I can’t lie: I’ve never liked the star spangled avenger. Most of that can be attributed to me being Canadian, and being fairly disinterested in a superhero wrapped in someone else’s flag. (Lest you think it’s entirely about nationalism, I have always maintained that Alpha Flight is pretty stupid.)
The first Captain America movie because it put the character in his proper context: As a piece of WWII propaganda. I don’t even mean that in a derogatory sense: It was a fun, pulpy bit of entertainment that played with the character’s origins and created a scenario where it was (almost) credible to dress a man up in a costume and send him to Germany to fight Nazis with a shield.
But while the modern Captain America narrative tends to be a “fish out of water” story, Winter Soldier takes Captain America too far out of the character’s comfort zone, and doesn’t do much with the resulting juxtaposition.
One problem becomes apparent early on, when Captain America leads a team of commandos to rescue a SHIELD boat from pirates. Captain America jumps out of a plane and single-handedly dispatches 90% of the pirates with ease; only when he faces the pirate leader – a less gaudy Batroc the Leaper – is there a fight where the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion.
This template is repeated several times throughout the movie: A bunch of anonymous goons attack Captain America; Captain America beats them all up. The hero is stronger, faster, and tougher than regular humans, and has an indestructible shield, so there’s very little competition. Not everyone goes down with one punch, but very few make it to three or four.
This power imbalance plagues a sequence that could have otherwise been a highlight of the film: As more and more armed guards step onto his elevator, Captain America realizes he’s about to be ambushed. It’s a great setup, building suspense and allowing Chris Evans to be funny, but it collapses once the fighting starts: Captain America gets handcuffed and punched and kicked and zapped with taser-thing, but he keeps going anyway, because he’s Captain America.
No one would seriously expect Captain America to be killed by hired goons in the first act, but Winter Soldier fails to generate any sense of danger for its protagonist. Only when he confronts the titular Winter Soldier does he encounter a fair fight, and even then the fight scenes aren’t particularly interesting. It doesn’t help that the Winter Soldier isn’t a very interesting character, a relentless Terminator-esque killing machine with a backstory that only matters if you were really invested in one of the supporting characters in the first film.
But while Winter Soldier isn’t a very good Captain America Movie, it’s an excellent Black Widow movie.
The backbone of Winter Soldier is a conspiracy: A secret faction of the super-secret SHIELD intelligence agency is doing something it shouldn’t, and our heroes have to find out why. For a story that involves a lot of sneaking around and detective work, Captain America is a lousy candidate: He’s the guy with the bright blue costume whose signature is a giant metal shield. (A scene late in the film where the Captain obtains a new costume is amusing, and yet also ridiculous: He’s putting on a costume so he can go to break into a top-secret military-espionage facility.)
But conspiracies and spying and secrecy are what the Black Widow is good at; it’s basically the premise of the character. And so Scarlett Johansson acquits herself well in her most prominent superhero role yet: She sneaks around, acts sarcastic about stuff, and generally kicks ass. The Black Widow fight scenes are among the best in the film, particularly her fight against the Winter Soldier: Unlike Captain America, she goes into a fight as an obvious underdog.
Her boss, Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury, also comes off well while fighting off an ambush and setting off on a car chase. Again, there’s a meaningful sense that things could end poorly for our hero, particularly when he breaks his wrist in the initial assault. (Besides, he only has one eye, which has to be considered a disadvantage when fighting off a squad of assassins.)
Meanwhile, Captain America gains a superhero sidekick who’s even less subtle than he is: Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, a fellow combat vet who befriends Steve Rogers. Mackie and Evans have great chemistry together, and early in the film they share their feelings about returning home after being in a war zone. But it’s a strange tonal shift to go from talking about IEDs and PTSD to later revealing that Wilson was flying around Afghanistan in a jet pack.
Granted, there’s some potential for using Captain America, beacon of patriotism & democracy, in a story about government corruption. Does Winter Soldier have something to say about government, or state surveillance? Does it have a point to make about the fine line between patriotism and blind loyalty?
Not really. While Captain America offers a few easy criticisms of Nick Fury’s pro-active surveillance and security strategy, the plot quickly turns to the story of SHIELD being infiltrated by evil outsiders. Late in the film, Captain America delivers an inspirational speech to the remaining loyal SHIELD agents, and everyone gets on board with him pretty quickly; not because he offers any convincing evidence, but because he’s Captain America. (Also notable: Nick Fury’s second-in-command is standing right next to him, but makes no contributions to the announcement about SHIELD being infiltrated and overrun by traitors.)
Winter Soldier often feels like two movies have been stuck together: A smooth SHIELD espionage story about Nick Fury and the Black Widow, and a Captain America movie where he runs around punching people and fighting a generic, unstoppable villain. It’s an effective thriller at times, but keeps stuttering and stopping when it remembers it needs to make its title character useful while still showing off his valuable trademarks and not raising any awkward political issues.