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After being frozen in an unconscious state for seventy years, Captain America gets a lot of the same questions. Was it a shock to wake up in a changed culture? Does he miss the old days? After some time in the new era, Captain America actually finds that modern culture isn’t that different from what he knew in the 1940s. The technology and faces may have changed, but the fight for freedom still rages on, in America and across the world.
Thankfully for fans of Captain America: The First Avenger, the first of the Captain America films, not much has changed in between the movie installments either. A significantly more wholesome feel than most action films seems to be the welcome hallmark of the Captain America series.
As in The First Avenger, violence is the most problematic issue in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while the use of offensive language is reduced from the predecessor. Captain America himself is even more morally sound than in the original film as he and redemptive messages save the day.
For his whole life, Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) has always wanted to fight for what is right. Joining S.H.I.E.L.D., a government organization that strives to protect innocent lives and prevent global destruction, seems like an obvious way for the Captain to continue doing what he’s always done. But over time, Steve becomes concerned by the deception that seems to permeate every facet of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Captain doesn’t know the half of it. Even Nick Fury, the General of S.H.I.E.L.D., can’t keep up with all the subterfuge, some of which he perpetrated, until an undetected plot blows up in his face. With Fury’s life on the line and his standing with S.H.I.E.L.D jeopardized, Fury goes to the only person he believes he can trust—the unfailingly honest Captain America.
But when Fury’s pursuers learn of Steve’s involvement, Captain America becomes a target of S.H.I.E.L.D. and an assassin with unusual strength and fighting skill. Steve doesn’t have the luxury of making staying alive his primary objective since the committee of S.H.I.E.L.D. voted to launch Project Insight, which will position missile launchers in space where they can destroy any person deemed a threat to the powers that be.
Told by Fury not to trust anyone, Steve isn’t sure if he can accept help from Natasha (a.k.a. The Black Widow) or another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and pal of Fury’s. Steve also questions if he’s the only one who values freedom over the so-called protection given by Project Insight. But even if he’s alone, Captain America will fight for what is right. The trouble will be knowing what right is in a world of well-meaning wrongs.
What does an “always honest” guy like Captain America do when he’s caught in a web of deception? He cuts the sticky strands and searches out the truth. In flashy, spectacular style, Captain America does just that in this satisfying sequel.
The two themes that anchor this tale both find their vehicle in Captain America, who preaches the message of freedom and lives the message of honesty. Captain America has no qualms about fighting for what is right, but the hidden nature of the S.H.I.E.L.D. work eats away at him. He can’t even completely trust his closest comrade, Natasha, since he knows she lies for a living.
Natasha and Fury both get chances to make a case for their pattern of deception. Fury says such “compartmentalization” within S.H.I.E.L.D. is necessary so that no one will give away all the secrets “because no one knows all the secrets.” Natasha, on the other hand, cites survival as her reason for playing roles and becoming whoever people around her want her to be (or, more accurately, whoever she needs to be to accomplish her objective). If Steve wants a friend he can trust, Nat says he “might be in the wrong business.”
As the movie progresses, however, the story reveals that Steve’s unflappable commitment to honesty and truth is just what gives him an advantage over his opponents. He will stop at nothing until he roots out the truth behind the lies and secrets driving the threat on America. He is the only person others can turn to when they don’t know who to trust. Ultimately, Steve becomes a living illustration of the biblical promise, “the truth will set you free.”
Interesting, then, that Captain America’s other obsession is the quest for freedom. As Steve searches for truth in this film, he does so for one cause, to preserve the freedom of humanity. In a surprising commentary on issues in the America of real life, Steve makes a point of recognizing the danger of sacrificing freedom in order to have protection from perceived evil.
Showing a rare wisdom for a Hollywood hero, Captain America also realizes that respecting authorities, laws, and even taking orders does not automatically necessitate an abdication of freedom. After all, Steve wanted nothing more than to volunteer for military service before he became Captain America, and he bears that attitude seventy years later as a volunteer with S.H.I.E.L.D.
