Captain America has always been described as a man out of time, but nowhere is that made clearer than in a post-9/11 U.S. The world after that attack is one that is constantly under surveillance. Agencies like S.H.I.E.L.D. rely on pre-emptive measures to counter whatever enemies may throw at them. Since the events of The Avengers, acquiring funding for this 24/7 surveillance is not an issue.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is making peace with that world a little at a time. He’s catching up with the modern day pop culture (yes, he’s seen War Games, no he hasn’t listened to Nirvana), but adjusting to the new landscape is much more difficult. His mission has always been to do what’s right, but it is becoming harder to tell what is right anymore.
The best stories featuring Captain America let him make a comment on the times we live in and The Winter Soldier is no exception to this rule. Director Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) latest operation has Cap feeling particularly vexed. “The punishment is supposed to come after the crime,” Steve interjects, but that takes too long for men like Fury and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). For Fury and Pierce that idealistic America Rogers longs for is dead, to keep the world safe you have to be more jaded.
Instead of creating a foreign invader to dominate the storyline, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give Captain America and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) enemies within S.H.I.E.L.D. to fend off. Nick Fury’s organization has been taken in by forces; the limits to which they have been infiltrated may even reach the highest levels of government. When a major blow against the agency is landed Steve must choose his friends wisely. With no one left to trust, Steve and Natasha must flee Washington to figure out what in the hell is going on.
Black Widow and Cap present some odd mirrors of each other as the story draws solely around the two in fugitive mode. While Steve Rogers lived in a very black and white idyllic America, Black Widow has no such blinders about her work. She was raised in a time where you had to use your wits to stay alive; she has no time in her day to stand slack-jawed in dismay about the dark place the world is in.
At first it’s a little strange to see such adult topics as treatment of veterans, geopolitics, and the invasion of personal liberty covered in a blockbuster aimed at such a wide audience. In a way the film calls back to the political thrillers of the 1970s that basked in paranoia. Given how many of those particular films Robert Redford was involved in, one could speculate his casting was a deliberate decision to evoke that era.
Too often the human is lost in these films based on superhuman, but the genuine belief in doing the right thing at any cost is what makes Cap such a unique character. He is wholly singular in his outlook on the world, even the last two takes on Superman have a more pessimistic disposition to the world they live in.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes solid use not only of new cast additions like Anthony Mackie, but other members of the Marvel roster like Black Widow and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Scarlett Johansson was unfairly sexualized in Iron Man 2, but here she is given almost as much screen-time as the title character himself. It’s a nice evolution following The Avengers and it bodes well for when she eventually lands a film of her own.
If there is any debate about how all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe stack up, it’s over now. #1 is The Avengers and with a bullet at #2 is Captain America: The Winter Solider.