Comic books are a very versatile medium. They can tell adventure stories, horror, fantasy, science fiction – you name the genre, and there’s graphic-novel work being done in it. With “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the cinematic branch of superhero fiction takes on paranoid conspiracy thrillers, in the mold of “Three Days of the Condor.” Why, Robert Redford’s even on hand to bless the proceedings! Take your favorite Evil Government Conspiracy saga from the Seventies, drop in super-heroes and $200 million worth of digital effects, and you’ve got the feel of this movie. It’s like “Marathon Man,” except the marathon man can run four times as fast as a normal human being, beat the cheese out of the entire crew of a flying aircraft carrier, and take out high-tech aircraft with a toss of his indestructible shield.
One might think the superhuman powers of our hero, Captain Steve Rogers, would dispel the tension of such an espionage thriller. On the contrary, the point of the story is that physical might isn’t enough, not when you’re up against sinister forces that can shoot you through the walls of your apartment building. And the bad guys have their own, very impressive superhuman muscle on staff, in the form of the titular Winter Soldier. He’s bad enough news to make the redoubtable Black Widow run for her life. He’s pretty much the only character in the story who doesn’t have much of a character, but there are good reasons for that; the process of adding a bionic arm, and subtracting his humanity, was horrifying. Every time he shows up, the danger and tension are palpable – nobody but Captain American can last thirty seconds against him.
One of the best things about “The Winter Soldier” is that everyone else does have loads of character. Even the other villains have wit, pathos, and a sense of inner life. Our four heroes – Chris Evans as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury, and newcomer Anthony Mackie as The Falcon – feel like real people, which is crucial to making the outlandish material work. The first scene, introducing Mackie’s regular-guy war vet to experienced superheroes Cap and the Widow, is wonderful. It would be entertaining to watch these three just hang around and shoot the breeze for a while. This sense of grounding makes the super-heroics all the more astounding when they come, because the viewer is always mindful that a genuine, relatable person is about to rumble with twenty special-forces operators in a glass elevator.
Evans and Johansson have never been better in their respective roles, generating a remarkable chemistry that makes their scenes crackle like something out of the Golden Age films Cap would have loved. His fish-out-of-water nature as a visitor from the Forties is perfectly played for gentle good humor, without making him seem like a lunkhead. (One of the funniest bits in the movie is a glimpse into the notebook where he keeps a list of things from the decades he was frozen that he still needs to learn about, including disco, Thai food, and Star Wars.) Cap’s action scenes are more exciting than most superhero fare, because he’s awesome to watch in action, but still a bit vulnerable – he has to worry about getting shot, and he spends time in the hospital after particularly brutal encounters. “The Winter Solider” plays rougher than the other Marvel movies to date, with bone-crunching fight scenes, and nearly everyone gets shot at least once.
It’s smarter than most superhero movies too, because as one can see from the trailers, it wants to talk about the Surveillance State. Like any good science fiction story, “The Winter Soldier” takes real-world concerns about broad-based surveillance and drone warfare, and kicks them to the next level through speculative technology. Super-spy agency SHIELD has new tech that will let them spy on everyone, anticipate threats before they escalate… and take down the bad guys before they hurt anyone.
“I thought the punishment came after the crime,” Captain America muses upon learning of this technology, swiftly concluding that the cost of such security is simply too high. But other characters in the story disagree, and they do a pretty good job of making their case. As one supporter of the new spy-and-strike technology observes, all the superheroes in the world won’t do much good when terrorists cook off a dirty bomb in a major city… but what if SHIELD could anticipate the attack, locate the terrorists, and liquidate them before they can carry out their plans?
Alas, it is the nature of the superhero story that these questions are cast aside in favor of cartoon super-villainy in the end, although it’s clever and chilling super-villainy. The scope of the conspiracy Captain America and his allies uncover is breathtaking. There have been memorable villains in these Marvel films before, but for the first time, the bad guys are scary, from the ominous Winter Soldier to the twisted masterminds that pull his strings.
The question of liberty versus security is answered a bit too neatly when security turns out to have been perverted by fiends – although, to the credit of the script, the fiends continue to advance a rational case for their actions, right to the end. The final battle is a bit too easily resolved with black-box technology – complete these three objectives, and the day is saved! But “The Winter Solider” is a thrilling, thoughtful, somewhat disturbing adventure featuring real people under the crazy costumes… which will make for quite a tonal contrast with this studio’s next outing, in which a gun-toting feral raccoon will be riding around on a sentient tree. As I said, comic books are a versatile medium.
(Note: as always with Marvel films, be sure to stay all the way through the credits. Ask the superhero fanatic in your life to explain the scene that comes halfway through.)