Why I think Captain America: Winter Soldier is the best Marvel Superhero movie thus far (spoilers)

Watch this Movie

Watch this Movie

This post contains spoilers. The specific spoilers begin after the red text.

As a Canadian, I have never been a huge fan of cap. I don’t hate the character especially, but if I am honest the idea of a nationalistic superhero bothers me, no matter what the nation may be. Marvel manages to skirt around the issue quite well, especially post ultimates with cap acting as the man out of time, that ultimate allied soldier who is more of a representative of the distilled ideals of a generation than a particular country — you know those people who survived WWII and fought against the Nazis.

The First Captain America movie was entertaining, and much better than I expected it would be, but not on par with the Avengers or the first Iron Man. I went into the theatre for Captain America: Winter Soldier knowing very little about the plot and no spoilers. I came out of the theatre more pleased with the movie that I watched than I have been in a very long time.

In general the movie was good. The action scenes were crisp and varied. The banter was a nice mix of humorous and dramatic, with a surprising dose of heavy subject matter (more on that later). The effects were excellent. The acting was also very, very good, much better than I would ever expect from a comic book movie, even in the age of Robert Downey’s Iron Man. I would heartily recommend this movie to anyone at all, perhaps even those who do not like comic book movies.

Very specific spoilers begin here.

Here are five reasons why I think that Winter Soldier is not only worth watching, but actually kind of brilliant.

1) Black Widow: The marvel movies, despite bringing in Joss Whedon and some a-list talent to play female characters are not the best when it comes to female empowerment. I don’t blame comics for this, I blame the marketing department at the movie studios. I was happily that Scarlett Johanson’s Natasha Romanov got a lot of screen time with some serious action scenes, decent banter, and an integral part of the plot. I ma not the best judge of these things, but I did not find Black Widow to be overly ‘sexed up’. She wasn’t even involved in any romantic sub-plots. Which leads me to my next point.

2) No romantic sub-plots: There is a very tender scene in the middle of the movie where Cap visits the aging/dying Peggy Carter to talk about the past. It brought a tear to my eye, reminding me of recent visits with my grandparents who are part of the same generation as agent Carter, and suffering through the same, slow, brutal dance with age. That is the extent of the romance in the movie, and it is there to serve as a reminder of who Captain America is and what he values, not to titillate or tick off another item on the movies feature list. Cap does not date anyone and his only kiss in the movie leads Black Widow to make fun of him, with only a slight bit of sexual tension, if any. It is damned refreshing to have a movie this long with so little  attention paid to Romance. But then again, Winter Soldier is a damned serious movie.

3) The plot was predictable, but I didn’t care: Winter Soldier doesn’t really try to throw any curveballs. This is one thing I respect in most of the marvel movies. The writers know that the audience knows the source material well and aren’t watching for great new stories so much as to see their favourite characters and favorite stories retold on the big screen. The Winter Solider story, from Fury’s (fake) death, to the Winter Soldier being Bucky, to the various betrayals was not mean to surprise, but rather to emphasize the experience. The story, in the end, gives way to a discussion about philosophy, generational values, and the whole issue of security that is currently the western world, from drones to Edward Snowden.

4) The Winter Soldier has something to say, and it is fairly deep: I often feel that the politicians and thinkers who current dominate the Western world suffer from a James Bond complex. Security had become such a concern for some that it threatens the privacy, freedom, and quality of life for many. In the movie when Nick Fury and Cap argue about “neutralizing enemies before they become a threat”, I am immediately minded of the rhetoric that surrounds drone based missile strikes in countries like Yemen, where we redefine the dead as potential enemy combatants to avoid the sticky moral issues of killing people “who might be dangerous, but we aren’t really sure, and you don’t need to know about it anyways”. The movie wants you to draw this parallel, with huge carriers with automated weapon systems that can lock on to distant targets and eliminated them thousands at a time from on high, reducing the decision to destroy down to an algorithm and a moral view. In particular I found the use of Hydra to be quite good, as the people who take that ideal one step beyond where it is in reality and show us the naked possibilities of the slippery slope of the current security apparatus.

5) Generational Values: When Cap and Fury argue early on, Fury brings up the view that “The Greatest Generation”, which Cap belongs to is not necessarily as good as people seem to think. From then on, the interplay of generational values becomes a deep and resonant thread in the movie, tying in very neatly with the theme of security and freedom. Falcon and Black Widow are explicitly called out as millennials, making it interesting that Natasha has the final word on Shield while Fury sort of retires. It is something that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately as we slowly lose the Greatest Generation, and the millennial generations make themselves felt. Currently the world is dominated by the interests of the Boomers —  that whole James Bond complex is part of their zeitgeist in many ways, having its roots in the Cold War. It is certainly a deeper discussion and a deeper point than I ever expected from a comic book movie and it may lead the curious into those discussions, which I think need to be had. It is a complicated and difficult and messy issue, and it is amazing to see a pop culture movie actually did into it in a meaningful fashion.

In a way, the movie speaks to me. These are things that I think about a lot. I am deeply worried about the people who take our freedom in the name of protecting us. Who spy on us for our own good and kill people in far off countries in our name with remote controlled death toys. I see the roots of this conflict in the zeitgeist of past generations. I am worried about what will happen when it all boils over. It is nice to see  movie that isn’t afraid to go there, explicitly.

Pretty good for a silly movie about dudes in spandex.

PS: also kind of cool that they are willing to drop Shield. That has real ramifications.

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