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Wonder how this will turn out?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a hot commodity in the unabashed success that is Marvel’s “Phase 2”. This post-Avengers run of sequels to the flagship solo superhero movies has been a prodigious leap forward in terms of care and quality and The Winter Soldier is no exception. In every way it is bigger, better, more self-assured, and more fun than its predecessor. But because it stays rooted in character, it relies fully on both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers for its weight and impact. Beyond that, The Winter Soldier proves without a doubt that these movies can play with genre conventions without ever flinching away their essential nature as superhero movies. In this way, the Marvel films are following a tradition where superhero stories have always been at their best when they use their fantastic elements to comment on social issues, politics, ideology, and ethics.

All these movies lean in on each other, comment on each other, and strike out in bold new directions. It’s a unique enterprise, something we remind ourselves again and again is the first time anyth project like the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has ever been attempted. Partly we do this because we’re in awe that this happened at all, that it continues to happen. Partly we do this because these movies keep getting better and keep not letting us move on to a place where the merit of the MCU stagnates or becomes obligatory.

That’s maybe the coolest thing about this movie. Past the scale and the action and even the depth, it’s that it feels like a breath of fresh air. When you think about it, that’s kind of crazy. Not that The Winter Soldier is perfect, mind you, but it perhaps comes the closest (at least technically) of any Marvel film thus far. If anything, it’s only flaw is more of a virtue: it leaves us very much wanting more. 3

Still one of the best things about the MCU: the fucking casting.

After helping the other Avengers save New York (and the world?), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is one of SHIELD’s go-to field agents. The nature of the work, very different from what he was used to back in World War 2, ties directly into his ongoing effort to connect to the modern world. SHIELD is a compartmentalized, secretive organization and their less than savory schemes have already ruffled Captain America’s feathers once before (when he found their plans to use HYDRA weapons during The Avengers). Much of The Winter Soldier is an old school conspiracy thriller that just happens to star superheroes. As he unravels a mysterious series of plots running all the way to the top, he partners with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to fight his way to the truth.

Things kick off when he learns from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that SHIELD is planning to launch three new helicarriers that will have unprecedented hunter-killer efficiency. Their job will be to find threats and eliminate them preemptively. Not needing to refuel or rearm, they are the perfect weapon. Like the HYDRA weapons, this doesn’t sit well with Cap who sees war as an enterprise that should be undertaken reluctantly, defensively. He responds to this larger-than-life (though not as much as we’d like maybe) example of the United States taking extreme measures in the professed interest of security, a word that is quickly taking on more dimensions of meaning and implication than it can bear. The audience is meant to understand that Project Insight (what they call their helicarrier security protocol) is not dissimilar from the secret death lists, the drone warfare, and the rampaging war/intel apparatus that has overwhelmed United States foreign policy since 9/11. Cap identifies the psychology behind this shit immediately: it’s about fear.

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There’s a lot of character development for the SHIELD characters this time out.

Because Fury is a bit more like Cap than he acts, he’s cut out of the plan and then targeted for assassination by The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a mythic Cold War assassin who has surfaced every few years to deliver high-impact assassinations that have kept much of the world unstable. Fury appears to die at the Winter Soldier’s hand, leaving Cap and Black Widow to find out just what the fuck is going on.

Part of the reason they’re calling this The Avengers 1.5 as a nickname is because The Winter Soldier is very much an ensemble movie. More than with Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, this one keeps the nexus of the MCU front and center, pinning the substance of the shared universe on this character. Behind the scenes, the Iron Man franchise was the linchpin of the MCU which also meant that Tony Stark was the character most representative of it. Now we see evidence of Marvel’s confident shift of that weight onto the more than capable shoulders of Evans and his consistently perfect iteration of Captain America.  Anyway, if you like Fury and Widow and wanted to see more of them in action, this is certainly your movie. We even get a sequence where Fury gets to do more than just shoot at goons.

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There are three glorious fights with The Winter Soldier, each one closing an Act of the film.

I mentioned that The Winter Soldier is kind of like a spy thriller. Well, it’s also a lot like an 80’s he-man action movie (most of which also had convoluted conspiracy plot lines and political ramifications). There are beats in this movie that will totally take you back to the Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks of your childhood. I kept getting a True Lies vibe from its expert balance of action, humor, and plot. Likewise, there’s a helluva lot of the New School of spy movie: The Bourne trilogy. In the action, which is heavier and more grounded than most of the other movies, you feel that Bourne influence a lot. And it works well, especially seeing Cap go hog wild on henchmen while having a real match between equals with guys like The Winter Soldier. The way he moves evokes his superhuman physicality, and coupled with the logical and cinematic use of the shield as a constant tool and weapon, this is the definitive version of Captain America’s superheroic feats on film.

