I would estimate that, when it comes to the movies, Ryan the Trash Film Guru and I agree with each other perhaps 95% of the time. What’s interesting is that the 5% of the time that we have disagreed, it’s always been the result of an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Ryan has documented many times on this site, he’s not a fan of the MCU. (The title of his review of the second Thor film is probably one of the best that’s ever appeared on this site.) As for me, I’m the exact opposite. In fact, I am such a fan of the MCU that I am about to suggest that Captain America: The Winter Soldier — along with being one of the best action films of the year — deserves serious Oscar consideration.
Now, unlike some of the films that I’ve suggested deserve your consideration, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, along with receiving critical acclaim, was also a major commercial success. What made The Winter Soldier unique was that it deserved both the acclaim and the money. There was a lot that I liked about The Winter Soldier. In the role of Captain America, Chris Evans was both likable and, most importantly, believable as a hero out of time. And while I would have never guessed that her character was supposed to be Russian, Scarlett Johansson continued her streak of kicking serious ass in the role of the Black Widow. Samuel L. Jackson brought his customary style to the role of Nick Fury and Sebastian Stan was properly intimidating as the Winter Soldier. The action scenes were exciting, the dialogue was sharp and witty, and the film worked both as a stand alone film and as a part of the overall Marvel universe.
But, for me, what truly elevated Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the film’s subtext. (In that way, I would compare it to another surprisingly intelligent genre film, The Purge: Anarchy.) For those who may have forgotten, the villains of the Winter Soldier are all members and pawns of Hydra, a secret organization that has so infiltrated the American establishment that it has literally become something of a shadow government. Hydra has also infiltrated SHIELD and plans to use their intelligence capabilities to not only preemptively identify possible threats but to eliminate them as well. In fact, by taking control of the SHIELD helicarriers, Hydra can anonymously deliver death and destruction from above.
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
What truly makes this subtext come alive is that fact that the main villain — Hydra’s double agent in SHIELD — is played by none other than Robert Redford. Any student of American film knows what Robert Redford represents. Early in his career, Redford was the idealistic, ambitious, and frequently laconic protagonist, the perfect symbol of American exceptionalism. In the 1970s, Redford was the audience surrogate in classic paranoia films like Three Days of the Condor and All The President’s Men. Lately, as the man behind the Sundance Film Festival and a frequent director, Robert Redford has been the epitome of bourgeois, establishment liberalism.
Hence, when we hear Redford say, “Hail Hydra,” it’s more than just a catch phrase. It’s also the film’s way of saying that we’re all fucked. If even Robert Redford can be a villain, the film seems to be saying, then how foolish do we have to be to fully trust anyone or anything? If Robert Redford can order people killed and then justify it by claiming that he was acting for a greater good then why are we so shocked when governments do the exact same thing?
We live in paranoid times. In the future, historians will recognize that few films captured that paranoia as perfectly as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.