Steve Rogers isn’t a soldier, he’s a confused mercenary. Born in Brooklyn and molded in Munich, the “Captain America” film proclaims that Rogers’ patriotism and American values are literally part of his super nazi-fighting DNA. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” brutally reminds us that while Rogers was emblazoned with the stars and stripes, it was only because somebody else was picking out his wardrobe.
This theme is explicitly stated in the opening mission of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Packing nothing but his vibranium shield and easily-identifiable suit, Rogers lands on a ocean vessel drop kicks his way through opposing foes, guided by the belief that this is only a hostage retrieval mission. Natasha Romanoff has other plans, swiping valuable data from the ship’s computers. Rogers is angry and conflicted: this wasn’t the mission, but when he complains to higher ups, he’s told to shut his trap and fight for America.
Alas, a new foreign foe shows up on American turf, only known through rumors as “the Winter Soldier.” Wielding a mighty, metallic arm and a supposedly infinite amount of bullets, the Winter Soldier is both expert assassin and super soldier. He’s revealed to be a mind-controlled version of Rogers’ childhood best bro Bucky, causing Cap to reconsider if he can truly hold his enemies or his friends in completely definitive terms.
Problem is, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t America, HYDRA isn’t Germany, and while the Avengers can fly a nuke into space, they’ll never fight or die for their country like the real frontline soldiers getting bombed from above. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” succeeds because it dismantles the notion of who Cap was in the previous film. While moviegoers love to learn about hows, the whys of “Winter Soldier” are equally as satisfying.
It’s a remarkably nuanced and risky position to take in a movie, arguing more for ideals than institutions. That message is almost ironic coming from the megabehemoth of Marvel, like saying we shouldn’t like Stan Lee so much as what Stan Lee represents. The action is well-choreographed albeit overstuffed, and there’s a certain filmmaking maturity that is commendable but almost feels out of place. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” isn’t the best Rogers’ movie, but it is the most crucial dismantling of his character, making him less of an idea and more of a person.