This review contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind Marvel’s movies, said that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a chance to expand the range of comic book movies, since the sequel would really be “a ’70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie.” But, despite the clear references to the overreach of the NSA’s surveillance state and the CIA’s unauthorized abuses, little in the movie treated man (or superman) as a political animal.
Although Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is warned by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that he should trust no one, the movie never forces the squeaky-clear hero into the same kind of suspicious attitude that characterizes his enemies.
The grand conspiracy isn’t revealed through an act of deduction or infiltration, but through the monologue of a very accommodating villain. When the organization that Rogers has served turns out to be tainted, there’s no attempt at investigation or truth and reconciliation. The heroes just leak all the classified files and disband S.H.I.E.L.D. altogether. And, when they infiltrate the base of their erstwhile allies, Captain America has a very simple heuristic for distinguishing friend from foe:
Falcon: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?
Captain America: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!
Charlie Jane Anders, reviewing the film for io9, argued that Captain America’s greatest power isn’t his superstrength or his shield, but his certainty.
[Y]ou reach a point where you realize that’s Captain America’s true superpower — he makes things simpler, for everybody. Everybody else in the movie changes, at least in part because of their connection to Steve Rogers. He’s a catalyst, as well as a leader. This film is simplistic because Steve Rogers’ worldview is simplistic. And if you only let him, Steve Rogers will allow you to live in his world where everything is black and white.
Usually, when Americans are characterized as thinking in black and white, it’s because we’ve divided the world or just our nation into “us” and “them” and are out to get rid of them as in President Bush’s statement, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” But when Captain America divides the world into light and dark, he has more in common with John Winthrop, who referenced Matthew 5:14 to tell his fellow colonists that the eyes of the world are upon them, and they must shine out, as a city on a hill.
The forceful optimism that Captain America exemplifies is most moving when the stakes of the movie get lower. When Captain America faces his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, who has been transformed into the robotic Winter Soldier, he offer Barnes his weakness, not his strength. Rogers drops his shield and stops putting up a fight. He’s asking his friend to show mercy, instead of removing the choice, and it’s easy to for the audience to hear echoes of a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”
That makes it all the stranger that, in order to make his way to Barnes, Captain America punches his way through approximately fifty mooks. Maybe he was carefully doing non-lethal damage, but, more likely, the film didn’t expect us to care, since it had already told us that all of Rogers’s antagonists were fanatics and Nazi-collaborators. There were limits to the movie’s mercies.
But Winter Soldier would have been a stronger film if it had taken a lesson from a different blockbuster franchise and admitted that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” In order to be a political thriller, instead of an interpersonal one, we need to see how Cap’s idealism scales up.
What are the limitations on charity and compassion when it’s expressed through an institution, instead of an individual? What sacrifices can Rogers choose for himself, but not the nation? The Winter Soldier, with its simplistic plot, doesn’t have any serious critique of American policy, but Steve Rogers still offers a powerful call to small-scale heroism to the American people.