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“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has a lot to say about the current state of the american intelligence community.
It’s an action film to be sure, one that makes captain steve rogers more than just the pinnacle of human potential, straying farther into the superhuman category than the previous film as he takes out entire platoons of elite soldiers with his physics-defying shield.
But beneath this popcorn-munching exterior, the film is asking questions about the rights of the individual over the protection of the multitudes, about the necessity of mass information gathering, about the execution of perceived threats before a trial. Anyone that’s seen last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Dirty Wars” is familiar with the programs criticized by the film.
The Marvel filmmakers set out to make a political thriller within their comic book movie, and by their own admission were influenced heavily by 1975’s “Three Days of the Condor” (hence the mystifying but sensational inclusion of Robert Redford as Secretary Franklin Pierce). What they’ve managed to do is create the best Marvel comic book film since “Iron Man.” It’s hard to get tired of films like these when they maintain their quality—as long as the films continue to be this good, there is no end in sight.
The film starts with Captain Rogers striving to find his place in a world that’s left him behind. The film spends less time on this than it should. Rogers seems to take all of it in stride. The only real difference between him and everyone else is that Steve is slightly more cordial. I suppose this makes sense, as no one wants to see Captain America acting like someone’s racist grandfather, but I’d imagine that he’d have a bit more trouble blending into the modern world.
S.H.I.E.L.D., the world’s foremost spy agency, has been using Cap as their own personal janitor, cleaning up their messes after some questionable international behaviors. Understandably, Rogers is concerned by the actions of his superiors, but serves dutifully because at his heart Captain America is a soldier who follows orders.
But soon the organization he works for begins to spin out of control. Rogers discovers a list of targets, of people in the world who might threaten the control S.H.I.E.L.D. believes is needed for peace (the list has Bruce Banner on it, showing that the world’s greatest spy organization didn’t learn anything from the trials and tribulations of General Ross and his big, green problem). Rogers now needs to face his former employers and their new assassin, The Winter Soldier, a character as formidable and dangerous as Captain America himself.
Most of this is standard comic book fare, more than enough to hold my interest and satisfy my inner teenage love of all things superhero. The political side of the story is very much a surface reading of the real issues facing the U.S. and its intelligence community. It raises questions about freedom, but Captain America is a relatively static character who has a black-and-white view of the world and of good and evil.
The themes on display were explored better in “Watchmen,” but then “Watchmen” wasn’t hamstrung by featuring one of the world’s foremost comic book characters. Captain America has to behave a certain way—he has to be a boy scout or the audience will not be satisfied. Marvel films reach a much broader audience than the comics, so what can be explored in the glossy color pages of a series might not necessarily translate well to a major movie audience.
Still, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” does a better job than most comic book movies. The film is certainly more convincing to watch than having Thor battle a race of ancient elves from outer space. The stakes seem higher. In fact, the more realistic violence in the film might give parents pause in taking their younger children. While my son loves the Avengers and the Marvel movies, this one might be a little too much for him. No one is shooting blue energy bolts at evil alien enemies, the bad guys in the film are people and the bullets they use come from real weapons.
Nevertheless, “Captain America” makes a real statement and raises the bar yet again for Marvel Studios. I’m excited to see where they take it.