Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a brilliant action movie, that serves up a huge dose of wish fulfillment along with its bravura fight scenes. The wish fulfillment isn't just being a face-kicking badass and blowing shit up, but the notion that we could all live in Steve Rogers' world, where political conundrums are simple.
Minor spoilers ahead — meaning mostly stuff that was in the trailers.
The Winter Soldier is a brilliant action movie and kind of a mediocre political thriller — the camerwork and pacing and performances all have an intensity and cleverness during action sequences, that mostly vanish during the moments where people are discussing the plot. Any scene involving Robert Redford as the SHIELD spymaster, Alexander Pierce, in particular, feels lifeless and full of heavy-handed exposition and messaging. The movie has a pretty standard comic-book-movie plot, but the directors clearly want it to have a ton of gravitas that never quite materializes, because they hired Robert fucking Redford, goddamnit.
This contrast between a great action movie and a so-so political movie seems weird — until you realize that it's a natural consequence of building a murky conspiracy thriller around Steve Rogers, the one guy for whom everything is never that complicated. And in the end, the action is so great, you wind up just pumping your fist in the air for Cap.
Why is this a Captain America movie anyway?
In The Winter Soldier, Captain America has been working for SHIELD, the super-secret organization, but he starts to discover that SHIELD has a dark side. In particular, SHIELD wants to be more proactive about killing lots of potential bad guys before they do anything bad. Captain America, meanwhile, argues that freedom is more important than security. And meanwhile, in addition to SHIELD apparently going off the rails, there's a super-assassin named the Winter Soldier, who looks awfully familiar. (All of that is pretty well spelled out in the trailers.)
The ethical conundrum in The Winter Soldier is pretty clearly about the War on Terror, and the NSA spying program, and drone strikes. How much are we willing to compromise our principles, and spy on and kill innocent people, in order to feel safe? As the trailers make clear, Captain America doesn't have to hesitate: He immediately chooses liberty over security, because that's who Captain America is.
At times in Winter Soldier, you start to wonder why this is a Captain America movie — it seems to be more about SHIELD, and Black Widow, and Nick Fury, with Captain America gamely along for the ride. (Plus there's Sam Wilson, an Iraq vet who helps the good guys, with his awesome flying harness.) Other people struggle with the ethics of the security state and grapple with the political conspiracy at the heart of the movie, but Captain America just sort of shrugs it off and keeps fighting, like he always does.
But then you reach a point where you realize that's Captain America's true superpower — he makes things simpler, for everybody. Everybody else in the movie changes, at least in part because of their connection to Steve Rogers. He's a catalyst, as well as a leader. This film is simplistic because Steve Rogers' worldview is simplistic. And if you only let him, Steve Rogers will allow you to live in his world where everything is black and white.
Instead of being about Steve Rogers learning to adapt to the more complicated world of the 21st century, this film winds up being much more about Steve Rogers helping everybody see things from the slightly-less-tortured perspective of the 1940s.
If this was an Iron Man movie, Tony Stark would be somehow complicit in all the nasty business going on, and he would be struggling with guilt and crawling over broken glass to find redemption. But instead, Steve Rogers' hands are clean, and you know that he'll never feel even slightly tempted to get them dirty, because that's not who Captain America is.
So why is this a Captain America movie? Because it offers us the seductive fantasy of getting to have our own hands clean, for good.
Veterans coming back to the world
At the same time, there's a great thread running through The Winter Soldier of veterans healing from war trauma and getting used to civilian life again. In the movie's beautiful opening scene, Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson bond over the strangeness of being back in civilian life after having seen combat overseas. And instead of just portraying Steve Rogers' dislocation as a matter of being from the 1940s and having to get used to the 21st century, this film treats his adjustment, in part, as a veteran's experience of coming home after combat.
Steve Rogers has almost no connection to the world around him, living in a spartan apartment and floating through the world when he's not doing missions for SHIELD. The movie, mostly through Black Widow, suggests that he needs to make more connections, and get himself a girlfriend, or he'll come unmoored.
And the dark mirror to Steve Rogers comes from the film's titular Winter Soldier, an intense and unstoppable killer who has no personal connections and no life except as a tool of destruction. In action scene after action scene, the Winter Soldier arrives and fucks shit up. He's sort of the anti-Steve Rogers: relentless, merciless, unthinking, just a tool of destruction. His brooding stare and bionic arm, as he deals death right and left, form the center piece of some of the movie's most frenetic action scenes.
And that gets back to why this film is such a great action movie — the action tells a story that's better, smarter and more compelling than the one the more dialogue-heavy scenes and cluttered plot twists are trying to convey: A story of being accustomed to violence, but still hoping for something better.
Whether it's the swooping of Sam Wilson's wings during one of the beautiful aerial combat scenes or Captain America shielding Black Widow with his body in an explosion, the action in this movie is not just beautiful, it's a great storytelling engine. The assured camera-work keeps the geography and choreography of all the many fight scenes and chase scenes completely clear, and in the middle of all of it is Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, with an expression his face that says he's seen worse than this, but he still hopes for the best.
And that's what makes The Winter Soldier, overall, a great movie even in spite of its flaws — the spectacle of Chris Evans, world-weary but optimistic, in the middle of virtuoso action, leaves you feeling as though we really could do the right thing, it really could be that simple. Because Captain America shows us that we always have decency and greatness inside of us, no matter what. Fuck yeah.