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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Captain America: The Winter Soldier review: politics in our peanut butter

Captain America: The Winter Soldier green light

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.

First: Wow.

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.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
US/Can release: Apr 04 2014
UK/Ire release: Mar 26 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated ESA: Edward Snowden-approved
MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout
BBFC: rated 12A (contains frequent moderate violence)

viewed in 3D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Woo hoo!
    Mrs. Dr. Rocketscience and I had planned on catching an afternoon show of this on opening day while we wait for our flight home from Vegas. If it’s good, maybe we’ll try for a midnight showing on Thursday and the afternoon on Friday. :)

  • Stefanie

    I got to see a super sneak preview in DC last Thursday, and may I just say, this review is absolutely spot on. The plot is both entertaining and subversive. The action is riveting. The characters are terrific. What a ride, and with a takeaway message to ponder, to boot.

  • RogerBW

    I think that for a comic book movie to do good business it can’t dispense with the audience who want something dumb and loud. Which isn’t to say it can’t also cater for other people. Glad to hear this one’s good, though I really ought to catch up with the earlier films leading up to The Avengers first… the downside of connecting them is that I feel I should watch them in some sort of order.

  • Tonio Kruger

    So I’m guessing that the sequel to this will be called Captain America: The Sunshine Patriot?

  • Overflight

    …are you sure about that ISP filter thing? Because the ad explicitly says “Must be activated”. This doesn’t look like the infamous “opt out” filter to me but rather some ripoff of Norton Internet Security that cable companies sometimes cook up to fool suckers.

  • Tonio Kruger

    It’s up to you. I didn’t really need to have seen the last Hulk movie to understand the character’s motivations in the Avengers movie and I considered Iron Man 2 a big waste of time despite all the fanservice scenes involving ScarJo’s various costume changes. Of course, YMMV.

    Besides, a lot of the best movies begin in media res, anyway.

  • fred

    Not necessarily, it doesn’t have to be the exact order and you can take your time doing it.

  • Kathy_A

    I was already on the edge just waiting for this movie, and now I’m seriously considering going to a midnight viewing for the first time since Return of the King! You make it sound sooo good, MaryAnn, and I am jealous that you’ve already seen it.

  • fred

    As long as the film is as good as I hear this upcoming one is, I could care the less. Hell they can call it ‘The Spring Memorial Soldier’ and i’ll be there to see it, as long as the film is good.

  • LaSargenta

    Hello Overflight!

    *waves* Long time no see.

  • Overflight

    Hello LaSargenta!

    Yeah, I’ve been kind of busy lately. Great to be back though! Finally resubscribed, too!

  • Overflight

    Well, there IS a guy named “Patriot” in Marvel who happens to be the grandson of the “Black Captain America” Isaiah Bradley…

    …oh please tell me they won’t show up played by Will and Jaden Smith. Will as Isaiah would be great but just keep Jaden out of this!

  • What the others said here… but I think you should at least see the first Captain America movie. This is very much a continuation of that.

  • Yeah, I noticed that line in the ad, too. But it seems that it’s a sneaky way of saying that you get to set up the filters when you first become a customer… but all reports I’ve see say that I’ve you skip that step, they get turned on automatically. (Existing subscribers didn’t have them turned on automatically, though, it seems. But they probably will at some point, because apparently these filters are now mandated by UK law.)

  • Martin

    Is it wrong that the best reference in the film isn’t to anything in the Marvel canon (film or comic book) but to Pulp Fiction?

  • I dunno. I think the best reference might be to a certain geek-classic 80s flick…

  • Martin

    It’s up there, but given who the Pulp Fiction reference is, well, referencing, it’s all the funnier.

    I loved Cap’s reaction to that 80’s movie reference. He’s clearly been doing his homework…

  • Well, we could say one was the best visual reference, and the other was the best spoken reference.

  • Eric Murphy

    The new Captain America Leather Jacket will be ready next week, check it out.


