This is what I’ve been waiting for. In earlier articles I’ve mentioned a trend towards anti-heroes, towards villains as protagonists in House of Cards, Breaking Bad and the like. It’s entertaining storytelling but I’ve lost track of what a hero is supposed to be and, for lack of use, my vocabulary on the idea is limited. Which is where Captain America: The Winter Soldier refreshed me on the experience. Man of Steel was a blip on the radar, I liked the film but it was missing heart and relatability in terms of scale, which is where the character Steve Rogers has significance. Chris Evans, to me, has never really been a leading man up until this point but not for lack of talent. I have kept my eye on him since his performance in Sunshine where he first displayed the qualities that are important to sincerely portray the ultimate Boy Scout, the jingoistic poster boy born out of the Greatest Generation without coming off as campy or absurd. It’s the gravity of leadership, the composure to take charge in dire situations, and the thing that makes this character a real hero: belief in the better angels of our nature.
In the first film I was not sold on the concept. This scrawny gung-ho patriot smacked of generic platitudes and hokey World War 2 stereotypes. I like the idea of a guy who stands up to the bully, who dives on the loose grenade without hesitation but this is a person who believes without question, a soldier, yes. A leader, no. Being a leader means knowing someone else will dive on a grenade and trusting them to do so. It’s being a strong enough example that this never needs to be asked because the cause is worth it. It’s the courage of conviction and the faith in others, and here is where I was absolutely thrilled with Captain America: Winter Soldier. All spoilers aside, people trust the man, I’d trust the man, I’d follow the character, not because he told me to but because he asked. It’s a clever and effective dynamic combining his character with Black Widow, it’s her conflicted nature that perfectly contrasts his stalwart courage, his pained idealism. She is drawn to him and stands by him, his unflinching morality finally inspiring her to confront her past and the fear that has ruled her throughout the Iron Man films, and The Avengers, it’s extraordinary to see a consistent character arc across multiple films directed and written by different people.
Winter Soldier also achieves something that The Dark Knight did years ago in extraordinary fashion: mask a politically relevant allegory with a solid action film. Mass unwarranted surveillance, prosecution without due process, and the inhumanity of drone warfare used in an attempt to diffuse terrorism before it happens are subjects that should be discussed with much more urgency than they are. If a few people walk away from this movie thinking about the cost of liberty in the Digital Age, that’s great. If everyone else enjoys a cool action flick about a real good guy, all the better. I’d offer that the rallying speech Cap gives in the climax of the film is underwhelming but it made sense that the good people listened because, well, it’s Captain America. You know a good person when you hear them, you know who to go to the mat for. When the time comes, the right choice is rarely the easy one which makes it all the more important, which is why the final showdown in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters was a particular thrilling finale. And although a knock down drag out fight with the Winter Soldier would have been exciting I loved how Cap decided to handle him. By giving his enemy a choice rather than beating him into submission, I like the idea that America’s eponymous hero was willing to trust someone to do the right thing, willing to risk his life in that belief; it’s an idea that I wish would pervade our culture and foreign policy. It’s great to be American or whomever, we can try to be the best example possible but in order to lead the way it’s important to have faith in everyone else, and ourselves, to do the right thing without holding a gun to anyone’s head. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I’m willing to bet I’m not.
I stumbled across an article that suggests that Captain America would be more interesting if he were a jerk. This irritates me, because like I mentioned, there are enough morally questionable heroes out there, like Jack Bauer or Bruce Wayne, characters who fall under the category of vigilante more often than not, so I’ll take my Boy Scouts when I can get them (that sentence came out wrong, rephrasing). I’ll take my morally sound conflicted heroes dealing with a society that is less and less morally black and white and increasingly shaded with grays whenever I can get them. Superhero films have been edgy and noir-esque for a while now. It’s a welcome reprieve from the moodiness and it’s good to have a superhero who knows what they are doing and believes in what they believe in, even if this kind of hero may only exist in the Marvel Universe.