Captain America: The Winter Soldier is The Big Sleep of superhero movies. Its main character takes on a seemingly straightforward assignment, and is plunged headfirst into a confusing, arguably convoluted, mystery. No one can be trusted as the lead navigates through a dark, unsettling landscape of mystery, intrigue, and danger. They are also among the strongest in their respective genres: The Big Sleep as one of the great film noirs, and The Winter Soldier as possibly the best superhero film.
Like the first chapter of Cap’s story, The First Avenger, the strongest asset is its lead character. Steve Rogers / Captain America found himself surviving long past World War II era into the present-day, but fortunately the “fish out of water” jokes were mostly contained within the previous film The Avengers, allowing a more serious assessment of Cap’s situation. He is no longer the war hero on the front lines, but a piece of a broader bureaucratic puzzle struggling with differing agendas with partners, reporting to a cryptic Director, and the growing dread that his way of life is no longer relevant 70 years after his own time.
Tragedy strikes early on, and Cap finds himself on the run as a perceived threat, and partners up with Agent Romanoff (Black Widow) to unscramble the threat. Their detective work draws them deeper and deeper into a dark conspiracy, and find supposed allies are not what they seem. The narrative gets even more clouded as a figure from Rogers’s past resurfaces as a nightmarish killing machine.
This is one of the more compelling elements of The Winter Soldier: the harsh imprints left by a traumatic wartime experience. It creates emotionless, heartless monsters of some, while others (like Steve’s friend Sam Wilson, later Falcon) turn this experience into support, by leading counseling groups for soldiers facing PTSD. Excellent foils are created between war veterans, ranging from light to the very dark.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel storytelling at the top of its game, with stunningly shot action sequences and a mind-boggling yet exhilarating tale of bureaucracy, conspiracy, and heroism in the modern age.