There’s a reason why most action films situate their heroes as rogues, combating authority even as they’re saving the day. Larger than life figures gel with audiences when there’s something to ground them and while most audiences probably don’t know what it’s like to, say, save a business tower full of hostages on your day off, pretty much everyone has some authority figure they deal with on a daily basis, who bosses them around and tells them what’s best. Modern action cinema has shifted this distrust of authority out of relatively domestic work environments and into the realm of foreign policy, banking on the natural distrust contemporary audiences have of their own governments and intelligence organizations. But few action films have taken this on as directly and masterfully as the latest Marvel Studios film, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wisely explore that complexity right from the start of the film, showing how Rogers is adjusting to not just the culture shock of being a man-out-of-time but also the shock of being a soldier in the less black-and-white war on terror. The film’s entire conflict is established from the beginning, with Rogers questioning whether Captain America is a figure that fits within shadowy world of S.H.I.E.L.D. and whether S.H.I.E.L.D.’s aims are truly aligned with the freedom Rogers feels Captain America represents. Fury’s unveiling of a domestic surveillance and targeting system that makes the NSA’s digital surveillance look positively tame rightfully makes Rogers squeamish, and though the NSA metaphor is anything but subtle, the internal conflict Rogers goes through gives the film a moral and human center that similarly minded blockbusters almost always lack.
One of Markus and McFeely’s best touches, however, is the pairing of Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); the stubborn morality that Widow mocks in Rogers proves to be more infectious than she suspects and the war the duo wages against their enemies mirrors the war waged against Widow’s soul. Johansson is often unfairly derided as an actress because of the media focus on her looks, but Johansson’s recent casting choices have helped illuminate the complexity of her performances; whether it’s the alien perspective on display in Her and Under the Skin or the deceivingly shallow, purposefully blank facade of Black Widow, Johansson has lately taken on roles that allow her to explore the identities others place on her and how being an object of intense desire can create dissociation. Unlike Rogers, Widow has had to change her morality as her superiors require and as a scene in the middle of the film handily illustrates, she has defined herself by her desire to survive rather than to live.
That’s a problem Rogers has as well, albeit in a different form. The first Captain America film succeeded because of its wide eyed innocence and pulp adventuring, reconfiguring the origin story as a period action flick, allowing it to solve the problem of the perception of Captain America as a dated, jingoistic character. While Rogers has miraculously survived both the war he was basically built to fight and the ravages of time that took out everyone that was important to him, he too has failed to truly live. Much of the film is devoted to exploring this, with characters constantly pushing Cap to live, whether it’s the playful antagonism of Widow trying to set Cap up with girls at work, or the more awestruck camaraderie of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who conveniently fills the Bucky sidekick role here as The Falcon. Rogers’ dawning awareness that he’s fighting for the right of American citizens to live their lives their way while not doing much living himself raises the emotional stakes as the Russos’ build up the stakes of the action. The film notably lacks any real supervillain, though Cap and company square off against a litany of covert villains from Batroc the Leaper to a soon-to-be-Crossbones and of course the superhuman Winter Soldier. Instead the enemy is the anti-privacy world Fury, and by extent Captain America, have built up.
Nothing about The Winter Soldier is subtle, but the passionate work put into developing the characters in the film makes that more than okay. Every character in the film is essentially working to preserve a way of life that matters to them, whether it’s Fury’s need to keep people safe, Cap’s pursuit of individual freedom or even the order the villains believe they’re creating. Even the battle waged over the titular Winter Soldier is based on conflicting notions of utilitarianism, as Cap battles to save the identity and history the Soldier formerly had while his masters fight to keep him as a tool for the order they desire and believe the population desires to, no matter the cost. Many of the reviews of the film have centered on the ’70s tone of the film, particularly in its abundance of chase sequences and constant questioning of who is on who’s side, but where those ’70s thrillers were built on Cold War paranoia and the idea that enemies could be around us at all times, the ultimate question at the heart of The Winter Soldier is whether we’re willing to let safety get in the way of truly living. In our world, that question grew out of 9/11 and reached a fever pitch with the awareness of the NSA’s actions, while the Marvel films have used the events of The Avengers as a fictional 9/11 with similar ramifications. The Winter Soldier explores that far better than Iron Man 3 did, and in the process it has set a new standard for what these films are capable of.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Stickers and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld.