U.S. Agents, by Tyler Smith
After Joss Whedon’s The Avengers set a new standard for superhero movies, it started to feel like we were all just treading water. As a new Iron Man was released, followed by a second Thor film, it seemed like both studio and audiences were simply going through the motions, biding our time until the second Avengers movie in 2015. After all, once we’ve seen the whole puzzle assembled, interest in the individual pieces starts to wain.
And, indeed, the two movies that have been released since The Avengers seemed to be placeholders. Each film had its charms, but neither seemed to really be making the effort to stick with us as they had before. It was beginning to feel- to me, anyway- that the Marvel Universe was going to be made up of superhero movies that were merely fine, occasionally punctuated by a tentpole Avengers film. Thankfully, Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier gives us hope that there is still a lot of life left in at least one of the individual franchises. This film is fun, suspenseful, and heartfelt. It is a highlight of the Marvel Universe and I highly recommend it.
Perhaps the reason that it works so well- and feels so fresh- is because, though it is undeniably a superhero movie- it borrows from other types of action/suspense thrillers. In many ways, this feels just as much like a Bourne film as a Captain America movie. And perhaps this is as it should be. We are, after all, dealing with a character that has become the gleaming, noble image of the American government; it stands to reason that the story should include political intrigue and espionage.
Therein lay one of the delights of this film. One of the things that makes Captain America so interesting is that he is a man out of his time. And that doesn’t just mean he doesn’t understand all the cultural references the other characters make; it means that he has a completely different sensibility than those around him. The heroism of defending the innocent against the Nazis has been replaced with a much more proactive approach to national security; one that focuses more on offense than defense. Combined with the latest in surveillance technology and the United States government starts to look awfully shady, and Cap’s progressive understanding of that fact is what makes this would-be boyscout into a truly dynamic character.
As Captain America searches for the truth beneath the shiny exterior of S.H.I.E.L.D., the film becomes just as much of an investigative thriller as action film. For every rooftop chase or aerial assault, there is a scene that takes place in a dimly lit office, with characters speaking in hushed tones about top secret missions and possible betrayals.
The investigation leads our heroes into the past, where it appears nobody ever really stays dead. Not only is there a mysterious hit man known as “The Winter Soldier” who may have ties to Captain America’s service in World War II, but there is a particularly engaging scene involving the consciousness of a character long since dead being preserved on hundreds of computers. As Cap struggles to acclimate to his current surroundings, his past refuses to stay buried, forcing him to deal with his own grief and regret. It appears he can never escape where he came from and what he has done.
This sense of melancholy in the midst of intrigue actually reminded me a bit of the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a meditation on the emotional toll that military service can take on a person, especially those with good intentions. And Captain America is nothing if not well-intentioned. But that is not going to save him from the harsh realities of modern warfare, and he is required time and time again to take a stand for what he knows is right.
Before the first Captain America back in 2011, many people- including me- worried that the character might come off as too corny. Could a character as trusting and noble work in such a jaded cinematic landscape? After all, we were living in the age of the Christopher Nolan superhero film, where “gritty” and “cynical” were the watchwords. And, besides that, in the real world, we were still in the midst of two very costly, and possibly even unnecessary, wars that were the direct result of an overriding national pride and jingoism. Surely, a hero decked out in red, white, and blue simply couldn’t work in such a climate.
Surprisingly enough, it has since become clear that Captain America not only fits in the modern world, but is actually kind of necessary. Superhero movies, much like horror and science fiction, have the ability to tackle difficult issues in a way that doesn’t immediately trigger any alarm bells. And by allowing us to look through the eyes of a character that so embodies the core values and philosophies of the United States, we are better able to see just how far we’ve strayed from them. That is the potential of a character like this, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier fully realizes that potential, while being remarkably entertaining in the process.