Spoilers everywhere. Trust no one.You can excuse Steve Rogers getting a little paranoid. His next door neighbor turns out to be an Agent of SHIELD. The only living person he knows from his own time -- as far as he knows -- was a founder of SHIELD. And some people will tell you that the two women are related. Even the guy he banters with while jogging in the morning turns out to be a sort of super-soldier in his own right. And when a buddy from Steve's past turns up unexpectedly, he turns out to be tied up in some secret government program. Our boy's got to wonder whether he ever has dealings with normal people. But that's the life he chose when he volunteered for Project Rebirth back in 1942, and the life he's been stuck in when SHIELD thawed him back to life in 2011. Still, taking all this into account, should Captain America have had the knee-jerk reaction of distrust and disgust we see when Nick Fury shows him SHIELD's latest experiment in surveillance and pre-emption? In story terms it's right for him to have it, but if Steve's a throwback to the Greatest Generation and all that, shouldn't he be more likely to trust government, at least at first, than people who've actually lived through all the events that make 21st century people less trusting? The Winter Soldier would have had an extra level of moral complexity had Steve initially trusted SHIELD on this and gradually had to learn better. But Steve Rogers is our audience-identification figure and he needs to tell us right away, as if we couldn't figure it out for ourselves, that This Is Wrong. Because it is. I'm not saying this is a mistake by the filmmakers, but it struck me as slightly wrong -- too neat, just as it is to blame SHIELD's excesses ultimately on our old friends at Hydra. That scapegoating undercuts The Winter Soldier's claims, or the claims made for it by many reviewers, of contemporary critical relevance. Hydra, the enemy of SHIELD going back to the 1960s in comics, has become a convenient source of context-free evil. More evil even than Nazis, Hydra is the perfect fictional foil: an evil that no one on earth can claim is a reflection on them. Blame what happens in Winter Soldier on Hydra and you're really blaming nobody. This story's excesses in the name of surveillance and preemption -- a superweapon capable of simultaneously eliminating up to 20,000,000 potential enemies around the world -- are blamed on Hyrda's obsession with an "order" that is antithetical to freedom. But the excesses of surveillance and preemption on which Winter Soldier is supposedly meant to reflect weren't born of an obsession with "order," were they? Quite the opposite, some would say. If a Marvel movie dared to say that such a mad scheme resulted with an obsession with "freedom," than the reviewers would have something to write about. As things stand, I can't wait to see what Slavoj Zizek has to say about this movie, but while most of you ask "who?" let's move on.
On the terms it chooses for itself, Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies yet. It brings the Marvel movies about up to speed with modern superhero comics, where you learn that "everything you thought you knew is wrong" just about once a month. It seems to prove that writing makes these films, while good writing makes them just about director-proof. The Russo brothers have a questionable resume for directing an action movie, but the writers of Captain America: The First Avenger are back, and Christopher Markus and Sean McFeely really deserve most of the credit for this film's success, my philosophical quibbles above notwithstanding. There's a meta-quality to the Captain America film series, the first film really evoking the Golden Age of Comics while the new one makes ample use of concepts from Ed Brubaker's 21st century revitalization of the character. Brubaker is an as-yet unsung pop culture hero of our time. He took over writing Captain America after a run on Catwoman at DC that definitively turned that character into an antihero if not an outright hero. The Selina Kyle we saw in The Dark Knight Rises arguably owes a lot to Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke's vision, but Brubaker's influence on Winter Soldier is more direct. Comics are a writer's market these days, with the star scribes expecting carte blanche to unprecedented degrees. On Captain America Brubaker broke one of Marvel's great taboos. The folk wisdom had been that at Marvel only three characters never came back from the dead: Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, Peter's girlfriend Gwen Stacey (I hope I'm not spoiling any future films!) and Captain America's wartime sidekick Bucky Barnes. In comics Bucky died somewhere in the North Atlantic while diverting a German rocket from its target, in the same incident that got Cap himself frozen in ice for many years. Bucky's reappearance was often teased, and other characters sometimes wore Bucky's superhero costume, but Barnes himself was dead, dead, dead -- until Brubaker said he wasn't.
