Last week an unmanned military aircraft crashed to the ground near an elementary school in Pennsylvania, igniting concerns both within the community and among advocates of civil liberties who aren't comfortable with drones or the threat of enhanced domestic spying. The crash could have been a publicity stunt for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film set in a too-familiar America where, according to narration by Cap's digitally preserved nemesis Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), citizens have been terrified into submission and are now prepared to exchange their freedom for a little security. The drone crash wasn't a stunt but is a clear indicator that Marvel's latest and most mature comic book-inspired sequel has arrived right on time.
Like the original Winter Soldier story arc by Ed Brubaker, Captain America: The Winter Soldier wraps a good old-fashioned superhero story in a taut and timely tale of conspiracy and political intrigue with roots reaching all the way back to WWII, and it does so with considerable style. It turns out that HYDRA, the Nazi-affiliated organization previously led by the Red Skull, wasn't destroyed in the last Captain America film but has instead gone into hiding directly under the noses of America's intelligence community. "Trust nobody," are the only words Sam Jackson's superspy Nick Fury manages before slipping Chris Evans' Captain America a flash drive and collapsing in his own blood. The terrorists, we soon discover, are now ready to reemerge from the shadows using the best of S.H.I.E.L.D. technology to identify and kill 20 million human targets almost instantaneously. To increase their odds of success, HYDRA has enlisted the aid of the Soviet super assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), to eliminate special threats like Bruce Banner (the Hulk), the as of yet unseen Stephen Strange (Doctor Strange), and, of course, Captain America, the "man out of time" who is struggling to have a normal life and to determine what it means to be the living symbol of a country that he no longer understands.
For Cap, WWII and the sacrifices of "the greatest generation" are a recent memory, a circumstance that's given resonance by reimagining Sam Wilson (Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie) as a recently retired special forces combatant who counsels vets coping with PTSD. When Wilson tells his new superhero friend that they all have the same problems, he's talking about something other than the obvious nervous conditions.
There was a longstanding rule at Marvel: No characters stay dead except Spider-Man's Uncle Ben and Captain America's sidekick, Bucky Barns. Like Batman, Cap and Spidey were defined by the tragic failures in their past. The rule was broken when Brubaker asked what if Bucky survived WWII, but without his memory, and was transformed into a long-lived super assassin working on the wrong side of the 20th century. The result was one of the greatest chapters in comic book history. Co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo haven't replicated that story exactly, but they nailed the spirit, and in doing so have broken yet another unspoken rule: The sequels to a comic book movie will be increasingly disappointing. The Avengers 2 has its work cut out.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier