Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

shieldWhen I was a kid, the two comic book sagas I followed were both from Marvel: Captain America and The Amazing Spider Man.  As it happens, the second installment of Cap’s movie franchise just hit theaters this month; Spidey 2 debuts next month.

Ah, to feel young again.

The Iron Man franchise stumbled in its second outing, but Cap 2 soars.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with quiet humor that nevertheless plays out one of the key themes of the movie.   Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is something of relic; his glory days as Captain America were during World War II, when it was simpler to believe that there were good guys and bad guys.  At the end of CA 1, Rogers awoke in a century that was not his own; in The Avengers, his red-white-and-blue patriotism seemed curiously (and somewhat blandly) out of step with the times.

In the opening scene of CA 2, Cap is still learning about the new world he’s landed in.  He’s discovered the Internet, but still keeps a notebook in his pocket (everyone else has smartphones) to jot down things he needs to learn about later–like Thai food and Star Trek.

But the world has changed in deeper ways, as he later learns in a debate with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D.  Terrorism and counterterrorism have transformed the face of war.  The moral question at the heart of the plot, familiar to fans of everything from James Bond to the TV series Person of Interest, is this: if you have the technology to identify enemies, possibly even before they’ve done anything, are you justified in using that technology in a preemptive strike?

And who gets to decide?

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without giving things away.  Marvel Studios has made a daring move, considering the implications this story will have for other entries in the Marvel universe (including, most notably, the television series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

Both the story and the characters are more complex and well-rounded than one would have expected from CA 1 alone.  Though Evans more than holds his own, the screenwriters wisely have him share significant screen time with veterans like Jackson and even an aging Robert Redford, who is still as cool a customer as a director could want.  Scarlett Johansson, carrying over from The Avengers as the highly lethal Black Widow, provides some romantic chemistry.  Teasing Rogers about a brief kiss they shared while on the run, she asks if he might be rusty after so many years in suspended animation.  Quips Rogers: “I’m 95, not dead.”

There are new cast additions, somewhat reimagined from the comic book universe.  Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson, who swoops impressively on high-tech wings into the role of Cap’s sidekick, The Falcon, while Cap’s comic book nemesis, a master of French kickboxing named Batroc the Leaper, appears briefly as a modern-day mercenary (Georges St-Pierre).

And there are other familiar faces as well.  Poignantly, Hayley Atwell briefly reprises her role as Peggy Carter, Rogers’ WWII love interest, now much older and suffering dementia (prediction: in CA 3, look for Cap to develop a new love interest with one of her younger relations, as subtly telegraphed in the movie).  Marvel publisher Stan Lee, of course, makes his obligatory Hitchcock-like cameo.

Other carryovers from the previous film can’t be described without the risk of spoilers.  Overall, suffice it to say that conspiracies abound; Nick Fury’s going to have a really bad day; the evil organization HYDRA is far from dead; no one’s sure who the good guys are; and in his battle with the Winter Soldier, Cap will have his personal loyalties tested in ways he never imagined.  As Stan Lee was wont to say, ‘Nuff said.

The film is rated PG-13.  The CG violence is intense and often unrelenting.  The hand-to-hand combat, particularly with The Winter Soldier, part-man, part-cyborg, is dizzyingly choppy and occasionally brutal; it makes you wonder why Cap doesn’t just call up the Avengers and make short work of all of this.  Parents: crude language is largely limited to a handful of stressed-out expletives from the Falcon, and the romantic spark between Cap and the Widow is platonic (she actually spends the entire movie trying to fix him up with someone–see prediction above).

But the real moral question is the one mentioned earlier.  How much violence can be justified in the pursuit of one’s vision of world order?  HYDRA doesn’t trust humanity to know what to do with its freedom, and is willing to sacrifice lives for what they consider the greater good of seemingly benevolent control.  The moral vision of S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap discovers, may be little better.

That would be a conversation worth having.  (Though maybe not with younger kids.  With them, you may just have to decide where to draw the line with the Captain America toys they’ll try to sell you before the movie begins.)