  • Chuck

    Cannot wait to see it. Do you recommend seeing it in 3D?

  • It’s not worth the extra for 3D.

  • Chuck


  • I saw the movie, and I liked it. The only gripe I have against the movie is that the Winter Soldier, as a character/presence, isn’t the dominant figure that he needed to be in the story. While he’s supposed to be a counterpoint to Cap, we don’t get any of the shared angst that Steve has coping with the 21st Century and living in a nation plagued by security fears.

    There should have been a moment when Steve goes to Sam Wilson’s PTSD group and he joins in, sharing some of the anxiety he feels about being in the War on Terror, that he feels like this machine that SHIELD keeps sending out to fight battles without realizing just what he’s supposed to be fighting for anymore. Would have made a nice counter to how Winter Soldier really IS a machine only used to fight.

  • only if they film in Florida. And I call dibs on writing the script. :)

  • Sebastian Stan is under contract for a ridiculous number of Marvel movies, so we should figure he’s gonna get more prominent character stuff in a future movie or movies.

  • Bluejay

    Wow. This movie was so, so good.

    I wonder what kind of sales bump Marvin Gaye’s “Troubleman” soundtrack is going to get this week…

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I dunno. I was tripped up on the idea that, of all the ’80s movies, he’s seen that one, in particular? What are the odds? Why would it have been higher on his list than Star Wars?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Everything it was advertised to be. I’m not Marvel fan at all, but the MCU is soooo good. Everything feels like its both a self-contained story, and part of a larger ‘verse. (Not perfect, though: where the hell was Clint during all of this?) (Yes, I’m aware that Jeremy Renner is understandably and publicly iffy about returning to the role.)










    My only problem with it: did they not just cut the legs out from under “Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.”? The show had appeared to be an extension of “Iron Man 3”, chasing down Extremis, while building up the lore around S.H.E.I.L.D. What is it show going to be about now? This feels like it could be “Alias” after the infamous Super Bowl episode. I don’t think that show ever recovered.

  • Bluejay

    He is, in fact, under contract for more movies than Chris Evans, which suggests some possibilities for what Marvel *may* have in mind for his character.

  • Or it merely suggests that they were able to lock in a relatively unknown actor for longer than they could a much bigger name with more clout. I mean, Evans may keep showing up, but demanding a bigger paycheck each time.

  • I wondered the same thing about the TV show. It almost makes me want to watch it to find out how they’ll deal with it.

  • Bluejay

    Was Evans a big name with clout when he signed for these movies?

    In any case, sure, what you say is possible as well. But given how unafraid Marvel Studios has been of mining the comics for material, and how willing they are to completely upend the status quo (as this movie demonstrates), I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that particular plot development is on the table.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Certainly bigger than Sebastian Stan. And in a much more well known and higher profile role than Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier.

  • As Dr. Rocketscience says, he was certainly much bigger than Stan, for whom *Captain America* represents his transition from TV to movies. Though if *Kings,* which he starred in, had been as big a hit as it should have been, he would have been in a much better position. (If only HBO had done *Kings*…)

    Even if I am right, it doesn’t mean they don’t have lots of cool stuff planned for Stan. Who is awesome, and I hope they keep putting him to good use.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Heh, fair enough. I mean, AoS isn’t bad. Some weeks it’s pretty good. It’s not great, though. (In MCU terms, it’s better than Iron Man 2, about on par with The Incredible Hulk and the first Thor.) But it is steadily improving. It may even grow its beard before the end of this season, depending, of course, with how they handle the post-CA:TWS MCU.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Re a “Steve goes to a support group” scene: I was expecting one after we saw what Wilson did for a living. I kind of suspect that they may have filmed such a scene, or at least scripted one, but cut it out due to concerns with what it did the the pacing of the movie.

  • Bluejay

    So Kings is good? It seemed to come and go so quickly; maybe I’ll check it out! Does it have a proper ending, or did they pull the plug on it mid-story?

