I got a chance to check out an advance screening of Marvel’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, and I am not ashamed to say it actually made me proud to be an American – and not in the ways you might expect.
The film opens with Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans, who remains impeccably cast as the moral conscience of the Marvel cinematic universe), working for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division – or S.H.I.E.L.D. for short.
For the five of you who haven’t seen any of the Marvel universe movies until this one, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a government agency that is more or less the equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, and the CIA combined into one horrifyingly powerful super-agency run by an unaccountable version of the UN Security Council.
In Captain America’s world – much like in our real one – privacy, freedom, and even congressional oversight are a thing of the past. All that matters now is “security” at any cost.
Steve Rogers is clearly uncomfortable with the future he’s been dumped into, but as a 95-year old super-soldier, he doesn’t really know what else to do with himself except work. Unfortunately, at this point he’s more black-ops agent than superhero.
Even his new darker costume reflects the change.
In “Winter Soldier”, Cap’s first mission is to go rescue some hostages on a ship that had been taken over by pirates, and man… He’s good at his job. He jumps out of a plane without a parachute into the ocean, climbs onto the ship and dispatches a dozen baddies in the time it takes the rest of his team to even show up. The mission goes off without a hitch until the lead pirate turns out to be a strangely good match for the Captain at the same moment that teammate, Natasha Romanov (Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johnasson), mysteriously disappears, raising trust issues.
These only grow throughout the first act, culminating when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reveals S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Orwellian plans to launch three new Helicarriers, each decked out with a terrifying array of weaponry now connected to a targeting system that uses data gathered from indiscriminate spying on the private lives of everyone in the world to “predict” who will become a terrorist or criminal, and stop them with deadly force before they commit a crime.
The rest of the film pits Captain Rogers’ ideals of freedom and transparency – the ideals America is supposed to stand for – against the pervasive national security hysteria infecting modern America. It’s pretty heavy stuff, and it’s all brought to a boil when the mysterious titular villain appears and starts shaking things up. The Winter Soldier is a mysterious super-soldier assassin with a bionic arm, a half-century legend as a killer, and is apparently on a mission to destroy Captain America. But the reality of who’s behind the mask – while not a surprise to comic book fans – may be more painful for Cap than the physical wounds he endures during their battles.
On a technical level, co-directors Anthony & Joe Russo (best known for their work on the TV comedies Community and Happy Endings), do a great job keeping the complex story on track and the pacing is really tight throughout the 136 minute movie. That said, I should also admit that as a comic book geek myself, it may have been easier for me to follow the complexities of story than it will be for everyone, though I doubt it’s going to matter much on opening weekend.
My biggest complaint about the production itself is the cinematography by Trent Opaloch (Elysium, District 9). If you’ve enjoyed his previous work, you may enjoy this, but the constant use of shaky, erratic, hand-held shots makes a lot of the movie visually hard to follow. That kind of kinetic camera work can be a good effect when you want the audience to feel like they’re in the thick of a fist-fight or a car chase, but do we really need it when our main characters are just driving to New Jersey?
Also, while there are definitely some funny moments, there’s a lot less humor in “Winter Soldier” than there has been in any of the other Marvel Studios movies. But considering that the events which actually unfold in this film have the kind of profound implications that will reverberate across every other Marvel property, a more serious tone may be just the right move.
By tackling some serious moral issues about the role of the state in promoting national security at the expense of freedom and privacy; by shaking up the Marvel continuity in a really big way; and by giving Captain America’s character real challenges – physically, personally, and morally – “Captain America: Winter Soldier” secures a position as one of the best of the Marvel films to date.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens April 4th. Check out the trailer here.