When any officer, official, or other authority acts wrongly, however, Steve just as quickly recognizes the need to stand in opposition in order to do what is right. As the greatest heroes do, Captain America not only upholds right himself, but he inspires other, ordinary people to do the same.
The one right that Captain America and his films do not seem able to manage is achieving victory for a noble cause without violence. Instead, The Winter Soldier packs in even more violence than The First Avenger, some of which is also more gruesome.
The worst of the violent moments involve Captain America throwing a blade that stabs through a man’s hand (pinning the hand to a wall), a strangulation, several limbs getting audibly broken, a man screaming in pain as he undergoes a brain wipe, and another man sustaining repeated blows to his face without fighting back.
Arguably worse than the violent incidences themselves is the lack of remorse attached to each act of violence, even when done by the film’s heroes. Nat and Steve dish out much of the harshest violence in the picture, and they do so without hesitation or even a hint of sadness or regret. Killing doesn’t bother these heroes a bit.
Assassins are portrayed negatively throughout The Winter Soldier, but in reality, Nat herself is frequently an assassin. She does speak somewhat repentantly about her past as a KGB agent, during which she apparently committed some serious crimes, but she’s just as ruthless in her violent defense of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s causes, seeming to believe that the ends justify the means.
The negative impact of the violence is softened, however, by the fact that Captain America and Nat only ever dish out their brutality to the “bad guys” who are either trying to kill the heroes or other people. A case for defense of others as the driving force of the heroes’ actions could certainly be made, but a case for including such an abundance of violence in a film meant to entertain wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
Nonetheless, Captain America is saved from becoming a villain in his tendency toward violence by his need to always know with certainty that he is fighting for right. In addition, he pulls back from killing a real villain who is trying to kill him, knowing that he’s risking his life, because he values friendship and loyalty over self-preservation.
In this and other sequences, Captain America emerges as the rare kind of movie hero who is worthy of admiration. Captain America knows that freedom has a price and he’s not afraid to pay that price, but what really drives his desire for the freedom of all people is his compassion for others. He sits at the bedside of an old friend, he makes new friends easily, and he sometimes tries to save people who might kill him.
Steve is not a womanizer (sexual content is blissfully absent in this film) and he doesn’t even have time for a romantic relationship because he’s too busy saving others. Self-aggrandizement and self-preservation are not on Captain America’s radar.
Captain America’s wholesome and heroic character is made believable by the acting performance of Chris Evans. As in The First Avenger, Evans gets a chance to flex acting chops critics may have doubted he had. He carries the weight of the film with increased maturity and depth. He also pairs beautifully with Scarlett Johansson, who plays Nat.
Though the cynical and cutthroat Black Widow would be the last person one would think to pair with Captain America, this film does just that with surprising success thanks to these two actors’ performances and a well-written script. Evans and Johansson achieve an on-screen chemistry that is built on their characters’ mutual respect and need for friendship, rather than physical lust. Thus, the growing relationship between Nat and Steve becomes a fascinating and emotionally compelling part of the film as they learn from and teach each other.
Evans and Johansson have the luxury of being supported by a cornucopia of excellent actors. Samuel Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury, this time getting more gritty material to explore. Once one gets over the shock of Robert Redford being in a superhero flick, the star’s presence is more than welcome. Redford lends his unique charisma and vast experience working in front of a camera to make his role, and this film, something special.
The Winter Soldier is not without its faults. Offensive language is present throughout the film, but is thankfully kept to an atypically low amount and severity. The plot is also quite predictable in places, but the staggering special effects, super speed fight sequences, and tried-and-true storyline make up for the predictability by rendering the film a thoroughly exciting adventure.
More importantly, for those who choose to face the violence, uplifting and inspiring messages wait at the finish along with a hero we can still be proud to call Captain America.
“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32