Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The enemies were obvious when Steve Rogers became Captain America. It was easier to be a good guy. Staring down Hitler or tangling with Hydra has a way of distilling right and wrong.
But the clear colors of Cap's youth are muddied now; heroes and villains braid and blend. S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization for which Cap works, slinks and spies and cheats and lies—albeit, boss Nick Fury says, for the best of reasons. Sure, it still employs guys like Cap, but it also relies on the likes Natasha Romanov—full-time ruthless agent, onetime enemy assassin, overtime liar and hardly the stuff role models are made of. And when Cap and Natasha are sent to pry a S.H.I.E.L.D. boat free from pirates, Cap learns that his partner's been given an altogether different—and decidedly underhanded—mission.
When Cap asks Fury later why he wasn't told about Natasha's real job, the S.H.I.E.L.D. leader says he knew Cap wouldn't be comfortable with it.
"Agent Romanov is comfortable with everything," Fury says.
But there are lines Fury won't cross. When he finds that he's locked out of some super-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. files, he grows uneasy. When cop-dressed bad 'uns try to assassinate him, he grows worried. And when he's almost killed by a strange masked man with a metallic arm, he turns to the only man he can think to trust: Cap. He tells our hero that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised. That there's a rot within. That ol' Cap is the guy to clean it out.
But is he? Cap wonders.
The good Captain is at his best when the battle lines are clear—when he can fling his shield at card-carrying villains and fight for truth, justice and the American way. But in this strange new guerilla war, where friends may be enemies and there's no one to trust, where does Cap aim?
Antiheroes rule even in superhero-filled universes. Iron Man preens, Batman broods and Bruce Banner's only superpower stems from some serious anger management issues. Even in the caped-crusader set we find few role models we dare to always emulate.
Captain America is one of them, though, and he does very little to tarnish his reputation in The Winter Soldier.
Yeah, Cap's in a weird place, career-wise. He confesses to a friend that, all his life, he always wanted to do what's right. But with his good-guy organization doing so many questionable things, he admits, "I guess I'm not quite sure what that is anymore." When Fury unveils an array of S.H.I.E.L.D. supermachines meant to snuff out crime (and criminals) even preemptively, Cap says, "I thought the punishment usually came after the crime."
But when he learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the worst of enemies, Cap's unerring moral compass does make him the perfect guy to deal with the crisis—the one incorruptible cog in a now corrupt machine. He's not perfectly pure; I should say that here after the buildup I've given him. But Cap does his best. When circumstances dictate that he and Natasha swipe a car, for instance, he reminds her they're only borrowing it; she should keep her feet off the dash. When Natasha asks Cap to be honest with her and say whether he trusts her, Cap answers, "I would now. And I'm always honest."
Cap gets some help in his crusade, of course. Natasha, as duplicitous as she is, sacrifices a great deal to help the hero do his thing, including revealing her own sordid secrets to the world (at great personal harm). Sam, a new friend, flies into the action too, risking his own personal safety.
Note that Cap tries to save even the bad guys, and he's rewarded in a pretty unique and important way for following that righteous instinct. (I'll refrain from sharing the details for spoiler reasons.) And even as he's pummeled by a baddie who should be his buddy, Cap quotes a nostalgic line: "I'm with you 'til the end of the line."
A tombstone is engraved with "Ezekiel 25:17" and "The path of the righteous man," a sideways nod to a Samuel L. Jackson quote in Pulp Fiction. We see a bust of Buddha. In a movie postscript, someone calls this current age "the age of miracles."
When Cap and Nat go undercover, she suggests he kiss her passionately in a crowded mall (thus hiding from hunters). He doesn't like public displays of affection, but goes ahead for the sake of the mission. "Still uncomfortable?" she asks. "Not the word I would use," he answers. Later, Natasha asks if that was the first time he's kissed someone since he was unthawed. "I'm 95, not dead," Cap tells her.
