In my opinion, Captain America has had the most difficult task in making the transition to the big screen. Primarily because both his character and his name comes from the American Armed Forces, not exactly the most popular of organisations across the world.
The first film wisely took Steve Rogers , aka Captain America back to his Second World War roots. After all few can argue with a man fighting the Nazis. That film ended with Steve Rogers being frozen in the Arctic Sea only to be awoken seventy years later in the present age.
Captain America: The Winter Solider is set after the events of Avengers Assemble and sees Rogers (Chris Evans) having to cope both with life in the present day as a civilian. The film sees Rogers working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and being confronted with the reality that things aren’t just as black and white today as they were during the Second World War. Who are the good guys and the bad guys? Who can he really trust?
In many ways Captain America: The Winter Solider is the film Man of Steel should have been. Obviously their mythologies are very different, but essentially the characters of Superman and Captain America are cut from the same cloth. Both are known for their patriotic red and blue costumes, and in some ways represent America as it likes to view itself: moral, righteous and the saviour to the rest of the world. Both, at their best, are outsiders conflicted about the right way to make a difference to the murky world they find themselves in.
Where the latest Captain America film succeeds where Man of Steel fails is that it knows that its protagonist’s strict moral code is what is most interesting about the character, not something that should be discarded to somehow ‘modernise’ the character.
The other way it gets things right is to surround Captain America with characters who have differing views of morality to Rogers. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) will do whatever it takes to stay alive, keeping her true self as hidden as possible from those around her. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is a man for whom the ends always justify the means. Meanwhile the good Cap lives by phrases such as “The price of freedom is high, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.” This seems clichéd and nauseating out of context, yet within the many shades of grey he finds himself in, lines like that somehow work.
Captain America: The Winter Solider is far from a perfect film. It relies on us believing in a complete lack of competence from most of the main characters for the film’s plot to make sense. There’s also a great irony in the final ‘moral’ choice our heroes make, which essentially boils down to “The bad guys are going to kill some people so that there is order in the world. Killing people is bad, so we must kill all of them.” Although if one wanted to read too far into such things, one might argue it was through similar justification many of America’s recent wars have been fought (and to be fair most wars are fought).
Despite these shortcomings and the predictable nature of the third act (will there ever be a superhero movie that DOESN’T end with a big set-piece battle between the heroes and villains?) there is a lot to be liked in Captain America: The Winter Solider. The key to a good superhero movie is how they handle their main character, and in Captain America they’ve managed to take what could have been someone drab and boring and made him into something refreshing and original. In this world of conflicted Dark Knights and Iron Mans, it’s could to have a superhero who is simply trying to be a hero.