The First Avenger was a great period piece about America’s first superhero in the Second World War. The problem is you can really only tell that story once. The big question hovering over the franchise after Cap’s unexpectedly terrific introduction was: where does the character go from here?
The answer, to the surprise of many, was a tight political espionage thriller. With some shield-throwing tossed in for fun.
This isn’t freedom…this is fear
The most important aspect of the film is the character arc of Steve Rogers. Typically seen as the biggest flag wavers in all of comic books, Captain America is profoundly misunderstood. Something the Russo Brothers tackled in The Winter Soldier. Captain America doesn’t represent the American government but the traditionally accepted values of its people. Freedom being the most important. And freedom gained through fear is not his idea of a perfect society; a concept that puts his philosophy directly in contrast to that of Hydra, who hope to co-opt the fear their plan will create into a new world order. Their concept is freedom through fear and pain.
It looks like you’re giving the orders now, Cap
Once Hydra is revealed to be a parasite inside SHIELD it’s easy to make Captain America the hero standing up to the evil bullies the way he always has. What’s interesting about his character, and what makes him possibly the most interesting Marvel film character, is his willingness to stand up toward “good guys” he thinks are being bullies too. You see this in the conversation with Fury quoted in the first section. You see it again when he advocates tearing the entire SHIELD infrastructure down; a scene in which he’s so convincing all of those present, including Maria Hill and Nick Fury, agree with him. It’s the transportation of the skinny kid he was in 1941 to the present and the continuation of Dr Erskine’s last request that he always remain a good man. He’s virtually incorruptible; but he does have weaknesses…
I’m with you til the end of the line…
In case you’ve been in cryo-sleep yourself for the last couple of years there is a spoiler here. The Winter Soldier is Steve Roger’s best friend, Bucky Barnes. In my comments on the first film I discussed how I thought Bucky’s character arc would go. That he would become envious of the new Steve and this would lead him to villainy. It turns out he was led to villainy but rather than be turned to the dark side by a selfishness it is against his will…and it is Steve’s unflinching loyalty to his friend is just another example of who he is, refusing to really fight back against him once he knows who he is. Throwing himself on another grenade, figuratively this time, as he drops his shield against a super-powered version of Bucky who could very well literally beat him to death. He’s the only link Steve has to his original life, but more than that it’s Cap’s best friend who never gave up on him so he certainly wasn’t going to give up Bucky. Sebastian Stan’s performance also needs to be commended here. Not only is the Winter Soldier menacing (he’s become my favorite antagonist of the MCU so far) but also sympathetic as you see what Hydra puts him through to maintain control of him. Something expanded on in the next movie.
Before we get started…anyone want to get out?
Character work aside, this film has some of the best sequences in the entire MCU, standing up easily (though on a more personal scale, which works remarkable well) with the now-famous “Avengers Assemble” scene in the first Avengers film. The opening battle on board the Lemurian Star (“Was he wearing a parachute?” “No he wasn’t…”); the ferocious close quarters combat in the elevator; and one of the best car chase sequences that isn’t in Mad Max Fury Road (though ironically containing another “Fury”) as Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury races his way through a massive assassination attempt. Couple all that action with more terrific character sequences; the “On your left” scene introducing Anthony Mackie as The Falcon (a breakout character for sure); Steve meeting with a 90 year old Peggy Carter and seeing all the emotion he still has for her; Cap and Widow on the run a segment filled with multiple peeks into their characters and bolstered by the fact that the two actors know each other well and have actual chemistry; and the marvelous scene with Arnim Zola (“First correction, I am Swiss.”) all add up to one of the best action thrillers in recent memory, out-Bourne-ing Bourne movies at every turn.
Winter Solder still may be my favorite MCU film (though the third installment of te franchise is a close race). It’s a perfect continuation of the original, an advancement of the characters and concepts, a major movement in the entire narrative, and just a great film on its own.
Next week a pair of mini reviews as we look at the Captain in the Avengers films.