  • MC

    The show actually drove me to go to the theatre today to see the movie. Based on how they are setting up the connection on the show with the events of this movie, it seems that the two are intertwined quite a bit at this moment.

    If you told me after the first few episodes that in April, I was going to feel compelled to go see this movie because of the show, I would’ve laughed, but I am genuinely intrigued by what is going on at this point. But boy, was it a slow, slow build to this.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It occurs to me I’m a week behind on the show. I was in Vegas most of the week, and I thought they were on hiatus again. One of the problems is that they didn’t quite match the production schedule up, so they’ve been preempting the show, trying to get “The End of the Beginning” to air the same week as Winter Soldier premiered. That has really done a number on any momentum the show has tried to build.

  • they’ll turn Agents of SHIELD into a Wandering-hero series where the agents, now discredited, walk the Earth saving innocents while being ruthlessly pursued by incorruptible cop Lt. Gerald. …what?

  • Kings was a re-telling of King David from the Hebrew Testament, told in modern times – with America as the reconfigured Judea. It was like West Wing + Game of Thrones in that it mixed modern politics with sorcery. I didn’t watch it, but heard it was intriguing. It couldn’t win enough viewers to justify renewing.

  • Steve might have watched it to garner an understanding of the Cold War politics and how close M.A.D. doctrine almost nuked the whole planet. Either that or he was a fan of John Spencer’s works.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Steve hadn’t even looked up the history of the Berlin Wall yet. I doubt he’d gotten far enough into Cold War politics to have seen that silly little Cold War-era thriller.

  • Bluejay

    It was like West Wing + Game of Thrones


  • MC

    There were three separate weeks when I said something to that effect… that every time I was starting to get into it, they would preempt it for weeks.

  • RogerBW

    It’s a bold move, trying to get people to watch TV live again. I wonder how it’ll affect the show’s DVD sales, how rewatchable it’ll be if there isn’t a Winter Soldier in the middle?

  • They didn’t finish it in any satisfying way. But it’s probably still worth a look — there’s so little of it that it won’t take much time.

  • There really isn’t any magic in Kings.

  • LaSargenta

    That was a good movie…got to it last night. Want to see it again. Rich and multi-layered, especially for a superhero flick.

    I did have doubts, though, about The Plot/theBad Guys…which I’m not going to wonder about out loud until it’s been out longer.

  • Jurgan

    Just saw this- very good. While it got a little heavy with the speechifying, I really like the political parallels. This could almost be an anti-Dark Knight, in that Batman’s eavesdropping on everyone was an explicit part of the villains’ plan.

    My only complaint might be that the Winter Soldier himself had very little relevance to the story. He does have some thematic resonance, though, in challenging Steve to think about how the world has changed. The idea of a “winter soldier,” though, going back to Thomas Paine, is that he continues to serve his country no matter how dire its situation. Seems to fit Steve better. Also, it was pretty obvious who the mastermind of the villains’ plot was.

  • Jurgan

    Hmm, a small group of government agents being forced to rebuild and go rogue after the larger organization they belonged to was found to be thoroughly corrupt and destroyed? Where have I heard that before?

  • Bluejay

    So my wife and I just finished watching the series, and it’s awesome — THANK YOU for recommending it. Sebastian Stan *is* great, and I have no words for Ian McShane. Also great: seeing the New York Public Library 5th Avenue branch and the Brooklyn Museum repurposed as palaces and corridors of power.

    Real bummer that it didn’t make it to a second season, although I suppose I could reread the Bible to get a sense of where the story might have gone next. I would have liked to see Bathsheba. :-)

  • Glad you liked it!

  • Thomas Watson

    Great action choreography, a well written screenplay, and a nice rapport between the three main leads—Evans, Johansson and Mackie—make this film tick.

  • mickeymcginnes

    the lyrics. I guess i just lost my husband I don’t know where he went So I’m gonna drink my money. let me fall So so what I’m still a rock star. Spiderman Costume Jacket

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