But it also gets to the heart of why this character works. Especially in these times. Between the Russo Brothers (Community is what they’re most known for) and the squadron of writers that worked on this, it’s very surprising that a coherent and impactful film emerged. If you’re sitting down thinking about how to do a Captain America sequel in the modern world dealing with modern problems and modern morals, it might seem a bit daunting to go at the real stuff that’s currently haunting the world. But it’s also the brilliant move, the move that stems directly from the character. Of course Captain America would declare a private war with the military industrial complex run amok, and even though this is a serious and controversial family of subjects, this is a movie that is able to go there and have fun with it while also maintaining its integrity.

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One of the main themes is that trust is a choice.

The way The Winter Soldier keeps from becoming a thinly veiled allegory or agenda movie is by undercutting its ventures into serious socio-political territory with comic book goofiness. Even as it gives the best summary of the swarm of shit surrounding the NSA, drones, and intelligence apparatus I’ve seen, it never forgets that it’s a comic book superhero movie. It turns out that half of SHIELD is actually HYDRA sleeper cells preparing to finally take over and establish their New World Order. Unbeknownst to our heroes, many of the people they’ve met are actually HYDRA and working with Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and Armin Zola (Tobey Jones) to do so. Zola is trapped in a computer, sure, and responsible for the film’s roughest scene (an unapologetic but still kinda awkward infodump), but he’s still one of the masterminds behind SHIELD’s “true” purpose.

This is also where the integrity runs up to meet the goofiness, resettling the balance again. Cap’s integrity is the film’s integrity and he decides that it isn’t good enough to trade the bad for the good. When it’s suggested that they dismantle only the corrupted parts of SHIELD, he says no. The whole thing has to go. This is a bold choice not only as a message that expresses a position on the real-world issues the movie touches on, but also for the character and universe. SHIELD’s destruction also destroys much of the fulcrum of the MCU in a way that feels permanent and exciting. The montage of “what they do after” stuff toward the end of the movie also helps in making this feel like a plot development that’s going to stick. This is an advantage that a movie universe has over the comics it is adapting: it’s allowed to do things and do them with finality, giving those things real stakes and a sense of forward momentum to drive the drama and tension of the characters and their stories.

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Great scene.

For Cap, trust is a big issue. He wants to trust his friends and colleagues and this underscores every interaction he has in the movie. He doesn’t trust Pierce or Fury unless they earn it. He immediately trusts Sam, and likewise, giving their superficially familiar (Tony and Rhodey) friendship its own dimension. Where things get interesting is with Natasha. He wants to trust her more than anyone, and their flirtations and conversations are tinged with that tension even as you notice that it works both ways. Cap has an unsettling effect on Natasha. He makes her more honest, and probably a better person on top of it. She’s someone who really wants tangible redemption, but relies on her potentially irredeemable skillset (and its uses) for that. Cap gives her a shot at something better, and when it comes it’s one of the best and boldest parts of the movie. When all is said and done, it’s Natasha who puts a face on the whistle blowing at SHIELD’s general direction. She takes on the Edward Snowden/Bradley Manning/Glenn Greenwald/Julian Assange mantle which is such a clever thing to do with this character that I’m totally excited by where they could possibly take her next. And that’s a huge part of this movie’s energy and merit. It makes you surprised and excited about the future across the board.

Though they get more attention and screen time than the titular Winter Soldier, he nevertheless brings the best drama in the film. Cap realizes that the Soldier is really Bucky Barnes, his oldest friend, as soon as he sees his face. Bucky has been experimented on and turned into a cyborg (the arm is so well used, by the way). Playing the role sort of like an Alzheimer’s patient, Stan does such good work with so little that I think the one common complaint about this movie is that he’s not in it more. The physicality and childlike confusion go together to keep this guy always compelling and sympathetic at exactly the right level and timing. Comic readers know that eventually, Rogers eventually dies and Bucky replaces him. Teasing this for the inevitable third sequel in multiple ways, I think everyone will be much more excited if it turns out to be in the cards now that they’ve seen Stan let his hair down (literally, dammit!).

