Sunday, April 20, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does feature a character called “The Winter Soldier”, a assassin of mysterious origins whose strength and speed are a match for the Captain’s own. The Winter Soldier is really more of a presence than a character through most of the film, so why does he merit a place in the title? The real Winter Solider of course is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) himself, and the first Captain America film set entirely in the present does a good job of putting our hero out in the cold. In the opening sequence Rogers and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are tasked with rescuing a hijacked ship, and Rogers is angry to find Natasha more concerned with saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence than rescuing hostages. Rogers didn’t sign on to serve someone else’s agenda, and in the early scenes of The Winter Soldier he’s thinking about leaving the superhero life.

The first Captain America film considered the difference between being a symbol and hero, and here the issue is protection vs. control. To put it another way, what is S.H.I.E.L.D. for? Rogers’s boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his boss Alexander Pierce (a well-used Robert Redford) are pushing a project that involves giant airships monitoring the world, but the amount of power S.H.I.E.L.D. is amassing feels very dangerous to a hero who battled fascism firsthand. Steve and Natasha discover fault lines within S.H.I.E.L.D., some of which call back to the Captain’s work in the last film, and they’re faced with the question of whether the organization should even be saved. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (whose action sequences are well-staged, intimate, and frightening) couldn’t have known when they signed on that a film about surveillance and government power would feel so relevant in 2014, but the immediacy of the concerns is of great help to Marvel’s attempt to build a new superhero mythology. Steve Rogers’s doubts about his place at S.H.I.E.L.D. are much more interesting than Tony Stark’s sobriety or Thor’s maturity, and whatever happens with Evans’s “retirement” going forward Captain America is positioned as the conscience of The Avengers. To someone without a knowledge of the comic canon The Winter Soldier feels like a transitional work in the series, a film designed to get the characters out from under the machinery of “super” heroism. The next time Captain America and the Avengers get together it looks like they will have only themselves to rely on, and that’s a ticket I’ll be buying.

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