There’s a moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) stands in a glass elevator, waiting for it to descend. He has just left a meeting with Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a higher up at SHIELD, the Marvel cinematic universe’s intelligence and covert ops outfit. The night before, an ally of Rogers had told him to trust no one shortly after taking three rounds from a sniper’s rifle.
As Rogers stares at the floor in pensive contemplation, the shot is framed so that over his shoulder, in the medium distance, is the Watergate, that symbol of conspiracy and executive nefariousness. This shot is immediately succeeded by a brutal, ten-on-one fight in the very same elevator, a knock-down, drag-out struggle in 20 square feet of space.
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The juxtaposition is no accident. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo want you to know this isn’t your average popcorn comic book flick, the battles and bluster and bad guys notwithstanding. Rather, they’ve made what amounts to the biggest-budgeted paranoid thriller of all time.
The Winter Soldier opens with Captain America, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and a SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) strike team retaking a tanker from a team of mercs. Rogers is a one-man SEAL Team Six, getting the drop on a dozen pirates with little more than his caroming shield and his Super Soldier Serum-enhanced strength. He’s constantly in motion, playing all the angles so as to take out bad guys with brain-rattling rebounds.
All is not as it seems, however. The Black Widow has been tasked by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to gather secret intel from the ship, which serves as a launching pad for a satellite that will control a trio of SHIELD helicarriers. These super-weapons are capable of killing anyone in the world at any moment from a great distance.
Fury, concerned that the intelligence on the project is so classified even he can’t access it, calls for a delay in the satellite’s launch. Then things go haywire: Someone has unleashed the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), an assassin with a cybernetic arm, on our heroes. Unsure of whom to trust, Captain America and his allies are forced to go on the run while they determine who has subverted control of SHIELD.
This is the closest Marvel studios has come to making a statement film: The characters (and their surrogates in the audience) are asked to grapple with the ability of drone-like weapons to deliver extrajudicial death, the tradeoffs between security and liberty, and whether attaining a world of order and safety is worth taking out a couple (million) troublemakers. Try to guess which side of the debate the filmmakers support.
In this, Marvel is using Captain America as Marvel has long used Captain America. As Jonathan V. Last noted in the Weekly Standard a few years back, in the 1970s, Cap was "a Great Society superhero" committed to smashing racism rather than commies. In the 1980s, when Reagan inhabited the White House, Steve Rogers resigned as Captain America rather than work for the government. More recently, Cap opposed a Patriot Act-style law that would have required superheroes to reveal their identity and register with the government.
As in the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s this film calls to mind, authority figures are not to be trusted in The Winter Soldier. Lies are the coin of the realm. The revelation of the culprit behind SHIELD’s compromise comes as a legitimate shock—one almost too big to be believable, in fact. It will be intriguing to see how the events of this film play out in the rest of the Marvel universe.
Speaking of the rest of the Marvel universe, this may be the best entry in the comic-book-cum-film-company’s catalogue since Iron Man. The action sequences are among the best Marvel has ever produced—the brothers Russo really seem to understand the physics of Cap and his shield and set him to work in a way that never looks hokey. Meanwhile, the interplay between Cap, Black Widow, and new sidekick Sam Wilson, a/k/a, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) provides some needed levity.
One is left wishing they could have done a bit more with the Winter Soldier himself, given his prominent billing. But hey—that’s what Captain America 3 (coming to a multiplex near you on May 6, 2016!) is for.