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“Who the hell is Bucky?”

Actually, Stan’s decision to play Bucky as kind of like an Alzheimer’s patient nicely dovetails with a very sad scene where Cap visits the elderly Peggy Carter (Haylee Atwell). At first, their reunion is a sweet reminiscing that is made heartbreaking by the earnest emotional depth Evans brings to the character. Then it gets even worse when she slips into that reminiscence the way only someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can. Cap is in a world that remembers him, sure, but the people who care about him and who he cares about the most only remember him with pain. Part of the reason Cap is such a great character is that he doesn’t let this stuff turn him into an angsty, self-absorbed brood machine. He adapts and overcomes, literally, and forges new relationships while trying his hardest to preserve the old ones that he values so much. The writers of the film said that the world doesn’t change Captain America, he changes the world. It’s a great summary of the character and his lasting value.

Lest we forget that Captain America is a patriot and stands for a certain set of classic, traditional, and praiseworthy American values, he eventually suits up in the WW2 uniform, symbolizing a remembrance of those values. That he then triumphs over the fearful works of a fucked up world likewise symbolizes the obtaining merit of those values. It’s a fun way to use the “greatest generation” bullshit that must come with this character, and it’s a way that manages to be a little cheesy without being cringey.

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Some have taken umbrage with the level of destruction in this movie.

There’s a certain breed of fellowgeek that loves the darker iterations of the classic characters. This is part of the legacy of Nolan’s Batman films, now being carried on at least spiritually by the Snyder-helmed Man of Steel. There was a lot of discomfort at that film’s third act destructiveness. In Man of Steel, Superman and Zod destroy cities and cause probably thousands of deaths. When Pacific Rim came out and was defended by some of the same people who derided Man of Steel, myself included, it was a total gotchya moment of smarm from that faction. Then it was pointed out that Pacific Rim, like many other movies featuring large scale loss of human life and property damage, goes out of its way to be responsible about it by including lines of dialogue or brief scenes that show people are at least trying to mitigate the damage, that the heroes are first and foremost trying to do that. Enter The Avengers which had to be defended the same way. Now enter The Winter Soldier where Captain America himself racks up quite the body count of henchmen and HYDRA goons. Not only does the movie go out of its way to balance the death and destruction with moral responsibility and heroism, it centralizes this issue by being exactly about the extent to which we’ll fuck ourselves by causing damage to prevent other damage, and how this relationship should always be defensive rather than aggressive.

Like Cap says to Falcon, the bad guys are the ones who are shooting at you. A throwaway and fun line of banter like that is actually very important to the ethos of this film. Cap is a guy who believes in the rules of engagement, in civility even in times of war. That is what this movie is saying America has lost, that Cap shows its audience can be inspiring and cool at the same time.

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I’m looking forward to the redesign of Falcon’s militarized and easily-compromised gear.

One of the things we love about the Marvel movies is that they refer to comic lore and to the other movies. Taking this to a level of distraction, The Winter Soldier introduces characters and ideas without ever really paying them off. Like Sharon (Emily Van Camp) Carter who is only introduced by first name, yet has a sizable secondary role. Presumably, she’ll be in Cap 3 along with Frank Grillo’s STRIKE agent (who gets injured and becomes comic character Crossbones, allegedly). This stuff being thrown in without really going beyond suggestion makes the movie feel a bit stuffed, a bit like it’s under-sewing seeds that won’t sprout for like 4 more years. This isn’t much of a criticism, granted, because really it boils down to wanting more (both Van Camp and Grillo are fun in their respective roles, after all!).

Much as I liked The Dark World, it lacks the exciting momentum of The Winter Soldier. But both lack of the pathos and cleverness of Iron Man 3 so it seems that each of these films brings something different to the table. Each of them is firmly set on exploring these characters both as superheroes and as (essentially) human beings. Just as the Iron Man movies were always about Stark’s relationship with himself, and the Thor‘s have been about Thor’s relationship with his family, it appears that Captain America will always be about Steve Rogers and his place in the world. Not only does The Winter Soldier leave that journey in a place where we’re both satisfied and eager to continue (in spite of some “middle movie” seams), it leaves the entire MCU in the same state.

I mean, just think about the end credits teaser with The Twins. Fuck yeah.

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A step up from The Avengers suit,  I still like WW2 Cap best.

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