While the rest of the world may be growing a little weary of superhero movies, I enjoy them as much now as I did when they started making a major "comeback" in the early 2000s. What's not to like? They're full of action, excitement, and great special effects; they frequently explore "the big questions" (as all fantasy tends to). And, perhaps most importantly, after nearly a century of experience in telling stories, comic book writers have mastered the fine art of character development.
This, the second-or-third-installment-of-the-Captain-America-franchise-depending-on-how-you-look-at-it, was a delightful surprise for me on so many levels. I'd like to spend some good, solid time exploring this, so let me cut straight to the point early on: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent movie, and you should go watch it. Now that that's out of the way, let me explain a bit about why I liked it so much.
The Captain America Turn-Around
As a comic book character, Captain America started out as nothing more than a propaganda tool. This is an assertion that should not require too much evidence. He's a guy painted like the American flag who runs around fighting an obvious metaphor for both Nazism and communism. He was created during World War II. It's a pretty straight-forward thing. Captain America: The First Avenger actually did an excellent job of establishing this fact. They made Captain America a literal propaganda tool, travelling around the country and to military bases as a performer, before finally going into battle himself.
So it is with this in mind that we must process the story outlined in The Winter Soldier. In this new movie, Captain America finds himself questioning the wisdom - and indeed even the democratic authority - of the security state being built before his eyes by Nick Fury and the US government. Sure, the obvious thing to note is how closely this parallels actual reality in the United States. But even setting that aside, there is an added depth embedded in the script. It's not just the superhero-guy questioning the actions of the American government; it's not just some characters on a screen. No, it's more than that: it's Captain America, the American propaganda tool himself, questioning the actions of the American government.
Whatever your political stripes, the elegance with which this statement was made - by a nerdy superhero movie, no less - is a cut above the typical Hollywood anti-war movie, and reflects a truly literary effort to make a statement. I loved that about this movie.
The "Boring" Superhero
Captain America is not a particularly "sexy" superhero. I don't mean Chris Evans (be at ease, ladies), I mean the comic book character. He wears a dorky-looking uniform. Instead of having an incredible weapon or super-power, he wields a shield. He possesses great strength, stamina, and speed, but beyond that he isn't much of a superhero. He doesn't have indestructible retractable claws. He can't breath in outer space, he can't fly, he can't change shape. He can't manipulate matter or shoot beams from his eyes or hands. Unlike many other "mortal" superheros (like Batman or Iron Man), he does not possess a genius-level intellect. He doesn't even have a secret identity.
No, fundamentally, Captain America is boring. He's pretty much just a really fit guy with a shield and a funny costume.
What's great about Captain America is that, unlike every other superhero, he has an unwavering moral integrity. He's polite, he treats women respectfully, he takes responsibility for danger, he is courageous despite his fears, and he never gives up on his friends. The great thing about Captain America is that his super-power seems to be his moral virtue.
They made a big deal out of this in The First Avenger, but I felt that they really showcased his morals in The Winter Soldier. Someone at Marvel understands that moral virtue, especially in this day and age, is a super-power. They write it into the script, they use it as a springboard for plot development, and best of all, they never waver. Whatever his flaws, Captain America is portrayed as morally unshakable, even in impossible circumstances.
This kind of thing has an obvious attraction to a moralizer like myself, but beyond that - it's such a rare and wonderful thing for blockbuster Hollywood movies to take moral character seriously that when they finally do it, it hits you full-force. Morality does not sell as many movie tickets as violence and special effects, but nevertheless, when it's part of the script, you know it's there. It makes a difference.
What I liked about the movie might not appeal to everyone. Not everyone loves to watch a movie with strong moral themes and clever character juxtaposition. Some people just like exciting movies with good action, great special effects, pretty girls, and a good dose of humor. Another great thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that it offers views all of that, too. You don't have to take things on the same level I do to appreciate the movie.
And while it wasn't perfect - there are a few significant plot holes and some overly shaky camera work, for example - this is another strong contribution to the superhero movie genre and another great send-up of the Marvel universe. I cannot recommend it highly enough.