Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the finest films Marvel Studios has ever put out, and definitely the best movie of the summer so far. It was exciting, engaging and masterfully crafted. The Avengers is still my favorite Marvel film, but this one is a very close second.
I was a fan of the first Captain America film, and I was afraid that with Cap out of the context of World War II, they would change his character to reflect the times. I’m so glad they not only kept him who he is, they celebrated it, making his character one of the main themes of the movie – a genuinely good man in a world filled with blurred lines of good and evil, and how he deals with it.
The twist during the film’s second act knocked me for a loop – did not expect it at all. It completely changed the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I couldn’t be more excited.
The film’s storyline is very prescient. It is a brilliant commentary on the growing definition of security in a post-9/11 (or in this case post-Avengers Battle of New York) world. It is also a spiritually layered story, paralleling some of the most basic truths of the Christian walk.
We’re going in… SPOILERS AHEAD!
The script, written by previous Captain America scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is brilliant. It is the perfect balance of a stand-alone story, a chapter of the MCU, and a sequel to The First Avenger. The characters are well thought out (for the most part), the plot is impeccably tight, many loose ends from Cap’s first film were tied up, and all the danger has a purpose.
Markus and McFeely also got the character of Cap right. I was afraid that they would lose sight of who he is in favor of modern sensibilities. It’s actually a significant theme of the plot of the film – the world has changed and Cap struggles to remain himself and adhere to his principles. I will explain this concept in more depth later on in the review.
It was a short sequence, but I loved, loved, loved the Smithsonian scene. This sequence was how I imagined a hero like Cap being honored had he been real. I had the largest grin on my face throughout the whole scene. It was reverential, respectful, and makes up for the historical oversights of the first film – almost.
The cherry on top was hearing Gary Sinise’s voice as the exhibit narrator. Absolute awesomeness! Sinise’s work on World War II documentaries is among my favorites, and his voice gave the whole scene an air of legitimacy. I want to go see that exhibit!
Chris Evans has really grown into his role as Captain America. I think Evans finally knows who Steve Rogers is, and can now play him with more subtlety and reverence. In fact, it seems like all of the current Marvel alumni like Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders seem more in sync with their characters. Like a new pair of gloves, the roles needed to be worn a bit before they could be stretched and fit nicely.
Marvel newcomer Anthony Mackie was wonderful as Sam Wilson / Falcon. He’s a great character to pair with Cap – a good, loyal soldier willing to follow Steve anywhere. Sam provides some great levity at the right times.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo really surprised me with their adept handling of this film. I thought they were a peculiar choice when they were announced, since I had known of them from their television comedy directing, particularly Arrested Development. I had no idea they had the chops to stage and shoot complicated action scenes.
Speaking of action, all of it was amazing! The stunts were shot in a very exciting manner, and yet they were coherent – one could point out where everything was in relation to everything else. It was a seamless combination of CGI and live stunts. It’s movies like this that make me realize that live stunts usually look so much better than even the best computer-generated mayhem. There’s just something organic about it.
I cannot describe how awesome and unexpected the SHIELD/Hydra twist was! I still can’t get over it. Totally blew my mind. I must have let out the biggest gasp in the theater. It was almost as good as the “Luke, I am your father” moment from The Empire Strikes Back. It’s that emotionally gripping, and a little depressing. I do like where this puts our heroes. They now have to come back against Hydra on the offensive.
Winter Soldier / Bucky Barnes’ character arc seemed rushed. I wasn’t entirely convinced that seven decades worth of brainwashing, violence and general villainy could be switched off within the span of a few days. I wanted to see more scenes getting into the head of this character – more information about the Winter Soldier’s past, and a better explanation of how Bucky survived his supposed death in The First Avenger. Perhaps the possibility of a Marvel One-Shot to explain?
