Captain AmericaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Joss Whedon

Writers: Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus

Based on the Comic Books by: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Chris Evans: Steve Rogers/Captain America

Scarlett Johansson: Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow

Samuel L. Jackson: Nick Fury

Robert Redford: Alexander Pierce

Sebastian Stan: Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier

Anthony Mackie: Sam Wilson/Falcon

Cobie Smulders: SHIELD Agent Maria Hill

Hayley Atwell: Agent Peggy Carter

Toby Jones: Dr. Arnim Zola

Captain America was always one of my favorite Marvel characters. A hero for a simpler time, he embodied honor, duty, country and self-sacrifice. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he does no less, but oddly, is slightly less prepared than he was in the 1940s. More about that later.

In Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse McClellan changes Fireman Guy Montag’s world with a simple question: “Are you happy?” The same quandry is introduced in this movie by former Pararescue Operator Sam Wilson. Cap’s answer to what makes him happy: “I don’t know.”

For those not quite caught up on the Marvel Universe, Steve Rogers was the proverbial 98-pound weakling with the heart of a lion, desperate to fight in WWII. Picked for his character rather than his size, he was the first subject in a super soldier experiment. The operation was a success, but the doctor died (see Captain America: The First Avenger,, leaving Rogers the sole super soldier. Rogers must sacrifice himself to save the world, and ends up frozen, but is rediscovered and revived in the present, a man out of time who skipped 70 years into the future.

In The Avengers (2012), Rogers initially seems out of place, a simple, decent man whose moral code isn’t sufficiently nuanced for a world of smart diplomacy, resets, affordable care and hope and change. But when the world is in danger, what seems simplistic is revealed as moral and tactical clarity. Cap emerges as the confident and capable leader of the Avengers, a leader who leads–and inspires–by example, and who is always willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

This movie takes its cues from many successful movies and movie franchises. Tone, camera angles, car chases and fight scenes are borrowed from the Bourne franchise and several other films, including Three Days of the Condor (1975). The movie seems very familiar yet never plagiarizes.

The movie is very fast-paced. Plot twists are constant and seamlessly integrated into the Marvel universe. Many references are made to that past universe, and characters are set in place for multiple future plot threads.

Some reviews have suggested that this is an overtly political movie that references many contemporary issues such as drone strikes, killing terrorists to prevent terror attacks, political corruption, and whatever politic message they prefer to see. They miss the point. Such topics are indeed mentioned to build conflict between allies, but they are not at all the point of the film, which is, in many respects, a heroes-save-the-world-at-the-last-instant movie. It is also a spy thriller with a bit of political intrigue thrown in around the edges. Politicians in this movie are not noble or admirable.

Cap is enlisted to make a hostage rescue of a SHIELD ship seized by mercenaries, which he does in fine style by leaping from a jet into the Indian Ocean without a parachute. Accompanying him is the Black Widow, with Scarlet Johansson reprising her role from The Avengers in lively style. Cap and friends save everyone and vanquish the mercenaries, and back at SHIELD headquarters, Cap and Nick Fury–Samuel L. Jackson–have a conflict when Fury shows him three new helicarriers outfitted with massive firepower designed to obliterate targets on the ground. It is this plot thread that suggests to some contemporary drone use, but this is misleading. The method is not the message.

In a car chase that sets the standard for future movie car chases, Fury is attacked by a score of bad guys, but manages to escape, showing up in Cap’s apartment, where he is shot by the Winter Soldier. Cap gives chase, and ultimately loses him, but not before discovering that he is as strong and fast as Captain America, and has a mechanical left arm to boot.

After Fury’s apparent death, Cap meets Alexander Pierce–Robert Redford–Fury’s boss, and having been warned by Fury of a conspiracy within SHIELD and told not to trust anyone, finds Pierce–as does the audience–to be untrustworthy indeed. This quickly leads to a beautifully choreographed fight scene–in an elevator–between Cap and about 20 SHIELD agent/traitors. The movie is full of bits of wry humor, as in this scene when Cap, recognizing what’s about to happen, gives the thugs a chance to leave the elevator before he beats them all senseless.

In short order, Cap teams up with Johansson/Romanov and ends up at the door of Mackie/Wilson because they have no one else to trust. Cap met Wilson in the opening scene of the movie by running circles around him during a morning jog at the Tidal Basin in DC. They quickly learn that Wilson is more than he seems, and is the beneficiary of a secret government program using rocket powered wings, hence, the Falcon, Marvel’s black super hero.

Leaping from action sequence to action sequence, Cap, Falcon and Widow are ambushed by the Winter Soldier and several mercenaries and general mayhem ensues, including one merc firing a small minigun, but without an apparent electric power source and with an absolutely unlimited supply of ammunition. Gatlings burn ammo at an incredible rate, but the action is so continual and so well done, virtually no one notices such discrepancies, however this brings up a nagging problem.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap is usually armed with a 1911 .45, and is often shown using it. Even in The Avengers, Cap used several carbines taken from felled bad guys. In this movie, he never touches a firearm, despite continually finding himself in situations where heavily armed bad guys are doing their best to shoot him and others. Of course, he uses his iconic shield, but as the Gatling-wielding mercenary poured fire into his shield as Cap advanced on him, one might reasonably wonder why he didn’t just shoot Cap in the legs? Cap never makes any corny “I’ll never use a gun” speeches or so much as lifts an anti-gun eyebrow, but when everyone around him is armed–including the good guys–and when Cap is constantly in situations where simply shooting bad guys from a distance, rather than throwing them to their deaths from a helicarrier or beating them to death, wouldn’t carrying firearms be a faster and more efficient means of accomplishing the mission, particularly when seconds count? Disarming himself seems odd indeed for a pragmatic, old-fashioned warrior who knows he is running headlong in nests of armed attackers.

