Steve Rogers takes on moral relativism in the Marvel world

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
3.5 out of 5

When it comes to morality, Captain America has always been Marvel’s answer to DC’s Superman. Steve Rogers is unwavering in his principles (freedom, justice, equality) — so much so that he’s often seemed a bit dull when compared to more conflicted heroes like Spider-Man, Batman or Wolverine.

But that rigid worldview is used to fine effect in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.

The black-and-white, right-or-wrong moral code that served Rogers (Chris Evans) so well during World War II is in direct conflict with the modern geopolitics he’s now immersed in. Compromise and secrecy reign in the modern world, and even the supposed “good guys” are at best varying shades of grey. The Captain’s unease is exacerbated by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s covert operations and weaponry development: their latest toy is a second generation helicarrier that doubles as a killer drone — it’s designed to “pre-emptively” eliminate threats, and can exterminate thousands of suspects with the flick of a switch. “This isn’t freedom. It’s fear,” says Rogers.

Rogers’ moral clarity becomes an asset when S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised from within and Captain America is not only shut out, but actively pursued.

On Cap’s side are the duplicitous spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and an officer who’s cut from the same cloth, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a.k.a. Falcon. Against him are senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) — a “greater good” kind of guy — and a silent assassin nicknamed “the winter soldier.” The hitman shares many similarities with Rogers — perhaps too many to be a coincidence. (Also, if you thought the Captain got rid of HYDRA in just one movie, you’ve got another thing coming.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as close to a stand-alone film as any Marvel movie in recent memory. The first half operates (by design) as a’70s-style institutional thriller: a government body riddled with corruption turns against those who may expose it. Redford, a veteran of Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, is a casting coup, conveying congeniality and menace at the same time. He’s an ideal fit for the role.

Criticism of America’s apparently never-ending war on terror — and the ethical compromises those in charge of it are willing to make — is a constant undercurrent throughout the film. Besides the drone issue, invasion of privacy and pre-crime policies take a well-deserved swipe. Sadly, it’s not that hard to imagine that a sizable percentage of the American population would agree with the repressive state that a significant faction of S.H.I.E.L.D. endorses.

The action sequences in The Winter Soldier are impeccably executed — well-edited, entertaining and at times, excruciatingly tense. (A hit on one of the staple characters is better than The Avengers’ alien invasion, at a fraction of the cost.)

Even the compulsory hand-to-hand scrap feels exciting: impressive stuff, especially considering that nothing directors Joe and Anthony Russo have done before indicated they had a talent for action.

The denouement is traditionally Marvel, with major disarray as the heroes battle the villains on different yet interconnected levels. It’s also where a problem with the Winter Soldier becomes evident (warning: minor spoilers ahead!): in the original comic, the story of Bucky Barnes is a classic, but little of that comes across here. Whether that’s due to Sebastian Stan’s bland performance in the role or the far-too-minimal background offered on the character, we end up with just another villain who makes little impression. Not exactly what you want from one of your title characters.

Along with the relativity of death, the lack of communication between the Avengers has been a common problem in the Marvel universe, and it remains so here. Seriously, why wasn’t Iron Man (or at least Hawkeye) summoned by the Cap to lend a hand? No good explanation is offered, and that’s at the very least an oversight (end spoilers).

Those flaws aside, The Winter Soldier is a strong entry into the comic book movie canon — and an episode which opens the door to a separate storyline that could very well transcend Avengers: Age of Ultron (coming in 2015). Not a bad kickoff to the summer blockbuster season at all.


A Brief History of comic book MOVIE time

These days it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when comic book movies didn’t dominate the big screen every summer blockbuster season. But it’s true: back in the day, comic superheroes were actually found only in… well, comics.

Before comic books there were newspaper comic strips: they led to the birth of comic books in the 1930s, and that quickly led to the birth of the superhero genre. One of the first superheroes to grace the live-action screen was the 1941 action serial Adventures of Captain Marvel. Yup: Superman’s knock-off beat him to the big screen, and was the first to fly for audiences. Most of the early superheroes were quickly serialized, and soon the likes of Batman, Blackhawk and Captain America were gracing theatres and fighting evil on a weekly basis.

The first full-length live-action superhero film was DC Comic’s Superman in 1978, with Christopher Reeve famously taking on the title character. It was awesome, and set the standard for the films that followed (although it was also followed by three sequels which kept getting cheesier and cheesier). DC then looked to replicate Superman’s success with 1982’s Swamp Thing, from director Wes Craven.

It wasn’t one of Craven’s better films, but it was a helluva lot better than Marvel’s first foray into full-length comic book movies. Which was… /Shane Hnetka

A Duck? Seriously?

With George Lucas producing, Marvel’s first film wasn’t Spider-Man or even X-Men: it was 1986’s Howard the Duck. If you saw it back in the day, trust me: it’s as bad as you remember — and if you haven’t seen it, it’s probably worse than you can imagine. Rubbing salt in Marvel’s (self-inflicted) wound, DC had another hit just three years later with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman — while Marvel continued to struggle, with The Punisher and Captain America, two films that both ended up getting released directly to video. At the same time, independent comics started making waves in the movie world, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — a cheesy live-action film from 1990 that will probably be better than the upcoming Michael Bay-produced remake. In 1993 The Crow became a hit as well, and much of that may be because the film’s star, Brandon “Son of Bruce” Lee was killed while making the movie.

Bad Batman, Boffo Blade

But DC got their comeuppance, as the Batman franchise evolved into a crapfest — and Marvel finally had a hit with 1998’s Blade. At the time Marvel had declared bankruptcy, and as part of the rebuilding process for the company, they licensed out several of their more popular characters to various studios. With all the failures, it seemed like a smart idea at the time. The following year Bryan Singer brought Marvel’s popular The X-Men to the big screen. In 2002 director Sam Raimi had a huge hit at Sony with Spider-Man.

The modern onslaught of superhero films had begun.

Mo Money Means Mo Movies!

DC rebooted Batman in 2005, but failed to make Superman viable. Fox and Sony had made several bad Marvel comic films (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3) and by 2008 Marvel had formed their own studio to produce their own comic movies and control their properties. Iron Man was the start of Marvel’s rebirthed cinematic universe — which, eight films later, has grossed $5,662,229,276 worldwide. DC is still trying with Superman and Batman, but not much else.

But did you notice that profit number just above? It means that comic book movies aren’t going away any time soon.