Is there a glimmer of hope for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to escape the clutches of the mass marketing values that have defined most of its films and that the Lego Movie unintentionally denounced? Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 and this continuation of Captain America’s adventures seem to suggest there is. After subjugating audiences to a mediocre bargain-basement Indiana Jones movie in Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel Studios replaced Joe Johnston (a bargain-basement Steven Spielberg) with brothers Anthony & Joe Russo, previously best known for the passable caper comedy Welcome To Collinwood. As this is their first foray into the superhero genre, it is not too surprising that the Russo Brothers show some weakness in the staging of their action scenes – particularly car chases – but though these problems eventually subside, they are nonetheless a noticeable nuisance.
Fortunately, these flaws are redeemed by a surprisingly smart screenplay, courtesy of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (with Ed Brubaker providing the story), that addresses the political implications raised by the existence of a multitude of American superheroes in a post-9/11 world; issues that had remained mostly dormant within the franchise (with the much-lamented exception of Iron Man 2) but that Captain America: The Winter Soldier examines by revisiting the worn-out conspiracy thriller genre that reached its apex in the Nixon-Ford era with Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy” and Sydney Pollack’s The Three Days Of The Condor but whose attempted return in the Bush era took the guise of a collection of crudely-edited “action scenes” known as the Jason Bourne trilogy. By taking the familiar plot of a patriotic idealist’s discovery of corruption and wrongdoing within his government agency and making that idealist a superhero – by definition a symbol of America’s values as well as the power it wields to promote these values, the screenwriters not only draw attention and question The Avengers’ use of superheroes as unaccountable agents in the service of a secret international agency apparently run by unelected government bureaucrats, they point out an apparent dichotomy between the values American superheroes are supposed to represent – self-reliance, freedom, justice, security – and the actions undertaken in their name.
While not as psychologically complex or compelling as some of the films it indirectly critiques (The Dark Knight trilogy obviously comes to mind), Captain America: The Winter Soldier offers an interesting if incomplete questioning of the cultural mindset that enabled the NSA global surveillance program and the replacement of on-field soldiers by remote drones. If these ideas are further explored in future Marvel productions, I just might be willing to endure more hours of an uncharismatic Thor punching bland villains in obnoxiously fake CGI environments.