Previously: The costumes and characters of The Avengers -- Captain America.
SPOILERS throughout. You have been warned.
I've been rather entertained by the number of reviewers who smugly
namechecked Edward Snowden while writing about this movie, but they do have a point. CATWS is about as "realistic" as you're
going to get in the superhero genre, in a way that I found far more
satisfying than the stereotypically ~gritty reboot~ atmosphere of the Dark Knight trilogy. Whether
you or not you're a fan of Nolan's Batman movies, I think it's
fair to say that they were masterminded by someone who doesn't have much
affection for the comicbook superhero genre, which is quite funny considering the overt silliness of The Dark Knight Rises.
CATWS provided an excellent balance between a relatively realistic
concept (SHIELD's PRISM-inspired surveillance helicarriers), and
the inherently optimistic nature of Captain America as a character.
Steve Rogers may do a lot of punching in this movie (perhaps too much
punching, dare I even say it), but his real "superpower" is his status
as a role model and leader. In the end, it's Steve who decides that SHIELD is beyond salvation, Steve who inspires
Falcon to join the fight, and Steve who persuades SHIELD agents to ignore
direct orders because it's the right thing to do. As with Bucky and the Howling Commandos, he's the guy with the guts to go first when confronting everything from schoolyard bullies to the guys giving him his orders, and as a result you can really understand why people want to rally behind him as a figurehead. He may not have the
firepower of Thor or Iron Man or the political sway of Fury and the top brass at SHIELD, but he's the one trustworthy rock in the
shifting moral sands of SHIELD and HYDRA, and that's what makes him
It's a little depressing to compare Steve Rogers to the bastardized version of Superman we saw in Man of Steel:
a guy who needlessly fought a battle in the middle of Metropolis when
he could've just flown it out into a field somewhere (HELLO CIVILIAN CASUALTIES), and who then
snapped the neck of his enemy. Meanwhile Captain America (not just a
soldier but also one of the few superheroes who occasionally wields an
everyday gun) primarily fights with a shield, and ends his
final battle scene by lying down and surrendering because he'd rather
die than kill Bucky. I just wish there had been another scene like the one in Avengers where he coordinates the civilian evacuation in New York, but that
would've been logistically impossible because all of the public fight scenes were desperate chase scenes across DC motorways.
CATWS seems to have learned from its prequel's mistakes, and
thus the structure of the final showdown follows a similar model to that
of the Avengers, with the added bonus of having no specific Bad Guy for Steve to punch into submission. Instead, Steve and his allies have to deal with the far more amorphous problem of HYDRA, which in the 21st century has less to do with battling a preposterously evil-looking Nazi cult, and more to do with the general theme of moral greyness within the government establishment. You can tell by process of elimination that Alexander Pierce is the "bad guy," but the truth is that he's not all that different from Nick Fury, which is kind of the point of this entire movie.
In CATWS, there isn't really a central figure who takes the position of the Red Skull. The waters are far murkier this time round. Bucky is Cap's direct opponent, but none of us really want Cap to "defeat" him. Professional kickpuncher Brock Rumlow (you know, the punch-kicky man) is evil cannon fodder. Zola is an expository prop. Alexander Pierce is the closest we get to a primary supervillain, but his power is more to do with what he represents than what he actually does. I'd actually say Cap's
main "enemy" in this movie is the loneliness of his life in the 21st century.
The film never explores this in any explicit way, but I think CATWS is a story about a guy who is borderline suicidal. Steve Rogers may not actively attempt to kill himself, but he literally tells Sam Wilson that he doesn't know how to be happy, and the opening action sequence involves Cap throwing his shield and helmet aside to have a pointlessly macho showdown with Batroc. This is not the behaviour of a normal Steve Rogers, and while we can potentially attribute that particular scene to bad writing, Cap's overall mood throughout the film is that of a lonely, unhappy person who doesn't really have any reason to carry on living. He's sticking with SHIELD because he thinks they're the only viable option, not because he actually believes in what they're doing.
The depressing thing is that the film's "happy ending" is Steve finding out that his best friend is alive (which gives him a motivation to keep going), but this is tempered by the fact that Bucky has spent the past seventy years going through unimaginable trauma. And I'm still not entirely sure if Steve had any intention of surviving the helicarrier being blown up, since he didn't make much effort to do anything except save Bucky. All this, from the supposedly un-gritty Marvel Studios.
Steve Rogers is a
fundamentally friendly guy who operates best when surrounded by a unit
of soldiers he can trust, and CATWS dropped him into the polar opposite of
that scenario. The tone of the film is somewhere between a Cold
War spy thriller ("Trust no one.") and a Bourne movie with Cap as the fugitive -- and the lack of a specific Bad Guy means that Cap is out of his comfort zone in more ways than one. He's forced to fumble his way through the unpleasant internal politics of SHIELD, where he is treated as a pawn by both Fury and Pierce, and has no one to turn to except Natasha and some guy he met while jogging at the park.
Honestly, I think this movie would've benefited from milking the "all my friends are dead" angle some more, or at least including one more emotional scene where Steve mourns or talks about Bucky. Hopefully we'll get some of that in the sequel. As it is, I was very satisfied by the way Marvel struck a balance by inserting their most wholesome superhero and into their most unpleasantly realistic story concept so far. CATWS was politically and culturally relevent without really supporting any ideology other than "freedom," and was about a thousand times more coherent than the incomprehensible mess of Occupy and terrorism references in The Dark Knight Rises. Even taking into account blatantly ridiculous moments like Zola's bunker scene, I think this movie should be the new gold standard for realism in the superhero genre, as opposed to grittiness for the sake of itself.