Captain America: The Winter Soldier is astonishingly good. As much as I’ve enjoyed every Marvel film thus far, I simply didn’t expect The Winter Soldier to deliver such excellence in so many different fields. Marvel Studios’ chief Kevin Feige and directors Anthony and Joe Russo up every ante imaginable in Cap’s newest adventure and cash out his heroic capital magnificently. Its plot is dense, but its narrative is taught as a tightrope: its intricacies are skillfully unpacked over the course of the film without ever resorting to heavy-handed directorial intrusions. The unremittingly dire circumstances Cap finds himself embroiled in are vast enough and sinister enough to engulf the viewer in sympathetic dread but never strain the story’s credulity. A difficult dialectic is skillfully played out in which the viewer is tantalized by the concentric rings of intrigue enveloping The Winter Soldier‘s plot, but the magnitude of that intrigue and the calamity that ensues never suffocates her suspension of disbelief.
Besides boasting a finely crafted plot, the film delivers a viscerally emotive film experience; it’s strewn with the same jagged, emotional wreckage we find in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The film is peopled with haunted characters: Cap and Falcon are both haunted by survivor guilt; Widow is haunted by a lifetime of death and deception in service to superiors; Fury is haunted by decades of moral compromise in the long rearguard battle for world peace. Apart from Falcon, each character is burdened with a crushing emotional weight they find themselves unable to shed: unceasing duty gets in the way, as does a pathological lack of trust in one another. Only Falcon has found release from guilt by pouring himself into a community of fellow sufferers whom he can be utterly himself with. Being known isn’t the order of the day at SHIELD. Fury and Widow both believe the only way to protect the self is to conceal and mislead. Cap wants what Falcon has but has no one to turn to to soak up his angst and simply be Steve Rogers with; the world only knows (and only wants) Captain America, living symbol of everything great and worthy with the United States. (Perhaps it’s appropriate then that its exemplar is a man anguishing over his suspicion that we’ve abandoned truth and justice in our struggle for “freedom”?)
The Winter Soldier thankfully bypasses mawkish explanation by showing more than telling, by incarnating that wreckage and weaving it into the story itself through the actors’ physical performances and believable dialogue. An invisible crossfade between the two in both the script and the performances saves The Winter Soldier from the dead weight which sink so many comic book and action films. This film succeeds because its director, its writers, and its cast focus on embodying all of these things rather than laboriously spelling everything out with strained sentimentality. Chris Evans, in particular, shines in this film: before he’s had to focus on old-school manners and grim determination, but Cap’s new crisis affords him fresh emotional space to inhabit this character with. This time around, Cap occupies that same sickening divide between image and reality as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3. Evans exudes heartache and grief visiting his love interest from the first film in a nursing home and curves in on himself as he trudges through the Smithsonian, dwarfed by his own image as living icon of freedom and justice. The persona SHIELD has packaged and ordered him to inhabit eclipses the man Steve Rogers, a terminally lonesome man whose convictions isolate and alienate him in our modern era.
By going this route, The Winter Soldier capitalizes on that classic Captain America theme of The Man Out of Time. In steering away from jokes about what cultural phenomena Cap has missed in the last seventy years and focusing instead on the ideological disconnect between his age and ours, the film holds a mirror up to its audience and diagnoses its shortcomings by the Law of Cap. Nick Fury’s pragmatic balancing act parallels our own moral compromise: his counter-terror operations veer uncomfortably close at times to the very things he claims to be fighting against. Fury has hardened himself into accepting that he must get his hands dirty with ethically questionable actions in the name of that most modern of abstractions, “freedom.” Fury’s compromises and Cap’s against-the-grain steadfastness reveal conceptions of freedom that are diametrically opposed: Fury serves a system which views freedom as the absence of restrictions; Cap understands it to be the ability to live out and die for right beliefs. We 21st century Westerners largely side with Fury and find our unexamined, anti-gospel commitments being critiqued by Cap. He is the Abel to our collective Cain, and though we want to root for the good guy, we know our allegiance is fickle and prone to wander.
Cap is a paragon of an America that doesn’t exist anymore, and this film encapsulates his disillusionment with what America has become. This comes as his own understanding of evil painfully expands with the shocking discovery that SHIELD is rotten through with the very enemy he thought he had given his life to overthrow. Evil is never reducible to merely a force out there, reducible to us (the good guy) vs. them (the bad guys). Cap understands this infiltration was only possible because of our fallen nature which implicitly colludes with the powers and principalities. Our quest for security coincided with a presumption that evil couldn’t take root here. Our settled conviction against conviction and commitment to “peace” at all costs enabled the consolidation of fascism deep within the heart of our own infrastructure. SHIELD, like human nature, can’t simply be reformed and recuperated- it has to be put to death entirely. Cap and Widow have to dismantle the agency which equipped them for the fight in the first place in order to restore the freedom they champion. And when they do, it’s magnificent– the film’s drab, muted colors are pierced by the bright red, white, and blue of Cap’s very first uniform, an emblem of hope and rebellion against modern autocracy. Cap exposes the conspiracy and calls on his comrades to forsake the system they once served and fight alongside him. He throws in his lot with us in spite of our sins and fights with everything he has. Though Cap personifies the Law through his unshakeable goodness, he thankfully also embodies the grace of the gospel in empowering sinners to resist the propaganda of sin and death, to take the risk of being known, to start anew, and sacrifice for others, even to the point of death.
Has seeing The Winter Soldier altered any of my predictions for The Avengers: Age of Ultron? You better believe it! Doing away with SHIELD leaves the Avengers free agents, of sorts, answerable to no one but themselves. In analogy with the church (as I unfailingly compare the two), this may correspond to the fact that the church, while committed to the good of the world, does not and must not take her marching orders from it; to do so would compromise her mission, her very distinctiveness as the called out ones of YHWH and His messiah. She is internally regulated and guided in her endeavors by the Spirit of the risen Lord as He speaks in and through His people. The Avengers will be without SHIELD’s enormous resources now, but they will also be free of its constraints and moral ambivalences. Where will they find their home, though? Their supply base? Well, the two second glimpse of Stark Tower we got in The Winter Soldier shows that big A still hanging there conspicuously, two years after the Battle of New York. Hmmm… Looks like Age of Ultron will feature Avengers Tower at last [cue geeks spontaneously combusting with glee], and if that’s the case, then you can count on Stark Industries’ inexhaustible resources equipping them with everything they could need. That of course means that Tony Stark has a privately operated army all his own, in essence, and I can’t imagine many people are going to be happy about that; supervillains and government officials alike.
Most importantly, though, the film derails any theories regarding Ultron being a SHIELD undertaking, I think (unless it turns out to be a dormant project Tony looks into in hopes of upgrading); the likelihood is much greater that he will either be an out-and-out HYDRA invention, or the accidental result of Tony investigating the Zola algorithm with the help of JARVIS. While certain projections are ruled out now, the extraordinary plot twists we encountered in The Winter Soldier leaves us with very little to go on to predict what may be around the corner with Age of Ultron. Again, I’m still rather astonished that Marvel was able to throw such a wrench into fans’ expectations and keep them both tantalized and more than a little perplexed. Apart from the Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, and the Dark Knight trilogies, what other movie universe has delivered such consistently entertaining and unpredictable work? (Don’t say Star Wars… Ugh.) It’s a rare feat which goes a long way towards healing the incision separating “genre” films from “serious” cinema, and we need more of them.