02 August 2014

It’s a common conceit that any new series of superhero movies has to start with the origin. It doesn’t matter if 90% of the world’s population already knows that the death of Batman’s parents drove him to become a ludicrously rich vigilante, or that Superman came from the planet Krypton, or that Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. Movie studios are convinced that the story still needs to be retold on the screen, and then retold yet again if the series gets a new lead actor or director or executive producer or key grip.

It’s a rare case—say, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy—where the first movie of a superhero series gives us anything terribly new. More often they come into their own with the second movie. With the origin retelling out of the way we get The Dark Knight, we get Iron Man 2, we get The Avengers. We get Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

There was one thing that made Captain America: The First Avenger different from most superhero franchise setups: It was a World War II movie, a period piece. As a result, The Winter Soldier had to carry a little of the weight of setting up Cap’s supporting cast since the bulk of them have died of old age by now. A little of that was done in The Avengers, which showed his role as a modern-day agent of SHIELD, and both the Black Widow and Nick Fury have continued on to The Winter Soldier. Now they’re joined by Cap’s frequent partner Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie.

There is one character who carried over from the original movie, but while nobody who’s ever picked up a Marvel comic could consider it truly a spoiler, I’ll leave the identity of the Winter Soldier a secret to be discovered by those who don’t yet know and have somehow managed to avoid spoilers from elsewhere.

In the context of big action movies, the Black Widow’s role here is refreshing. It’s rare to have a female character play so significant a role in a movie like this without becoming a love interest—or even a hook-up. Black Widow and Captain America – Natasha and Steve – are both people who need friends, especially when it seems they can’t trust anyone or anything else, and that’s what they become. Steve is still working through the idea that the woman he loved is now in her 90s, and as evidenced by the silver arrow necklace she wears through the movie, Natasha is already involved with someone. It’s nice to see that respected. Romance in a case like this is so often forced for the sake of the White Male Power Fantasy aspect that the absence of that is a relief. Movies need more platonic relationships like theirs.

Captain America—not unlike G.I. Joe—is, by his very nature, a character who demands a political stand to tell a good story. But while The Winter Soldier is a modern version of the good old political thriller, it’s still a superhero movie with a superhero scope. Rather than getting embroiled in the fine moral points of America’s overreaching surveillance program, it cuts right to the Worst Case Scenario, one in which giant helicarriers are used to preemptively eliminate anyone who could become a threat. It’s like the Minority Report with flying aircraft carriers. The villainous HYDRA, having infiltrated SHIELD, is banking on the idea that humanity will be willing to give up freedom in return for the safety their drones-on-steroids will provide. The idea that the organizations that claim to keep us safe can easily be corrupted from within but are not inherently bad is a good middle ground for an action movie.

As a whole, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an enjoyable, well-paced, well-directed movie. In some combat scenes the shaky cam got a little out of hand, but for the most part the action was exciting and easy to follow. It’s a perfect kick-off to the 2014 summer movie season.