In his review for the Toronto Sun, writer Jim Slotek says that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier is actually a Jason Bourne film masquerading as a superhero movie.” Right there is your first problem. Captain America is not Jason Bourne. He does not need to be Jason Bourne. Captain America is Captain America. He has his own arc, history, complexions, motivations, and conflicts that make him a fascinating character in his own right. He is as noble as he is heroic, and in just the two appearances he’s had in the MCU so far, he’s already cemented himself as an icon and staple in this expanding universe.
Tonally, there’s a severe shift in between The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier. Captain America: The First Avenger was exciting, old-fashioned, comic-book fun, and had the look, feel, and nostalgia of those 1940’s pulp magazines. The Winter Soldier, in comparison, feels like a dark, gritty espionage thriller, and our hero wears a red, white, and blue costume instead of the atypical black motorcycle jacket and jeans. This time around, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t fighting Nazi-clad super soldiers or aliens from outer space. This time, Cap is after the Winter Soldier, a expert assassin who has a metal arm and has been operating for decades under the world’s nose. When one of Cap’s closest friends gets caught in the crossfire, Cap goes on the hunt for the Winter Soldier, along with an underlying conspiracy that he’s quickly unraveling.
The script is easily the best thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Screenwriters Marcus Freely and Warren McAllen, who also penned the first Captain America movie as well as Thor: The Dark World, have made an incredibly thoughtful and politically-driven film, a story that, if put into book format, would arguably be more compelling than the movie is. Without giving too much away, Cap gets stuck into a position that pits him both against his own country and against his enemies, making him question himself and the ideals that he’s been fighting for all along. Is America the same country he knew during World War II? Is there any more life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the American dream? Is the American dream even alive any more? All of these questions are what drives the story and its characters forward, and sets up a very hard-hitting, close-to-home conflict with our favorite Captain. This is a movie that has severe repercussions towards the future of the MCU, and the twists are so hard-hitting that they surprised me, even with the ones that I was expecting.
The plot is sound and strong for the purposes of the film. But the problem doesn’t exist in the screenplay, it exists in how it’s handled. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, whose last film credit before this was 2006’s You, Me and Dupree, didn’t see a superhero story in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They saw a political thriller, and they decided to live up to that in every way that they could.
Take, for instance, the choreography and the motion of the action in the film. It is straight up Jason Bourne. In Captain America: The First Avenger, the action was unique, creative, and dynamic, with Cap flipping around with his shield and beating up HYDRA soldiers in classic, swashbuckling fashion, making it fun and refreshing escapism from all of the action fanfares we’ve gotten throughout the years. Here, the action feels like a retread. We’ve seen this sort of lightning-quick, fast-paced fighting in virtually every action thriller, from James Bond all the way to Mission Impossible. Why should The Winter Soldier feel any more special?
The thing that makes Captain America unique, especially in The First Avenger, is his patriotic loyalty and his unwavering sense of justice. He looks out for the little guy. He cares about such things as self-respect and manners. He won’t throw a punch unless he has to. At heart, he is this small, skimpy, honest, good-hearted kid from Brooklyn, and this is the kid that Dr. Erskine saw in the first Captain America. Here, he’s in full hero mode as he kicks, punches, tackles, slams, and throws shields at all of the bad guys, and brings everything down all around him, including buildings, bridges, and S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.
Tell me, where is the patriotism? Where is the nobility? Where is the sense of joy and adventure in this movie? In its two hour runtime, we don’t get a strong sense of these things that make Captain America who he is. What we get instead is quickly-edited action, punctuated in between moments of heavy exposition and backstory, which always feels like its building up to something big, but never really pays off.
I say this again: Captain America is not an action hero! He is not Jason Bourne, or Ethan Hunt, or James Bond, or John McClane. He is Steve Rogers, and he builds this identity of Captain America to protect those who can’t protect themselves. But The Winter Soldier does not focus on the theme of protection, unlike The First Avenger. Instead, it chooses to focus on distrust and political paranoia. In doing that, it takes away something very important from Captain America: his sense of character.
As it stands, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a good movie and not a great one. It’s serviceable in what it needs to do, and not much else. Instead of likening to Cap’s sense of bravery and heroism, we instead look to his aggression and fighting. In doing that, we lose a part of him that we wish we had back. In this day and age, dry, drab, joyless action movies are Hollywood’s currency, and all of the world is buying. The deeper we sink into this culture of entertainment and violence, the more we need our favorite Captain to stand above it.