The Avengers movies just get bigger, better, smarter and more relevant with each one. So much so, I might have to start calling this the best genre franchise ever. The series has gone a long way toward dismantling the stereotype that "comic book" automatically equals "stupid and juvenile." But no Avengers movie stunned me the way Captain America: The Winter Soldier has, with its scathing commentary on what's happening in the real world today — all wrapped up, to boot, in what is the most delicious, most comic-booky fantasy ever.
And it's all down to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Since we first met him in this Avengers series, he hasn't had time enough to begin to cope with the personal after-effects of his one-way time travel, via cryonic sleep, from the 1940s to the 2010s, but as Winter Soldier opens, he's starting to face his disconnect. In one early scene, as Steve makes a new friend, Afghanistan/Iraq war vet Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), we see he's keeping a list in a little notebook of all the important things he needs to catch up on, things like "Thai food" and "Star Wars/Trek." It's sweet, funny and poignant. But Steve's displacement isn't only about pop culture. S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tells him about a project the organization is about to launch, involving a new fleet of massive helicarriers, high-tech aircraft carriers that float in the atmosphere instead of the ocean, watching over Earth, spy eyes on high. The project was deemed a necessary security move "after New York" (i.e., events in The Avengers).
Steve is horrified. "This isn't freedom," he tells Fury. "This is fear."
This, too, might be sweet, funny and poignant if it were only fantasy, but here we have a guy who's un-ironically called Captain America, an identity created as a propaganda tool of the U.S. Army during World War II to promote American ideals, struggling with how those ideals get deployed — or don't — in the 21st century. There's tons of wonderful comic-book melodrama involving a potential infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. by nefarious forces. And there's tons of wonderful comic-book action, of course, including Steve meeting his physical match in the mysterious masked Winter Soldier (Stan Sebastian), who would appear to also be a medically modified supersoldier.
Even the comic-book stuff, though, feels more relevant than usual: The big battle between S.H.I.E.L.D. forces, including Steve, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), and the Winter Solider and his friends through the streets of Washington, D.C., feels a helluva lot like a lone-gunman-on-a-rampage story lifted directly from 24-hour news channels. Along the way to figuring out what's happening at S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve confronts the world of his past in a way that folds his story back in on itself — and we confront the world of our past in a way that's deeply uncomfortable. Steve is, quite literally, a museum piece. We visit, with Steve, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum exhibit about his extraordinary life — but even with his disconnect in time, is he the only one with his head in the right place when it comes to what the U.S. has been doing to itself in recent decades?
It's not a spoiler to say that Winter Soldier ends up casting the concept of the modern Western surveillance state as an actual evil plot we've all been sold — that fleet of spying helicarriers is but a tiny sliver of it. That level of disapproval for a status quo that a lot of people think is a good thing is absolutely extraordinary in a popcorn movie. Where Winter Soldier goes — let's just say that Edward Snowden could be on this film's marketing payroll. It's that revolutionary.