Captain America: The Winter Soldier review: politics in our peanut butter
Stuns me with its scathing commentary on what is happening in the real world today, wrapped up in what is some of the most delicious, most comic-booky fantasy ever.
I’m “biast” (pro):
loved the first movie, love Chris Evans, love the Avengers series
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I saw an ad on British TV last Friday night — it came, perhaps unsurprisingly, during a break in the broadcast of the latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — in which Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury helped British ISP Sky Broadband cheer on its new automatic censoring filters… the ones that new customers have to opt-out of if they don’t want them, and that have been found to block legitimate sites, including those offering rape counseling, sex education, and legal file sharing. (You can watch that ad here.) Is S.H.I.E.L.D. pro-censorship now? Has S.H.I.E.L.D. become part of the trading-liberty-for-security crowd? I thought they were the good guys who are all about freedom?
More on that in a moment.
The Avengers movies just keep getting bigger and better and smarter and more relevant with each flick. I might have to start calling this the best genre franchise ever.
I mean, this is just a dumb, loud comic-book movie, right? Now, I don’t think that, and lots of you don’t think that, and lots of us don’t believe that “comic book” automatically equals “stupid and juvenile.” But lots of other people do, and unfortunately Hollywood has done a pretty good job of perpetuating that stereotype. The Avengers series has been a big exception. But even none of the Avengers movies up till now has stunned me the way that Captain America: The Winter Soldier has with its scathing commentary on what is happening in the real world today… and all wrapped up, to boot, in what is some of the most delicious, most comic-booky fantasy ever. The little kid in me almost wants to moan that I don’t want my silly stories burdened with “relevance” and “pertinence” and “political awareness.” The grownup in me, though, is very very glad to see it.
And it’s all down to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans: Thor: The Dark World, The Iceman). Since we first met him in this Avengers series — in Captain America: The First Avenger — he hasn’t had time enough to begin to cope with the personal aftereffects of his one-way time travel, via cryonic sleep, from the 1940s to the 2010s, but as Winter Soldier opens, he’s starting to face his disconnect. Fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson: Her, We Bought a Zoo) is trying to help him jumpstart his social life by suggesting cute girls they know that he could be asking out, but he feels that he doesn’t have anything in common with the women of this new century: all his cultural references are things those women’s grandfathers would have found familiar. In one early scene, as Steve makes a new friend in Afghanistan/Iraq veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie: Runner Runner, The Fifth Estate), we see that Steve is keeping a list in a little notebook of all the most important things he needs to catch up with: the entries are things like “Thai food” and “Star Wars/Trek.” It’s sweet and funny and poignant.
But Steve’s displacement isn’t only about pop culture. S.H.I.E.L.D. director Fury (Jackson: RoboCop, Django Unchained) reveals to Steve a project the organization is about to launch: it involves a new fleet of massive helicarriers, high-tech aircraft carriers that float in the atmosphere instead of the ocean, that will watch over the planet, spy eyes on high — this was deemed a necessary security move “after New York” (that is, the events of The Avengers that culminated in an alien attack on that city). Steve is horrified. “This isn’t freedom,” he tells Fury. “This is fear.”
This might be sweet and funny and poignant if it were only fantasy, but here we have a guy who is unironically called Captain America, an identity that was created as a propaganda tool of the U.S. Army during World War II to promote American ideals, struggling with how those ideals get deployed — or don’t — in the 21st century. There’s ton of wonderful comic-book melodrama along the way, involving a potential infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. by nefarious forces; Fury tells Steve to trust no one, and soon we’re not even sure if we (and Steve!) should be trusting Fury. And there’s a ton of wonderful comic-book action, of course, including Steve meeting his physical match in the mysterious masked Winter Soldier, who would appear to be a medically modified supersoldier like Steve himself, who may be working for whoever it is that could be trying to subvert S.H.I.E.L.D.; Natasha reveals that she has encountered this warrior before, and that rumors are that he is a Soviet construct left over from the Cold War.
Even the comic-book stuff here, though, feels more relevant than it might: the big battle between S.H.I.E.L.D. forces, including Steve and Natasha, and the Winter Solider and his friends through the streets of Washington DC — where S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shiny massive new HQ is — feels a helluva lot like a lone-gunman-on-a-rampage story lifted directly from 24-hour news channels. (In the next Avengers movie, there’s sure to be a line of dialogue in which someone laments the world “after Washington.”) Along the way to figuring out what the heck is happening at S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve will confront the world of his past in a way that folds his story back in on itself… and we will confront the world of our past in a way that is deeply uncomfortable. Steve is, quite literally, a museum piece — we visit, with Steve, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum exhibit about his extraordinary life — but even with his disconnect in time, is he the only one with his head in the right place when it comes to what the U.S. has been doing to itself in recent decades?
It’s not a spoiler to say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier ends up casting the concept of the modern Western surveillance state as an actual evil plot that we have all been sold by people who do not have our best interests at heart; that fleet of spying helicarriers is only a tiny sliver of it. (And so the aforementioned pro-ISP-censorship ad starring Nick Fury is a lot more insidious than anyone paying for millions of pounds in advertising should see as desirable.) That level of disapproval for a status quo that a helluva lot of people think is a good thing — if they even think about it at all — is absolutely extraordinary in a popcorn movie. Where Winter Soldier goes… let’s just say that Edward Snowden could be on the marketing payroll for this flick. It’s that revolutionary.
And it’s revolutionary within its own fictional context, too. This is no static episode that is afraid to rock the boat of an ongoing story that is bigger than just this one movie. The Avengers will not be the same after this… and I cannot wait to see where it takes us next.
See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its representation of girls and women.