Action, melodrama and uncomfortable situations.
Movies about the Avengers keep getting bigger, smarter and more relevant. But none of Marvel Comics' other Avengers movies has stunned me the way Captain America: The Winter Soldier has with its scathing commentary on what's happening in the real world today. Plus, this commentary is wrapped in some extraordinarily delicious fantasy material.
In the past, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the man who doubles as superhero Captain America, hasn't had time to cope with the effects of time-traveling from the 1940s to the 2010s. But as Winter Soldier opens, he's starting to face how the world has changed. As Steve befriends Iraq veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), we see him making a list of things he needs to catch up on, such as "Thai food" and "Star Wars/Trek." It's sweet, funny and poignant.
But Steve isn't just learning about pop culture. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the homeland security organization S.H.I.E.L.D., tells Steve about a project that's about to launch. It involves helicarriers, high-tech aircraft carriers that float in the atmosphere, watching over the planet in a spy-like fashion. This initiative is presented as a necessary security move "after New York." Steve is horrified. "This isn't freedom," he tells Fury. "This is fear."
Steve's Captain America identity was created for the U.S. Army during World War II, to promote "American ideals" abroad. Now Steve is struggling with how such propaganda gets deployed in the 21st century. There's tons of wonderful melodrama involving a potential infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. by nefarious forces. And there's tons of wonderful action, including a scene where Steve meets his physical match in the mysterious masked Winter Soldier, who appears to be a medically modified supersoldier like himself. S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) says this warrior is rumored to be a Soviet construct left over from the Cold War.
Even the comic-book elements of Winter Soldier feel pertinent to the 21st century. A big battle that ensues on the streets of Washington, D.C., feels like a lone-gunman-on-a-rampage story lifted from a 24-hour news channel. Along the way to figuring out what is happening at S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve confronts the world of his past in a deeply uncomfortable way.
It's not a spoiler to say that Winter Soldier portrays the modern Western surveillance state as an evil way of life sold to the American public by people who don't have its best interests at heart. This controversial perspective is extraordinary in a popcorn movie. Edward Snowden could be on Winter Soldier's marketing payroll. It's that revolutionary.