In junior high, good guys finish last.
It’s not too much different in the film world.
A well-rounded plot must possess more than a heightened sense of external conflict to be engrossing. An internal transformation—taken by the main character(s)—which parallels external stimuli makes a story worth telling. There must be demons inside and out. John McClane is fighting to save his wife and his marriage in Die Hard. Clint Eastwood is battling more than a gang in Gran Torino, he’s coming to terms with his own personal concave of racism.
A perfect person makes for a fairly boring film. That is why Captain America is a tough character to bring to the big screen. He’s not bipolar like the Hulk and he certainly can’t touch Iron Man in the narcissism department. Even his genetically altered physique makes him nearly impenetrable.
Yet, the producers of Captain America: The Winter Soldier did it. They took a seemingly perfect character and turned his story into the best Marvel movie to date.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directed by Anthony and Joe Russo) picks up not long after The Avengers storyline. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative stationed in the nation’s capitol, scurrying around the world on one military mission after another. All the while, still adjusting to life in the twenty-first century.
Being frozen for over sixty years has given Rogers a bit of cultural jet lag. Out of place in the universe, the Captain struggles to adjust to new threats brought on by globalization, technology, and modern warfare.
When a threat to S.H.I.E.L.D. rears its head, coinciding with the presence of a mysterious enemy, Rogers is left to sift through his ideas about power and protection. In one conversation with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson—or possibly Laurence Fishburne?), Rogers pokes at the issue working its way through his heart. “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”
This phrase encapsulates the entire plot of Winter Soldier and the journey Rogers must take as a character.
Why do I think that Winter Soldier is the best Marvel movie so far (I’m including Avengers in that list too)? I could name a few points: the controlled, yet well-constructed frantic action pieces, the snappy dialogue, a fully developed storyline in the political thriller genre (though I could have done with a little simplification), or Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow (might we see here in her own standalone piece?). What really did it for me, however, was the slow, steady journey Steve Rogers makes over the course of the film.
My favorite section of nearly every television show I’ve followed is the season premiere. I have an acute curiosity with the space in between. What happened in between seasons? How have both the situation and characters developed while we were gone? Captain America is living in the season premiere. He’s slowly adjusting to the time change.
Does his morality need to change in order to keep up with the twenty-first century? Is his “good old boy” persona outdated?
Sure, he should probably watch Star Wars when he’s finished saving the world, but no. Culture changes, ideas are developed. But right and wrong, freedom and tyranny, stay the same. They might take on a new name (or not), but they are foundational elements of our civilization. A good guy in the forties is still a good guy today.
As a person of faith, this is an inadvertent illustration of what it means to trust in objective truth. Culture changes, it shifts and moves like a platonic plate. Truth might dress in a different suit, it might even carry a few new shiny gadgets. That’s okay. It’s the foundational elements that must remain the same. We update methods, we don’t update the bedrock truths of our Christian story.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, brings this theme to the surface while still managing to be sharply tense and entertaining along the way. It’s clean, fresh, and a whole lot of fun. The rest of the cast, filled out by Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, and Sebastian Stan, all do a steady job of carrying the plot forward and filling out the Marvel universe.
Sure, it’s difficult knowing that Captain America is seldom in true danger, his rigid exoskeleton won’t allow it, but was there any doubt he wouldn’t survive? Avengers: Age of Ultron is on the docket for 2015. It’s the fate of the characters around him and how the situation will bleed over into the overall storyline of the series, that make the plot tense and even a little unpredictable. Plus, it’s a slew of fun. Did I mention that yet?
If you love superhero films—which I do—you’ll love Winter Soldier. A film that changes the whole course of the Marvel franchise and, well, helps a good guy get the spotlight for once.
4 1/2 Stars out of 5
Captain America: Winter Soldier, is now in theaters. It’s rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.
[UPDATE] I had a chance to talk with the guys at Reel World Theology about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You can listen to the podcast here.