Inevitably, Markus and McFeely have Hydra-ized the Winter Soldier's origin, Brubaker having made him a product of Soviet experimentation, and thus more closely associated with the Black Widow than in the movie. I don't really have an issue with the change, but a weakness of the Bucky angle for the movie is that its big revelation can't have the impact Brubaker's had in the comics, the latter coming as it did after forty years of modern Captain America stories with our hero missing his friend, and in defiance of a recognized if informal taboo. The movie writers tried to compensate by making Barnes a more important figure in Steve's early life than he ever was in comics -- in Simon & Kirby's original stories Bucky is a much younger camp mascot whom Steve meets only after his super-soldier transformation. But one movie couldn't substitute for years of Captain American & Bucky comics, and so the movie Barnes really can't be as important a figure for the audience as the filmmakers want him to be and can make him be for Steve Rogers. Superhero movies want to encapsulate up to 70 years of experience in a handful of movies, and they may get away with it with movie viewers who don't know comics, but for a Brubaker fan like me there was something lacking in the movie's homage. There was at least one moment when the writers tripped over the ever-evolving, ever-rebooting Marvel comics mythos. The Black Widow is repeatedly identified as a former KGB agent, but when her date of birth is given in one scene it turns out that the KGB ceased to exist when Natasha Romanova was seven years old. Marvel Comics wants the KGB to remain part of the character's past, so they've reimagined her as another kind of super-soldier who, like Steve, is much older than she looks, but the filmmakers probably didn't want to turn people off by having Scarlett Johansson play a woman in her eighties. Film adaptions of comics will never be perfect, and I'd actually rather not have them go too far in the Sin City direction. But the Widow's age as given here seems to be a mistake that may raise more questions than were intended.
Once I step away from both my comics-reader biases and my philosophical differences with the story I can recommend Winter Soldier as both an effective action movie and a showcase for character development. After a James Bond style opening pitting Cap against an old comics enemy, the film goes into slow-burn mode, illustrating both Steve's alienation and his guileless good nature. He may mourn all he's lost -- his encounter with the physically and mentally frail nonagenarian Peggy Carter is genuinely sad -- but happily doesn't put himself in an emotional box. He has an innate ability to win friends and their trust that pays off as his fellow jogger Sam Wilson unrolls his own formidable skillset. Winter Soldier may be more of an actors' film than any other Marvel movie, and Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson make the most of that. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury gets more screen time than ever and manages not to wear out his welcome (look for the Pulp Fiction homage toward the end, by the way), while Robert Redford's late-life effortless mastery is mostly reaffirmed here. Marvel's getting quite good at building up mid-level villains (see also Iron Man 3) and in that category Frank Grillo takes the honors this time as a questionable SHIELD agent. The action scenes are all you could ask for, though I still wonder how much credit the credited directors deserve for them -- or are they glorified dialogue directors like you had in early talkies? I enjoyed the hand-to-hand combat and the car chases more than the inevitably overblown three-helicarrier climax, but the climax itself wasn't bad, either. I'm not ready to join those calling Winter Soldier the best Marvel movie to date -- it's not necessarily even the best Captain America movie -- but as a big improvement on Thor: The Dark World it's a reassurance that Marvel is probably far from exhausted either creatively or technically.
Epilogue: Winter Soldier follows a new pattern set by Avengers and Dark World of embedding the important extra scene in the middle of the end credits, while the actual post-credits bit is a comparatively anticlimactic coda to the film proper. This time the middle bit introduces some characters we'll be seeing in the next Avengers movie, while the coda is an encore for Sebastian Stan, whose reported multipicture deal with Marvel means not only the Winter Soldier's return, but possibly a promotion down the line if the films follow Brubaker's example. If you really need to go, you can leave after you see the twins.