Purity is a hard sell, particularly to Hollywood. Its very presence shines a light on lesser qualities, it is a rude virtue, the byword of arrogance, and, to take Hollywood’s view, guilty of the chief sin of being dull. Our cultural revolt against the Puritans as stodgy, strict, morose and over scrupulous is not due to their pessimistic view of humanity, but in their radical, world-defying belief that humanity can be pure. We cannot abide purity. It must be brought low and sullied. We are a cynical people, inclined to believe that the heroes of today will be the goats of tomorrow. This being the reality we’d rather our heroes be goats already.
Nowhere is this better seen than in our comic books. Marvel Comics has long been at the head of this, with Stan Lee as the master of the flawed hero. Their characters are in an impure state, in lost innocence: Spider-Man’s guilt stricken heroism, Iron Man’s weakness and shame requiring an iron mask in order to live, and the Hulk’s great strength the fruit of his great flaw. Contrasted with these angsty characters was Superman. He was righteous, the blue boy scout, and messianic, or at least he was until the recent movie. Our modern take requires a darker turn, full of eyenoise & ire signifying nothing, he was brought low with doubt and moody facial hair. But while I would argue that this was a misstep in the case of Superman, there is a very sound reason to build characters with a flaw. Serial tales require a core conflict to generate stories and moral weakness or guilty conscious is a ripe source of material.
Captain America’s story engine, however, isn’t built on a defect in character, but it is nonetheless a gripping one. Steve Rogers is a man whose virtue outstrips his physical abilities. America is on the brink of World War II, but due to his frailty cannot enlist until an experimental serum gives him the body worthy of his purity. He is the David in the Goliath body, his power made perfect in his once weakness. This would be a decent enough story engine, but after the war the infatuation with the character waned until the 1960s when Stan Lee resurrected the character, adding the final touch to his story engine. His resurrection was quite literal; Lee, to explain the Captain’s lack of adventures, told the story of how at the end of WWII he was frozen in a block of ice and thawed out twenty years later. In a very real way he lost his world, radically changed in the aftermath of the war. This was increased to seventy years in the 2011 film, Captain America: The First Avenger, further emphasizing his alienation. I mention the mechanics of the character, because otherwise you might not know from the movie how great a character Captain America could be.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is B-grade Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum intrigue, drawing on national headlines to get its immediacy and relevance. It is a popular scolding of preemptive strikes and a vague call for governmental transparency, even though ultimately its critique is undermined. I want to be careful, because criticizing superhero films can look like a kid pulling the legs of grasshoppers and dropping them onto ant hills, so I’ll be brief. It is somewhat troubling that Captain America’s response to the unchecked power of his organization is to take matters into his own hands. That his power and singular vision give him the right to do what he sees fit is kinda the modus operandi of our country. Though there is certainly a thrill hearing him say, “The price of freedom is high… and it’s a price I’m willing to pay. You told me not trust anyone and this is how it ends: everything goes!” It’s the sort of line that makes even the most ardent supporter of the NSA’s dubious hijinks pump a fist.
All the meaty character work goes to Nick Fury, who is really the hero of the movie. He gets the character arc, he is the one who suspects S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised, he gets the information out, he saves Captain America and puts him in a position to bring down the organization. Fury even gets the humanizing moments and weighty social commentary. The story Fury tells of his father, an elevator operator, carrying a gun to protect his tips, has become his justification for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s activities. Captain America later questions the methods of the organization saying, “You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection.” Fury eventually changes. In the climactic monologue with the evil HYDRA mastermind, who is willing to sacrifice a few million to save a few billion, asks Fury if he would be brave enough to flip the switch. Fury replies that he would be brave enough not to.
It is a successful movie in that it sets up both its sequel as well as the next Avengers movie, for while the Iron Man franchise gets to be its own thing, Thor and Captain America are pressed into duty of worldbuilding. All the elements are there to make this a compelling Captain America movie, but his virtue doesn’t interest us. At heart, it wants to be a spy movie with S.H.I.E.L.D. playing the compromised spy organization and the Captain playing the guy who runs through walls and people. As a fan of Captain America running through walls and people, I enjoyed the movie. I believe that I could honestly watch him bounce that shield off noggins and kickpunch baddies for a solid 90 without coming up for air, but I do prefer a tad more than that. Reviews are peppered with comments on how “dull” and “boring” the Captain is, nobody likes a goodie two shoes, but the greatest pity is that even the filmmakers view Captain America as unworthy of his own movie.