in Retrospecticus, Review

Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014)

Original Review: Cap’s Back (four stars)

Let’s talk about the politics of the MCU. Like a lot of post-9/11 entertainment, the MCU goes out of its way to make it clear that its villains are mercenaries or terrorists who have no genuine loyalty to any nation or ideology. Tony Stark was abducted in Afghanistan, but by a multinational group backed by an American businessman. Vanko was Russian, but his grudge was personal, not political. Captain America fought in WWII, but his enemy was Hydra, a faction of even more evil Nazis that later in the movie splits from Germany altogether. Again and again, the bad guys are simplified down to purely evil world conquerors. So who wouldn’t root for the good guys stopping them?

The first part of Captain America: The Winter Solider so wants to complicate this dynamic. Much like its “let’s not alienate anyone” approach to villains, the MCU had not yet specifically made America the good guys. In fact, Tony Stark treats the military and government oversight as a nuisance, General Ross actively hunts the Hulk, and Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff colonel from The First Avenger constantly insults and underestimates Steve Rogers until he proves himself. And before you argue that The First Avenger was pro-USA, I’ll remind you that Cap was empowered by a German, fights with a multicultural team led by an English woman, and worked outside of the establish military structure. America just considered him a way to sell war bonds.

What the MCU has built is a USA that seems to be, at best, a lurching bureaucracy that is easily manipulated by corporations and villains (what’s the difference, am I right?). It’s worth protecting, but only because it’s full of innocent people like the ones we see thanking The Avengers after the Battle of New York. The movies do not define an American ideology that must be upheld. I mean, Iron Man 3 went so far as to make the vice president an accomplice of the villain and the president a helpless politician who immediately gives in and chooses to negotiate with terrorists. I think it’s fair to say these movies present a rather conservative perception that soldiers and hardworking common folks would be better off without our selfish leaders.

Captain America: The Winter Solider pushes back at that idea a little bit. It begins with Cap and Black Widow acting as SHIELD’s top agents, doing amazing work but also suffering due to Fury’s tendency to “compartmentalize” information. Cap gets even more uncomfortable when Fury reveals to him Project Insight, three helicarriers suped-up with Stark tech and a new algorithm that will help identify threats before they can do any damage. An obvious metaphor for America’s reliance on unconstitutional surveillance and drone warfare, Steve becomes so frustrated he confides to an elderly Peggy Carter that he’s not sure he can fit in this world.

This seems like a legitimate criticism of modern geopolitics, that Captain America feels like he doesn’t recognize the country. SHIELD, despite technically being an international organization, mostly features American agents, has “homeland” in the title, and is based in Washington, D.C. so I don’t think Cap’s discomfort could be misconstrued. Then Fury is attacked and seemingly killed, and Cap becomes a fugitive because he doesn’t immediately fall in line. Despite having just saved the world, SHIELD doesn’t trust him. In the 21st Century, no one is safe and everyone’s a suspect.

But that’s as far as the movie is willing to push its critique, as it then reveals a big twist that kind of makes everything that came before it moot: SHIELD has been taken over by Hydra. With that one, stellar reveal, all nuance is thrown out the window. Now Cap is back in the Forties fighting Nazis again, they just have cellphones this time. The movie even goes out of its way to drag Garry Shandling’s bitchy senator from Iron Man 2 back into the fold just to make him a Hydra agent, as if to drive home the point that any of the Americans who might have gotten in the Avengers way before secretly must have had diabolical agendas.

At the same time, the movie misses another chance for complication with the way that it handles the reveal that legendary Soviet assassin the Winter Soldier is Bucky. Because he was brainwashed, and because the Soviets were actually Hydra, there is no opportunity for the movie to really deal with the idea of a friend becoming or foe or him being the Captain America for a different country. He’s just a good guy being used by bad people who must be saved, and Cap loves saving people. If you didn’t notice, this is the first movie Cap does not use any weapons aside from his shield. It’s not subtle: Get it? He protects people!

Captain America: The Winter Solider is only a political thriller for a little bit before it falls back on America’s two most hated foes, Nazis and Soviet assassins. But, while the writing disappoints under scrutiny, I will not deny that it is thoroughly entertaining in the moment. Furthermore, I love the way the Russo brothers make Cap’s powers so physical and dangerous throughout the story. This is one of my favorite MCU movies, it’s just a shame it couldn’t push itself a little further.

MCU Power Rankings: Unlike some of the people on my Letterboxd (and the tone of most of my review) I like this one more each time I watch it. For now it’s second only to The Avengers, but I might bump the other Captain America above it later, merely because I feel less compelled to scrutinize that one.