For those of you who were wondering when Marvel would finally more aptly acknowledge its roots in our contemporary world politics, this sequel does just that, offering a serious social commentary about the status of that wonderful thing called 'freedom' in modern (American) society. Without sacrificing the quality mix of catchy humour and solid action that characterizes all of the Marvel movies thus far, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves there is room for contextual exploration of the modern zeitgeist on the big screen as much as there is on the pages of its comic books. Forget Iron Man battling terrorists in Afghanistan, there's deeper threats to be found on the homefront.
The first thing this movie does is re-establish the Star Spangled Avenger as a man out of time, providing character exposition that was lacking in The Avengers, since that film's alien invasion didn't allow much time for additional subplots. His homeland has changed much since the Forties and poor Steve Rogers ponders if he still fits in these more cynical times. Everyone he knew is dead or dying, as illustrated by a heartbreaking scene where he visits his former love Peggy, who has become a frail old woman suffering from degenerative diseases. Equally deteriorating seem to be his cherished notions on freedom. Civil liberties have been sacrificed to ensure national security and his employer, the "peacekeeping" organisation S.H.I.E.L.D., is keeping too close an eye on everybody's private affairs to his taste. Comparisons to the N.S.A.'s shenanigans are easily drawn, but in the tradition of the spy thrillers of the Seventies (from which this movie takes its fair share of notes thematically and stylistically), Cap 2 suggests the people have traded in their freedom, conditioned by growing fear the government was sowing in their minds of losing it. Naturally it's not wholly the fault of the executive power, as the movie identifies the Captain's principal enemy to be at the heart of this matter. The former Nazi science department HYDRA has made the transition to the 21st Century more smoothly than the Sentinel of Liberty himself, embedding itself firmly in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s upper echelons. Steve must find a way to root out America's hidden adversaries and end their collective mindcontrol dominating his country, all whilst on the run, accused of treason.
Enter his assorted allies. His gruff chief, Nick Fury, reluctantly starts asking questions when he tells Steve of a black ops project, designed to patrol the world neutralizing threats in their infancy, which Cap finds a revolting concept. It makes Fury a target for assassination, after which Cap teams up with Black Widow to find out who killed his guardian. Evans and Johansson make quite an enjoyable pair with great rapport, both having served as agents of the same secret organization, but carrying different views of their job and its methods; a relic of a more innocent time, Cap dislikes Widow's end-justify-the-means approach to things that the Cold War has taught her, causing the necessary verbal fireworks between the two that both provide character development and witty dialogue galore. Less compelling proves Cap's relationship with Sam Wilson, an army veteran who is more in line with his black and white line of thinking. Since an ordinary human being would be too dull at his side, Wilson soon dons a pair of mechanical wings, convenient leftovers of a secret military project. Comic connoisseurs will remember Wilson's alter ego the Falcon well before the appearance of this apparatus, which only feels a forced addition to the movie's progression.
Equally contrived an inclusion to the plot is the Winter Soldier himself. Serving as the ultimate assassin, a cyborg killer whose mind is wiped after every assignment so as to keep his human tendencies from compromising his ruthless efficiency, this man harbours a dark past and personal connection with his new target. Considering his limited screen time, this relationship, which turns out to be crucial at the film's conclusion, is not given its due to ensure the desired emotional impact, and feels largely as a set-up for a third movie. Nevertheless, the Winter Soldier proves quite a match for Cap and makes for a formidable foe to behold. The same can be said for Alexander Pierce, who fulfills a similar role except on a less physical level, serving as the movie's evil mastermind: an apt choice, considering the various political thrillers on Redford's resumé.
In terms of visual spectacle and explosive action, The Winter Soldier surpasses The First Avenger, trading in the predecessor's delightfully retro WW II style for a more intimidating modern look. Drones and missiles are all part of the package to give this movie a contemporary feel, but in typical Marvel fashion the movie tops this with even bigger guns and gadgets, the most exciting aspect three giant gunships hovering above the American capitol as they threaten to hold the nation hostage, at its own behest via security over freedom. Spectacular aerial battles are the result, while the movie also contains its fair share of hand-to-hand combat scenes, car chases and gun fights. Not to mention an ample dose of links to the larger Marvel Universe. You have to give kudos to Marvel's continuous method of seamlessly creating a larger whole out of separate pieces, without harming the content in said standalone stories.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a sequel superior to its predecessor. It couples valid, well-timed social anxieties to a good political thriller plot, while never ignoring the fun that is to be expected from a Marvel flick. Granted, not all characters come across as intriguing or convincing as ought to have been the case. This second Cap movie successfully introduces its protagonist to the new world he inhabits and the change in concept of the virtues he has always extolled, making this overly patriotic character much easier to digest for non American audiences, while giving domestic spectators an added value in having their nation's superhero redefine their mores for them.