Marvel’s Own Dark Knight
Until the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Marvel movie juggernaut was a series of breezy and loud, yet easy-to-digest comic book films. Winter Soldier just said goodbye to all that by being a super serious, not-for-kids political thriller with the occasional hero thrown in. In a shout out to ’70s political thrillers like The Paralax View and Three Days of The Condor, Soldier pits our old, gung-ho USA, represented by thawed out hero Captain America (Chris Evans), against a cynical brave new world of 24-hour surveillance and government monitoring set up to “keep us safe.” Soldier begins with Cap questioning his orders from Col. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the secret organization ominously named the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) after a raid on a hijacked tanker goes bad. Before he took a plunge in the Arctic and was frozen for 50 years, Cap was part of a supposedly honest, hard working, and righteous America of the 1940s. In Soldier, his idealistic sensibilities can’t conceive of a digital era when no one is safe from government surveillance and “pre-emptive” strikes in foreign countries are the norm. Cap’s beloved S.H.I.E.L.D. has also been infiltrated by spies from a counter-agency known as HYDRA, the science wing of the Nazi party.
The plot, which gets a bit convoluted at times, involves an assassination attempt on Nick Fury and the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D itself using a mysterious mercenary known in clandestine circles as “The Winter Soldier.” As there are numerous plot twists and turns, we’re going to keep this review relatively spoiler free. Since the end of World War II, agents from HYDRA have been slowly infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D in order to eventually take it over leading S.H.I.E.L.D. executive director Alexander Pierce—played by human saddle Robert Redford, whose sun baked face creaks when he talks—to head an internal investigation to weed out the traitors. After being seriously attacked on the street by fake S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Fury seeks Cap’s help in bringing down the whole plan, which, of course like the best 70s thrillers, leads to the highest levels in our government and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s command structure.
Cap is joined by the ambiguous hero, Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and newcomer Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon (Anthony Mackie). We’ll take a moment to address Falcon. Falcon appeared in the ’70s as a Harlem superhero who would occasionally team up with Captain America when he took on social issues. Mackie’s take on Wilson is less jive-talking Harlemite and more former military man. One of the weak spots of this almost perfect superhero film is how Falcon gets his wings. We get to see a folder thrown down on a table stamped with OPERATION FALCON then a cut to Mackie flying around a massive S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Up until this scene the films pacing is almost pitch perfect so we suspect that there’s a segue scene on the cutting room floor, as it were.
We were also surprised at how dark Winter Soldier was compared to the other Marvel films. They really took a chance on this one and fortunately it works. Soldier has successfully snatched the “serious superhero film” torch from the leathery hands of The Dark Knight, DC Comic’s epic Batman film which took on heavy themes like avarice and selfish self preservation. When the Winter Soldier character was introduced to the Marvel Universe by noir writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting almost a decade ago, overall government monitoring of email, cameras on every corner, and drone surveillance was still relegated to a series of comic book tropes. Ed Snowdon’s revelations changed all that, so the plot of Solider is actually more real than when the comic came out.
Clocking in at over two hours, Soldier moves a long at a brisk clip with a slight drag in the middle. We loved the use of non-CGI car chases and fight scenes. Particularly between Cap and once of his staple nemeses, Batroc (they wisely dropped “The Leaper” from the name) played by the French former MMA champ Georges St-Pierre. So what’s in it for comic fans? A whole basket of Easter Eggs, that’s what. There’s names dropped all over the place, one which allusded to the next beig franchise film, and a great in-joke carved into a tomstone at the end.
Marvel has upped the game with this film so we have a feeling that the frozen hero of the ’40s will leave the upcoming X-Men and Spiderman films out in the cold.