Among all Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, Captain America stands alone not just as a hero against evil, but as the inspiration for an entire people, representing a cultural ideal much bigger than any individual. It’s why he has been such a popular comic-book character over the years, but one who becomes stale if revered too much by writers, or goes off the rails by writers who don’t respect his elemental appeal. These challenges come to the fore in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the midpoint of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 2, which places our heroes far outside of their comfort zones, challenges their most central qualities, and prompts some serious introspection. The result here is one of the very best of all Marvel films, a story that takes what is widely regarded as a timeless character and makes that timelessness not his greatest strength, but his greatest challenge.
In the days after the Battle of New York, Steve Rogers struggles to adapt to modern-day society. For him, World War II still feels like yesterday, but his love interest Peggy Carter is an elderly shadow of her former self, and the Howling Commandos are reduced to a museum exhibit. As Captain America, Rogers fights alongside his fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff—the Black Widow—as a SHIELD counterterrorism agent, but it leaves Rogers wondering if maybe Captain America would have been better off left frozen in ice. Shortly after Rogers learns that SHIELD is planning to launch a fleet of next-generation helicarriers that can eliminate threats pre-emptively, SHIELD director Nick Fury is gunned down by a mysterious super-assassin known as the Winter Soldier. The attack appears to be some kind of inside job, and suddenly Rogers and Romanoff find themselves on the run from SHIELD itself. With some help from sympathetic SHIELD agents, Rogers and Romanoff learn that the sinister villain group HYDRA has secretly infiltrated SHIELD, spending decades sowing chaos around the globe to prep people to surrender their freedom for security. SHIELD’s new helicarrier initiative is really HYDRA’s plot to scan the world for every possible emerging superhero and eliminate them before they can threaten HYDRA’s plans for world domination. And the worst part? HYDRA’s plan almost makes sense. Suddenly feeling like a very small part of a very big machine, Rogers, Romanoff, and fresh ally Sam Wilson—a.k.a. the Falcon—must reveal HYDRA’s intentions, prevent SHIELD’s new helicarriers from taking flight, and stop the Winter Soldier…whose identity is something Rogers is simply not prepared to learn.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an extraordinary superhero movie. It features small number of amazing action sequences in this movie, including a memorable close-quarters fistfight in a SHIELD elevator as well as a magnificent, climactic set piece aboard SHIELD’s freshly launched helicarriers. But even better than all that is an outstanding cast of characters, including a fresh batch of newcomers, such as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, and the reintroduction of Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier, HYDRA’s most feared assassin. We also see a deepening relationship between Rogers and Romanoff, as the latter schools the former on what it means to live a life where trust is a four-letter word. And yet, in the same story, Rogers meets SHIELD agent (and grand-niece of Peggy Carter) Sharon Carter, whose emergence as Rogers’ new love interest shows that even though life as Captain America means great sacrifice, he still doesn’t have to be alone.
What also stands out here is a dense, compelling plot that plays out like a political thriller fueled more by paranoia than by superpowers. For the first time, we see Captain America truly out of his depth. He is a supersoldier meant for punching Nazis in the face, not navigating a world of double agents, shifting alliances and hidden agendas. Cap’s shield might deflect bullets, but it can’t stop treachery, and Cap himself knows it. Perhaps that’s why the real battle in this movie isn’t so much against soldiers and organizations as it is a struggle for hearts and minds. When Rogers learns that the Winter Solder is really his old friend Bucky, rebuilt by HYDRA against his will to be a kind of anti-Captain America, Rogers becomes driven not just to defeat the Winter Soldier, but to redeem him. During the movie’s finale, there comes a point where Cap takes a terrible beating from the Winter Soldier, on a long-shot bet that somewhere beneath all that rage and cybernetics, Bucky will understand that he is murdering his best friend. It’s a bet that only a guy like Captain America would make, and it’s a heroic repudiation of his earlier role as SHIELD’s attack dog. Captain America wasn’t meant to be some spy agency’s secret weapon. He was meant to inspire people. Sometimes, even one of the bad guys.
What makes that scene work so well, however, is a moment of truth a bit earlier in the story, when Steve broadcasts to all of SHIELD that they have been hijacked by HYDRA. In a speech that’s as much a personal confession as it is a rally to battle, Rogers says that we have all lost our way, at different times, and for different reasons, and now we are our own worst enemy. The big question is what are we going to do about it? It’s a question that stretches beyond the fourth wall and speaks to everyone in the audience who has ever felt adrift from their best self. Ours is a complicated world filled with reasons to compromise our principles. Nobody is immune to that, not even Captain America. And in that moment, we see what makes Cap such a great hero isn’t his strength or his shield, but his willingness to admit when things have gone horribly wrong—even his own reason for being Captain America—and to set them right once again. In a movie filled with remarkable moments, that one matters most.