The Project: Insight helicarriers seemed like an impractical means of destroying threats to Hydra. A covert government agency like SHIELD/Hydra likes to take care of threats quietly. Those ships were massive, slow, and very conspicuous – a lot like Red Skull’s Valkyrie Flying Wing in the first film (one would think Hydra would have learned from their mistakes). Usually, one does not want their enemy to know they are coming. If Fury would have explained that these ships were for extra-terrestrial threats (like the Chitauri army in The Avengers), I would have had a better time believing it.
Themes and Thoughts
“’Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.'” Matthew 7:13-14
Hydra’s infiltration of SHIELD was a brilliant plot point in The Winter Soldier that completely changed the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The security network that had the Avengers’ back is in shambles, and loyalties have been shattered. So many SHIELD agents sided with Hydra because they thought Hydra was the winning side – the easy, inevitable path. Good is on its back because it did not understand the nature of evil.
Evil does not act in a blatant, mustache-twirling way most of the time. It is subtle, gradually gaining a hold on a person’s heart. Much like Hydra, Satan acts in the shadows against us – tempting our hearts to give in to sin, setting us up and taking advantage when we fall. Truth be told, like SHIELD, the evil was in our hearts from the beginning of our lives, from the corruption of original sin (Romans 6:6 and 8:3). Satan, known as “the father of lies” (John 8:44), gradually convinces us that the corruption of our sin is hopelessly inevitable, unshakable, and even a good thing.
The Winter Soldier also brings up, rather glaringly, some great questions about control and security in the modern world. SHIELD’s Project: Insight may have had the best of intentions, but any large, controlling system can be used for nefarious purposes because of the corruptible nature of the human heart.
America’s founders knew the fallibility of the human heart and created a system of government with disparate power. They knew that if there was too much power in one place, the nature of the flesh would make it a dangerous temptation to overstep. No matter how nobly intentioned and righteous a person believes themselves to be, there is always the possibility that the person who succeeds them will use that power for evil, and what then?
There is an arrogance in human nature that assumes that we, as limited beings, know enough to run and control everything, which returns us to Satan’s first temptation in the Garden of Eden. The great author C.S. Lewis touched on this concept in his seminal book, Mere Christianity:
“What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
Free will combined with sin equals unpredictability. Men have always arrogantly yearned to control other men to create a “better world.” Those striving for a utopia on earth are committing a fool’s errand. Nick Fury and SHIELD attempted to control hostile situations and “stop threats before they happen.” This could have lead down a dangerous path, and played directly into the hands of Hydra.
“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking…is freedom.” Dwight Eisenhower
Because of the sinful nature of human beings, a perfect world is not possible, not until Christ returns (Revelation 20:1-15). SHIELD’s arrogance eventually lead to its downfall, and now it has been reduced to virtually nothing. However, for us, God can use even the darkest of situations for His glory, and for one’s redemption (Romans 8:28). It is at our lowest points where, as broken people, we usually reach to God and ask Him to help, though we should be asking before it gets to that point.
Hopefully, SHIELD will be redeemed in later installments of the MCU, and the evil of Hydra rooted out. If Cap’s resolve is truly unshakable, I wouldn’t doubt it. It would make for a great metaphor of God, through the Holy Spirit, ridding our hearts of sin. It is a long and gradual process, but if we have faith that the Lord will sanctify our hearts, we will come out more like Christ, which is the goal.
In a recent episode of the Reel World Theology podcast reviewing The Winter Soldier, pastor and blogger Wade Bearden brought up a very good point about Captain America – something that I had liked, but had not put into words.
The world/society did not change Captain America; he attempted to change the world around him. Cap defied contemporary society’s blurred lines of good and evil and stands up for uncompromising truth and justice. He allows the SHIELD apparatus to collapse in order to save what it stands for. Cap even discards his more covert uniform for his suit from the 1940s, indicating that he’s not afraid to stand up for and represent his “old-fashioned” values.
“‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.'” Matthew 5:13-16
Like Cap, we as Christians are called to be a light in the growing darkness of the world, but for a much higher purpose. We are to “stand firm in the faith” – no change or compromise for the sake of making life easy or being liked by the world or the culture – relying on God to make us strong (1 Peter 5:8-11). We are to be the emissaries of the King of kings, and attract people to Him through us. We must engage with others in relationships, showing them the love of God through the way we live. It is then that the Holy Spirit can begin to work in a person’s life.
One of Captain America’s most admirable qualities is his capacity to never give up, especially on people. Once he realized that the ruthless assassin known as the Winter Soldier was in fact his long-lost friend Bucky Barnes, Cap made it his mission to bring Bucky back into the light – despite the fact that the Winter Soldier attacked and (supposedly) killed Nick Fury.
Cap even went so far as to resist fighting Bucky, and trying to reason with him. Eventually, Bucky started to snap out of it, and saved an unconscious Cap from drowning in the Potomac River. However, the end of the film indicated that Bucky still has a long way to go, and Cap and Falcon decided to go after Bucky and redeem him.
The Christian belief that no one is beyond the grace of God is a concept that many non-believers have difficulty wrapping their heads around. They do not believe it is fair and just that the most vile and despicable of people could be cleansed of their sins and spend eternity with God. What they fail to understand is that we all have sinned, and sin has the same wage for everyone no matter what they have done: death.
The Apostle Paul, probably one of the greatest evangelists in all Christian history, started out as a violent and hateful person named Saul of Tarsus. As detailed in the Book of Acts, Saul openly hated and persecuted Christians, and hunted them down with ferocity and no remorse – even overseeing the stoning of Stephen, a deacon in the early church (Acts 7:54-60). When Saul met Jesus on the Damscus Road, his life was changed, and he began his ministry shortly after with a new name given by Christ.
Forgiveness is a cornerstone of Christian teaching. It is what Christ came to teach more than anything. Through God’s forgiveness, we all can be made clean and be redeemed of our past – everyone.
Does this mean that we should instantly trust those who do us wrong after we have forgiven them? Of course not. Trust is something that is earned, and very hard to get back when broken. When Paul started his ministry, he was initially met with distrust by the early Christians because of his bloody past as Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:13). However, with the Lord’s help, they were able to look past Saul’s sins and accept him as a believer.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5:17
If there is true forgiveness and a turn to Jesus Christ in a person’s heart, then they are a “new creation” in the eyes of God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. And since a follower of Christ strives to be like Christ, they will choose to repent from their past life and live for others, and in turn for Christ. According to C.H. Spurgeon, a nineteenth century theologian, we are commanded to both believe and repent, and they cannot be separated. How can someone who has chosen to follow Jesus return to a life of sin? It isn’t possible, and one must question their commitment to Jesus.
If someone as hateful and vile as Saul of Tarsus can be forgiven by God and completely repent from the sins of his past life, anyone can. We just have to have faith that God will give us the strength and capacity to forgive them.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is definitely one of the jewels in the crown of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though all the films are good, by and large). I would say that it is a better film structurally than The Avengers, but I have to admit that I had more fun watching that film than Winter Soldier, so Avengers holds its top spot, barely. I am looking forward with nerdy anticipation to the next installments in the MCU, and how the characters will rectify this great blow to the good side.
Cap’s journey in this film brings up some of the most basic tenants of the Christian life. We are called to take the narrow path and not give in to the world’s temptations, to rely on God for our security and understanding, and we must forgive those who have done wrong – though the forgiving process is long, and can only be accomplished through a constant dependence on God for strength.
One can forgive someone and choose not to speak to them again. We can love someone as a person and not like them. Relationships may be broken, even if there is forgiveness. Forgiveness is more for your own heart than for the person who wronged you. After all, who are you really hurting by harboring hate towards someone? You! The other person either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about your hateful feelings.
Is there someone in your life you have not forgiven? It may be for something comparatively small or large, but it is all the same to God. Set your sprit free and forgive that person in your own heart. It is truly the best thing for it.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie
Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell
with Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Based upon characters appearing in Marvel Comics
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo