With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is up.
This year we saw a wisecracking raccoon vie for the world’s attention with a dying teenager falling in love, while Tom Cruise showed us why D-Day should never be served with time travel as a main course and Leonardo DiCaprio proved there really is a different law for the rich. So a film about a guy in a blue suit taking down Robert Redford’s brand of neo-fascism should be just an also-ran when it comes to the year’s greats. Except this was Captain America bringing its 1940s morality to the 21st century in decidedly undiluted form.
Cap 2 keeps things nice and simple. It delivers a timely polemic about what makes a true hero, and what makes a true villain
It shouldn’t work, because this is 2014, where the good guys use the same methods as the bad guys to get their results, but in harking back to what seems like a simpler time, Captain America 2 gives us a film which doesn’t ask any questions or sow any confusion. It offers certainty; just what we needed. Where other films might try and start up a debate over just what evil is, as they twist the plot around so much the audience walk out of the cinema feeling like they’ve been on a rollercoaster, Cap 2 keeps things nice and simple. It doesn’t try to engage its audience with some hidden message. Instead it delivers a timely polemic about what makes a true hero, and what makes a true villain.
Steve Rogers, at the start of the film, is a man who would seem to have everything he ever wanted. He’s big and strong, everyone looks up to him as a hero, and the food he eats hasn’t necessarily been boiled first. Yet the Cap puts all that aside once he realises that keeping it means going along with Alexander Pierce’s (Redford) plan for a global police state. In the process, the Cap comes up against the Winter Soldier, a ghost from his past.
When Cap learns just who the Winter Soldier is - old companion Bucky Barnes – Rogers would rather die than kill his friend. Pierce on the other hand is a man cast very much in the Red Skull’s mould where his intentions are concerned. Unlike the Red Skull though, Pierce hides his true nature in plain sight. Covering it up with a bland corporate exterior until he’s ready to strike. Pierce, in many respects, is far more insidious than his spiritual mentor, as is Hydra compared to its depiction in the first film.
Cap clings to his straightforward notion of what’s right and wrong for all the certainty such a conviction gives him
Like a snake in the grass, Pierce, Hydra and all that they stand for have hidden away for 70 years, letting the world think them dead and buried. Instead, thanks to Arnim Zola, they have nestled within SHIELD. Here they’ve learnt from their mistakes and put in place a far more subtle plan than the Red Skull’s. It’s a plot where there’s a lot of possibility for ambiguity, for clouding the issue and forcing the audience to really think hard about what they’re seeing. Instead the film keeps it simple by focusing on Captain America.
Here’s a man who’s just as much out of his depth as he is out of his time. With the modern world thrust upon him, the Cap could become cynical, jaded, disillusioned. Instead he clings to his straightforward notion of what’s right and wrong for all the certainty such a conviction gives him. This makes him the ideal protagonist, not just for Nick Fury as he attempts to figure out what’s going on with SHIELD, but also for audiences used to seeing morally dubious characters emblazoned upon the screen as symbols of the ever murkier times we’re living in. Focusing on Captain America and his message will leave you in no doubt as to what’s right and what’s wrong.
This is old fashioned storytelling at its best, not because everything slots neatly into place where the plot and characters are concerned, but because nothing gets in the way of the film delivering its message, which is a supremely moral one. Namely that sacrifice and choosing to put the interests of others ahead of your own can be worth it. Its hero is a man who seems to have everything but who in reality has nothing, until he finds something he can consider a cause: saving his friend, and his country, while defeating the reborn Hydra. That the film does this in the context of 2014 and not 1944 is just as important because it shows the idea of a simpler time and exposes it as a myth.
In a world where the compromise of ideals is so readily exposed, The Winter Soldier has hope and belief in the essential goodness of man
Rather, the film says, being good or bad comes down to your character and your ideals. In a world where the compromise of ideals is so readily exposed by the complete permeation of the information age into everyday life, this is an incredibly powerful message, of hope and belief in the essential goodness of man. That message is underlined, not just by the innocence of someone like Steve Rogers, but in how, after refusing to kill the Winter Soldier, Bucky returns the compliment, saving Rogers at the end of the film in a way that hints at the latter’s coming redemption. As a statement, it could not be clearer, or more effective.
All images: Marvel