To make a complex plot line shorter, the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes, Cap’s best friend and a member of his WWII commando unit, who did not die despite apparently falling to his death (escaping certain death seems rather common in the Marvel universe). The evil Dr. Zola, servant of the Red Skull captured by Cap in WWII–he’s not dead either–sort of–engineered and brainwashed Barnes. Zola is part of a massive Hydra infiltration into SHIELD, and that’s the source of the conspiracy.

Ultimately, Cap wins, but it’s a near thing and there are many surprises, including homage to Bond movies with helicarriers rising from a massive underwater lair and coming within seconds of murdering millions. Redford/Pierce is dealt with–his character won’t be returning–but most of the others will in a continuing, seamless Marvel universe.

Chris Evans is comfortable playing Cap, and some reviewers are disturbed because he does not emote like a proper contemporary metrosexual. Of course he doesn’t: he’s Captain America. Manly heroes aren’t neurotic, conflicted wrecks. They don’t agonize over every move; they complete the mission, defeat the bad guys, and prepare to do it all again tomorrow without crying over the violence and nastiness of it all. This is actually a wise technique. When Rogers is moved to rage in the future–and that will surely happen at some point–the dramatic contrast will be striking indeed, far more so than with a character given to wide emotional swings.

Sebastian Stan/Winter Soldier plays his part with scowling menace. He is, after all, a brainwashed, robotic killer, who in the climactic scene, shoots Cap from a distance no less than three times, nearly allowing the bad guys to win and kill millions, again making Cap’s unarmed status even more strikingly odd. The scene is certainly dramatic–will Cap overcome his wounds and save the world?–but hardly consistent with reality.

Johansson/Romanov is a beautiful and spunky woman, a model for strong female characters. I suspect the involvement of Joss Wheadon has something to do with this. Johansson is very much a scene-stealer, and one can only hope Marvel has a Black Widow film scheduled for production. She can certainly hold the screen.

The chemistry between Cap and Mackie/Wilson is strong. They compliment each other well, and Mackie is a solid addition to the Marvel universe of characters, though Tony Stark is going to have to make him a new set of wings.

Hayley Atwell, playing Agent Peggy Carter, Roger’s love interest from the first Captain America movie, and one of the co-founders of SHIELD shares a touching scene with Rogers. She is, of course, elderly, and the scene where he visits her bedside serves as a connection with his past, and a release to explore romance for the future. And speaking of Romanov, there is considerable playful sexual tension between her and Cap, including no fewer than two kisses. It will be interesting to see how that relationship develops and how intimate relations are handled in the Marvel universe.

I’m sure fans of The Avengers remember Cobie Smulders as SHIELD agent Maria Hill, the lean, beautiful and deadly, dark haired agent in the sleek navy blue SHIELD cat suit on the helicarrier. She returns for this movie in a small, but significant role, and is well-placed to appear in future movies.

Marvel chief Stan Lee appears in perhaps his funniest cameo to date involving the Smithsonian and a Captain America exhibit.

This movie is as full of excellent and perfectly executed stunts as it is computer generated scenes. All of the Marvel films have set new standards for excellence in CGI and this film continues that worthy tradition. It is certainly the kind of movie that bears seeing twice–or more–in order to take in all of the detail. It’s impossible to catch it all the first time.

The script is first rate. The dialogue is fluid and well-paced. It’s all too easy for dialogue to sound too glib or forced when characters are facing existential situations and the fate of the world hinges on their next move. That’s never an issue here, and one-liners are natural, funny, and appropriate. There are no cheap laughs or strained attempts to be edgy or politically correct.

Is Cap happy?  If not happy, he’s at least pleased with a job well done, and seems ready to embark on a new life.  In many ways, he’s the contemporary Lone Ranger, resigned to always being on the move, never to live a settled, complacent life.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is certainly worth seeing in the cinema, and absolutely worth owning on DVD. Let nuanced, sophisticated film critics see sociopolitical messages and commentary in the movie. Most people will see a solid, exciting, well-made and straightforward action thriller with uplifting, moral and likeable characters who are willing to render the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of liberty. What better story is there?

Why have these Marvel superhero movies been so popular? Because deep down, we see the best of ourselves, the best of America in the heroes. We may not always rise to that level of self-sacrifice and heroism, but we believe, given the chance, the necessity, we, and America, can and will. These days, we God and gun clingers, and perhaps others, need that reassurance. If we can’t rise to the occasion, the world will inevitably fall into darkness and there will be no Avengers to save us. Living in an age where it is not quite time to rise up and defeat the forces of evil within and without, we need the reminder that we still can. Captain America continues to lead–and inspire–by example.