Now is the Winter (Soldier) of Our Discontent… or Not

As I’m sure everyone has noticed, superheroes are here to stay in the modern blockbuster landscape, and to be honest I’m perfectly happy with that (to the surprise of no one who knows me or has read this blog). And while we’ve had Nolan’s Batfilms and the occasional original story like The Incredibles or Chronicle here and there, the current domination of superheroes is almost entirely due to the output of Marvel Studios. This is particularly impressive considering that many of their Phase One movies were actually pretty similar and almost repetitive, with the details on the various characters providing the only distinction among a horde of Good Ol’ Origin Stories. But first with The Avengers (the unprecedented multi-franchise mashup) and then with Iron Man 3 (modern superheroics mixed with classic ‘80s action swagger), Marvel Studios has begun to bring new styles, voices and tropes into the fray, and in the process expanding the language of superhero storytelling in film. The latest grand example of this is in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie that transcends the costumed adventuring to bring us a sharp political thriller with a great emotional story about the personal cost of war… from those guys that directed a lot of Community episodes. (Spoilers follow!)

One familiar element here is the universe building, although Winter Soldier avoids getting bogged down in this area the same way Iron Man 2 and Thor did. The biggest reason why is that none of the references or callbacks feel forced it, but rather come into the story naturally as the narrative dictates. The reappearance of Agent Sitwell (from the Item 47 short) and Senator Stern (from Iron Man 2) not only strengthens the ties of the overall universe, but also retroactively gives their previous appearances more depth and context. And the denouement perfectly sets up Avengers: Age of Ultron in both direct (the post-credits scene is basically a prologue) and indirect (the aftereffects of Winter Soldier signal a major shift in the status quo across the board). With Winter Soldier, a major step forward was taken in making the Marvel Cinematic Universe a living, breathing thing, without sacrificing the story at hand to make it happen.

Also despite the action set-pieces and CGI, Winter Soldier is at least as much a 70s-style political thriller as it is an “action movie”. It makes use of many classic tropes of that genre as anything else, and makes some pointed (if very straightforward) commentary on the post-9/11, post-Snowden world. Aiding this greatly is the casting of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, leader of the World Security Council and Nick Fury’s boss, showing how even the crusading and compelling heroes of the past can be drawn into horrible moral places for the sake of safety in this modern era of attempted obfuscation. Winter Soldier brings the focus back to the characters and the moral and emotional stakes as much as possible, and keeps the whiz-bang effects sequences mostly confined to the finale, making the whole story much more intimate as a result.

But by far the most defining aspect of the film is the emotional story, about a group of damaged and detached warriors who need to reconnect to the civilian world, and find new directions for themselves. Both Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes lose the worlds that they knew, stuck out of time and dropped into the modern world. For Steve, this means confronting his own legacy and the time he’s missed with his love ones. For Bucky, this means losing everything of himself and becoming a mindless killing machine that only knows The Mission. Both of their struggles are juxtaposed perfectly with Sam Wilson, who is a modern veteran trying to cope with his own past by aiding his peers. Combining all of that with Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury coming to terms with their own sins and lies, you get a film that is not only thrilling, political, action-packed and geeky, but emotionally involved too, and in a very real and different way from other superhero movies. It also doesn’t hurt that Winter Soldier brings the funny when it needs it, something that can be as emotionally involving as anything else.

So, there we go: Marvel & Co. have once again expanded the idea of what a superhero movie can be, and the types of stories they can tell. Now, with an absurd space opera, a scifi heist comedy, and potentially one of the biggest sequels of all time on the horizon, I can’t help but wonder… where do the heroes go from here?

Personally, I can’t wait to find out.


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