makes her look exactly like a world leader from another country. SPOILER: Was Nick Fury pronounced dead in the hospital after multiple gunshot wounds? No problem, Bruce Banner came up with a drug that slows the pulse down to one beat a minute. Some people may find this sci-fi level tech creative and cool; I say too many secret weapons makes for cheap storytelling.

The Winter Soldier is not without its strong points, however. As a Washington, D.C. resident, I had the unique bonus of enjoying many scenes from recognizable areas of the real-life city. This heavy dose of the familiar helped to bring the film down to earth, though I highly doubt there’s a trio of hover-carriers parked underneath the Potomac.

In today’s Washington, D.C., Captain America must confront a decidedly more postmodern world than the one from 70 years ago in which he fought against the Nazi’s Hydra. Serving in the Army was much more black and white then, he says to an aging Peggy Carter. You followed orders, and yes, even though you may have done some terrible things in battle, the cause was just. Freedom was on the line. But after S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury sends him to handle a hostage situation with a certain set of orders while giving Black Widow a separate assignment, Captain America questions whether he can still trust the orders coming from the top. He’s in the business of protecting freedom, after all, not serving as a tool for the powers that be.

His skeptical premonitions prove accurate as he discovers that Hydra lives on and has embedded itself in S.H.I.E.L.D. This conflict marks the film’s one clever stroke, as Captain America’s doubt taps into today’s debates over mass government surveillance, personal privacy, and the expediency of military intervention. Without compromising his idealism or impeccable integrity, it moves him past his flag-waving origins and makes him relevant for the 21st century. His experience mirrors our own after all. Nations and institutions often look black and white to the naïve person looking from the outside in. With real-world experience this perception crumbles into confusion and disillusionment, and before we know it we’ve found ourselves in place where we’re not sure who to trust. Captain America, with his moral compass ever pointing truth north, provides the ideal we long for to lead us on the true path. He’s the man we wish we had at the helm of our armed forces, the man who sadly does not exist in a world in which all have turned aside to corruption.

But hey, that’s why he’s a superhero.


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