What would you do if one of your leaders operated in a way that undermined your values? How would you handle a superior officer who manipulated your mission in ways that were dangerous, morally dubious, and contradicted the cause of the organization you were both a part of? The fictional soldier Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, faces these questions when his 1940's system of values is pitted against the complexity of modern warfare in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
Issues such as PTSD, public transparency, and the morality of drone strikes are part of discussions about U.S. national security in the 21st century. Each of these topics is touched on in one of Marvel's strongest cinematic features since "Iron Man." In "The Winter Soldier," Captain America struggles to maintain his integrity and the spirit of what he believes the United States stands for while dodging assassins, rooting out traitors, and weaving through widespread conspiracies.
Considering that Captain America started out as somewhat of a propaganda character to represent American values during World War II, Marvel has deftly brought him into the modern world. Within the first hour of "The Winter Soldier," Rogers is in conflict with the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, about the way they carry out operations. When Rogers discovers that Fury has ulterior motivations during a hostage rescue, the pair spar over trust and solidarity among soldiers and the organization as a whole. While Fury's actions aren't wholly amoral, they do shed light on his willingness to conceal information to suit his agendas.
A short while later, Fury unveils a weapons platform that is strongly reminiscent of modern Air Force drones. Once activated, the system uses satellites to target threats but bypasses due process and rules of engagement in eliminating them. The idea, Fury argues, is that S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to stay ahead in the game, and take whatever precaution it can to ensure the safety of the planet. Upset with the implications, Rogers tells Fury that: "This isn't freedom. This is fear."
As Cap's belief in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s integrity begins to crumble, he soon finds himself running from the agency after refusing to offer up a piece of critical information. This kicks off an action-packed romp through the greater D.C. area as he and Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, try to uncover what has become of their agency. The superheroes uncover an insidious plot that completely undermines even Fury's tenuous ideas regarding national security. The corruption runs deep within S.H.I.E.L.D., and picks apart the thin line between security and control.
The films themes and characters should resonate with veterans and active duty service members. As a soldier himself, Captain America embodies all the best qualities of the military and the United States. For a more grounded perspective, "The Winter Soldier" provides a new partner for Rogers: Sam Wilson, also known as Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie. Wilson is a veteran of a fictional paratrooper organization and spends time working at a Veteran's Association office in D.C. where he leads sessions on coping with PTSD. Although Wilson is capable of dishing out plenty of pain, he represents the unmodified soldier not privy to deep, institutional secrets. When confronted with the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D., he doesn't hesitate to follow Rogers.
Considering the nature of the film as a comic book adaptation and family-friendly action adventure movie, it does an excellent job of letting the plot and characters create situations which touch on various issues without forcing an agenda on the audience. While there is a clearly villainous side to the whole affair, viewers are given plenty of breathing room to connect the dots between S.H.I.E.L.D.'s internal crisis and potential real-world equivalents.
Poignant commentary aside, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" excels as an action movie. The film leverages each character's abilities in a way that's engaging and fun to watch. Captain America easily smashes through doors, bounces off and dents walls, and survives plenty of hits that would otherwise incapacitate or kill an unmodified human. He isn't overly powerful, but the film does an excellent job of showcasing his raw physicality, martial prowess, and amazing shield-slinging mastery.
While watching the powerhouse that is Captain America is great fun, Black Widow and Falcon both get plenty of screen-time churning through bad guys. Black Widow's stunts and combat style are entirely acrobatic, and clearly portray Natasha Romanov as an individual who can work her way past differences in size and strength. She knows how to handle herself in a firefight, and how to avoid them entirely. Despite Falcon's role as the most normal hero of the group, he gets to perform some of the film's wildest stunts using a piece of gear plenty of service members might wish they had access to in the field. Each character's style is distinct, so the action never becomes bland or stagnant.
A key element to any superhero movie, the villains in "The Winter Soldier" do not disappoint. Each bad guy, like the heroes, brings a distinct style of combat to the screen and serve as excellent antagonists for Cap, Widow, and Flacon beat for beat. The Winter Soldier himself is one of the film's darkest elements, and he represents what Captain American may have been under the control of a more ruthless organization. Both serve as powerful enforcers of a set of values, and the Winter Soldier's role as a foil to Captain America is deeply personal, ideological, and physical.
While the film certainly follows a rhythm of increasing action interspersed by exposition and plot, audiences won't feel burned out by the end. "The Winter Soldier" ensures that every action sequence is gritty, personal, and well paced. Rather than throw a deluge of explosions and awkward, phony-looking punches at viewers, each scene is carefully tuned to keep the audience engaged and immersed. It's hard to overstate how important it is that each character's fighting style changes depending on who they're up against, when, and why. Too many action movies push monotonous, generic gun-swaggering, but "The Winter Soldier" keeps things fresh and diverse throughout.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a highly entertaining movie, and should appeal to anyone whether or not they've seen any other film from Marvel. Apart from how expertly the movie ties into the greater Marvel universe, it's a fantastic action-adventure film with depth, great dialogue, and a superb sense of pace. "The Winter Soldier" does an excellent job of elevating the genre by providing depth of character and commentary while staying true to tone of the source material.