Before I went to the local cinema to see "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (CAWS), I had to study up, which meant seeing "Captain America, The First Avenger" (CAFA) beforehand. So I rented the older movie on Amazon Prime Instant Video, and generally enjoyed myself. In that first film, Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a 1940s-era runt (I assume Evans's runtiness was accomplished via Gollum-style CGI motion-capture effects) who desperately wants to join the fight against Hitler. Unfortunately, despite having a great deal of heart, Rogers has a long list of ailments, asthma among them. He attempts several times to enlist, each time offering a false profile to hide his previous attempts at enlistment, and each time being rejected. Steve's friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) does enlist, shipping off to Europe and leaving Steve behind. A certain Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Steve's fervent desire to enlist, and decides to induct Steve into a government-sponsored "super-soldier" program. Steve is supposed to be the first of an army of super-soldiers, but when a murderous agent from Hydra, a rogue wing of the Nazis, appears and shoots up the serum-injection experiment (killing Dr. Erskine in the process), only Steve has been injected. The experiment is a success: Steve is cured of all his ailments, and has transformed into the tall, buff, studly Captain America we all recognize.
Much of the movie is devoted to how Captain America is used, at first, as a propaganda tool to encourage enlistment as part of the ongoing war effort. But Steve Rogers would much rather be out in the thick of it, striking a blow against Hitler instead of dressing in tights and mouthing patriotic platitudes. With the help of lovely British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), he gets his chance, and thus the real story of Captain America begins. The focus shifts to the conflict with Hydra, led by evil scientist (and early recipient of a cruder form of the super-serum, which turns him into Red Skull) Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving*) and his pint-sized assistant, Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). A bit like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones films, Schmidt has been in pursuit of powerful artifacts. At first, he did this work as Hitler's minion, but as he became more power-hungry, Schmidt turned Hydra into an autonomous agency with its own agenda. Schmidt's plan, as is perennially true for all power-mad movie villains, is no less than world domination. The focus of Schmidt's lust is an unearthly, glowing cube called the Tesseract (which figures in "The Avengers," reviewed here). Schmidt sees the Tesseract as a source of limitless energy, enough to power his massive weapons and to bring the world to its knees.
As I mentioned above, I generally enjoyed the film. Its sepia-toned narrative made for nostalgic viewing, and Captain America's awkward beginnings as a propaganda puppet signaled a less hagiographic approach to superheroic mythology. It doesn't hurt that Chris Evans is a likable Captain America, a man almost monastically devoted to the cause of justice. But had it not been for the luminous presence of Peggy Carter, Captain America would have been a flat character—all devotion, no humanity. Peggy allows us to see Cap's softer side. The nature of Cap's conflict with Hydra, though, means that the film operates on a somewhat parochial scale, despite the enormous backdrop of World War II. The story isn't about Hitler or freedom or the spreading of American values: it's about Steve Rogers finding himself and facing off against Red Skull. Despite all the spectacle, CAFA is a remarkably simple, remarkably personal story about one man coming into his own (thanks, in large part, to government-sponsored science), loyal to a cause and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. The coda, in which Cap wakes up from a 70-year sleep to a world he doesn't recognize, adds a tinge of sadness to the story. And before I forget: hats off to Tommy Lee Jones for being a good sport and tackling his typecast military role with wry good humor.
A much more interesting film, however, is the sequel: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." This is an action film that works well for younger viewers, but it also offers something cerebral for us older viewers to chew on. Unlike CAFA, CAWS actually delves into some deeper themes and serious topical issues, such as preemptive war, assassination, and what it means to cleave to a 1940s-era black-and-white morality in the jumbled, morally ambiguous world of the 2010s. I sympathized with Cap in this film: much of his dialogue with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is laced with doubt and frustration about whom to believe and whom to trust. In fact, trust is one of the overarching themes of this movie—trust, and how it affects things like loyalty, duty, and friendship.
"The Winter Soldier" is a reference to one of the film's main antagonists: a fearsome, ruthless soldier with a robotic arm. I was glad to have seen the first movie, because when the Winter Soldier's identity is finally revealed, he turns out to be someone from the first film. In fact, CAWS makes many references to the previous movie; the plot would have been hard to understand with no knowledge of the first film.
CAWS begins with Cap and Black Widow on a mission: the rescue of hostages from the clutches of the pirate Georges Batroc. An impressive series of fight sequences ensues, including one with Batroc using savate versus Cap's integrated fighting style. Cap discovers that Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), his boss at the agency SHIELD, has given Black Widow a different mission: the recovery of data from Batroc. Cap confronts Fury about the compartmentalized mission directives; Fury deflects and responds by revealing Project Insight, a massive build in which three networked "helicarriers" (like the ship seen in "The Avengers") will be able to target and terminate profiled suspects. Overseeing all this is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a SHIELD bigwig whom I immediately pegged as a bad guy. CAWS did telegraph some of its major plot points although, because I've never followed the Captain America comics, the revelation of the Winter Soldier's identity came as a surprise.
An initial attempt to assassinate Nick Fury ends in failure; Fury is injured but manages to escape. A second attempt, this time by the Winter Soldier, proves successful, and Captain America suddenly finds himself in the position of an American ronin, a masterless samurai. Branded a traitor and a fugitive by Alexander Pierce, Cap goes on the run with Black Widow, but receives help from his friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a.k.a. Falcon. The plot thickens and becomes more tangled as it's revealed that Hydra, long believed defunct, has been growing like a cancer within the structure of SHIELD itself. Cap eventually comes to realize that the only way to stop Hydra's resurgence is to take down SHIELD.
All in all, CAWS does a much better job than the first movie of weaving both large-scale and personal themes together. It's a more mature film; I appreciate that it's got a brain. The titanic ending was a bit too long and drawn-out for my taste, and there were some minor plot holes that bugged me (e.g., why did Black Widow and Falcon allow themselves to be captured along with Cap after the fight on the bridge? they could easily have split up and regrouped). But I liked how the movie had something to say about the dangers of big data, about the surveillance culture we live in, about preemptive terminations** and the steady loss of our liberties. On a more amusing note, I appreciated the several Easter eggs laced throughout the film, the most prominent being a reference to Samuel Jackson's character in "Pulp Fiction": a gravestone that reads, "...the path of the righteous man..."
"The Winter Soldier" is a visual treat, but it doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. I'd like to see it again before it leaves Korean theaters.
*Weaving has said, in interviews, that his German accent was based partly on that of Werner Herzog, a fact that tickles me to no end.
**The filmmakers have explicitly said that CAWS is a critique of President Obama's targeted drone strikes.