Later, Natasha shows Cap a scar on her belly, where she was shot. "Bye-bye, bikinis," she says. "Yeah, I bet you look terrible in them now," Cap says. And, indeed, both men and women are fond of wearing tight-fitting outfits that accentuate their physical attributes.
A politician talks about a young reporter he'd like to sleep with.
The Winter Soldier is a harsher, sometimes bloodier movie than The First Avenger, with near-constant action-violence.
Captain America, obviously, tangles with dozens of bad guys. Some he mows down in quick succession—taking them out with a fling of his shield (which we see strike with painful realism) or pushing them off ship decks to fall into the ocean. Others take more effort, and fights can be filled with punches, kicks, flying leaps and knockout smacks. Cap suffers more than bumps and bruises too: He's repeatedly shocked with strange Taser-like devices, shot several times, stabbed in the shoulder and outright brutalized in one hard-to-watch showdown.
Scads of people are hit, kicked, shot, stabbed, thwacked with heavy objects and caught in explosions. Huge warships fire on each other and crash into buildings. We see stitched up wounds and bloody abrasions. Limbs are broken. Someone gets grotesquely skewered in the hand. Cars, trucks and planes crash. Elevators fall. Natasha guns down several people, lassos one unfortunate man around the neck and pushes a guy off a high building (to scare him). Innocent cleaning women are gunned down in cold blood. Not-so-innocent bigwigs are electrocuted/burned to death by their own deadly devices. A building collapses on top of folks. An occupied and bulletproof SUV is shot at so many times it looks like a motorized block of Swiss cheese. Some guy is thrown in a car and smashed by a truck.
We hear that the Winter Soldier has been behind more than two-dozen assassinations in the last 50 years. And S.H.I.E.L.D. is being used to try to eradicate millions of people.
Crude or Profane Language
Two s-words. One, two or three each of "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is misused once or twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Glasses of champagne are present at a meeting, and guests are encouraged to drink. (One man instead throws his glass and breaks it on a table.)
Other Negative Elements
Cap tries to lie. (He's unsuccessful.)
One of the thrills of the first Captain America movie is its sense of innocence. Oh, it's violent, of course. Name a superhero movie that isn't. But Cap himself is a conscious throwback to a different sort of hero—a guy from the Greatest Generation who fit his times and embraces his role as role model. He's old-fashioned in the best of ways.
But if Cap hasn't changed much, the times have, and that makes The Winter Soldier a darker, colder movie. We see not just heroism here, but the bloody cost of war and the dark duplicity sometimes involved in it. Sam counsels soldiers on how to get through post-traumatic stress disorder. Cap admits that even his Greatest Generation wasn't always so great, and that he saw things in battle he wishes he could forget. The plot can take on political overtones too: S.H.I.E.L.D.'s subterfuge and overreach will draw comparisons with the NSA's recent dabblings in domestic spying. Its ethos of preemptive justice will remind viewers of the controversial aspects of the War on Terror. And when S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets are downloaded to the Internet (in keeping, it would seem, with Cap's look-you-in-the-eye, there-are-no-secrets-here persona), a few moviegoers may think of Edward Snowden's leaking of classified government documents. Cap asks the same questions some Americans are asking: Are we the good guys? And how do we know?
After the rollicking (if explosion-filled) fun of The Avengers and the extraterrestrial humor of Thor: The Dark World, The Winter Soldier thunders into a bleaker, murkier place.
It's telling, though, that for the movie's climactic fight, Captain America swipes his old World War II-era uniform from the Smithsonian and dons it for battle. Forget the murk and uncertainty: Cap wants to be a red-white-and-blue hero. And he's left standing in the end—standing for everything he is, perhaps everything we'd want to be. It's hard to be good in his world, just as it's hard to be good in ours. Our lives are filled with complications and complexities. We know the issues aren't as simple as we'd like them to be. But even so, Cap shows us that following your moral compass never goes out of style. We can find justice if we're willing to pursue it. We can show compassion if we're strong enough to allow it.