After you've seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, listen to Slate's Dana Stevens and Forrest Wickman discuss it on the Spoiler Special podcast.
The subtitle of Marvel’s new Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes to us via the famous opening passage in Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary War pamphlet “The Crisis”: “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of the country but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Paine never mentions the winter soldier by name—his existence is to be inferred from that of the summer soldier, a military fair-weather friend whose fraudulent loyalty is exposed in times of adversity. Two centuries later, in the early 1970s, the organization of Vietnam Veterans Against the War held a series of war-crimes hearings that became known as the Winter Soldier Investigation, the idea being that he who truly loves his country will be brave enough to tell hard truths about it.
In the new Captain America—sequel to 2011’s The First Avenger—the moral valence of Paine’s weather metaphor has been reversed. The character nicknamed the Winter Soldier isn’t the steadfast, naïve Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but his treacherous nemesis—whose real identity I won’t reveal here, but who has emerged far less spiritually intact than Steve has from “the times that try men’s souls.”
What do revolutionary propaganda and Vietnam-era protest have to do with a competently assembled corporate product like the new Captain America? Nothing, probably; the Winter Soldier name comes from the well-regarded Marvel comic-book series by Ed Brubaker, who has said in an interview that he first heard the term in the context of the '70s hearings, learned much later it came from Paine, and borrowed it less for the historical associations than for the sound: “It’s a very evocative name for a Captain America villain.”
I’m just vamping, trying to find my way into a discussion of a movie that, precisely because it’s such a competently assembled corporate product, seems as impervious to analysis or criticism as its hero’s all-powerful concentric-circle shield is to bonks from bad guys. But among the various interrelated Marvel comic myths that have been converging over the past few years into a unified Avengers cosmology (Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, etc.), Captain America does feel like the one that’s the most concerned with taking a longer view of American history, if only because the loyal and patriotic Steve Rogers, who spent the years between World War II and the present day frozen in suspended animation, is a kind of reanimated fossil.
Steve’s status as a gung-ho mid-20th-century good guy in a morally ambiguous 21st-century world provides this pleasant if unremarkable blockbuster with a modicum of ethical heft and a few sly jokes. In the opening scene, we catch a glimpse of a notebook in which the recently resurrected hero has scribbled some notes on cultural touchstones he’s missed out on during his long slumber: The list includes Thai food, disco, and Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.” That last is recommended to him by his Army buddy Sam Wilson (appealingly played by The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie), who later reveals himself to be a fellow superdude, the mechanical-winged Falcon. But there are some less fun elements of contemporary American life that Steve will soon have to grapple with: omnipresent government surveillance, drone warfare, and inter-spy-agency skullduggery. He and Sam, accompanied by Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow, will soon be on the run, unable to trust even the organization—S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury—that’s purporting to protect them.
In its imagining of a corrupt and untrustworthy government honeycombed with secret nefarious conspiracies, The Winter Soldier at times resembles a cleaner, less gritty version of the paranoid political thriller of the ’70s, in which a disillusioned hero goes rogue to discover the truth. So it’s fitting that the movie co-stars conspiracy-thriller veteran Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, a suave, imperturbable diplomat who may or may not have the best interests of S.H.I.E.L.D. at heart. Redford is an unexpected and bracing presence in a movie of this kind; his presence, along with Jackson’s, lend the movie a current of brainy countercultural hip that the script (by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, who also wrote both the last Captain America movie and Thor: The Dark World) doesn’t always earn.
It doesn’t make sense to review a superhero movie without mentioning the action sequences, but the sad truth is the Niagara Falls’ worth of movie budgets expended on blockbuster special effects are now wasted on this white-flag-waving viewer. I can barely distinguish or remember who fell off what spaceship onto what exploding aircraft carrier from movie to movie, so ubiquitous and overextended and loud have such scenes become. To its credit, The Winter Soldier (directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo) doesn’t casually exploit 9/11 by destroying the skyline of a major city. But for a movie that often shoots for a lighthearted, sunny tone, it has a hell of a high body count, with our heroes routinely storming into enclosed spaces and mowing down everyone in sight.
The most memorable element of The Winter Soldier, besides Redford, is probably Scarlett Johansson, whose dryly funny Natasha at times comes perilously close to being … a well-developed female character? She never appears in a full-body catsuit that I can recall, she cracks actual jokes rather than just reacting to those made by her male counterparts, and she has an amusingly high opinion of her own superheroic abilities, frequently comparing her intelligence favorably to that of the shield-wielding hunk at her side. Evans continues to be engaging as the refreshingly unbrooding Steve, and, all around, The Winter Soldier cheerfully and efficiently does its job doing whatever Marvel movies are meant to do—make you look forward to the next one, I guess. In the closing credits, the full-cast hoedown The Avengers: Age of Ultron (coming in summer 2015) gets a teaser, as does the further-out Captain America 3, and I have to admit that they both show some promise. But I might feel differently once this long cold winter turns to summer, the time that tries movie critics’ souls.