A funny thing happened on the way to the third act of Winter Soldier.
Full disclosure: I loved Captain America: The First Avenger. I thought Chris Evans was great. I thought, as a period piece, it was really well crafted. Despite the Red Skull being hammy and cartoonish, it was, and remains, one of my favorite entries in the MCU.
So I was ready for Winter Soldier. And, at first, I was blown away by how fantastic it was and how unquestionably superior it was in every way to the first Cap movie. And then, in one single, significant moment, it went wrong. There is a word that is uttered halfway through act two, a word that then resonates in every direction, ruining both everything that came before and all that transpires after.
And that word ... is HYDRA.
Let’s backtrack a moment. Winter Soldier begins with a great premise -- Steve Rogers, heroic all-American good guy, suddenly finds himself questioning the decisions being made by the great nation he is committed to serve. Specifically, S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing to release high-tech drone devices that, working in congress with spy software around the globe and at home, give them the ability to wipe out a target before they can even think about committing an act of terrorism against the good ol’ USA.
And that's a problem for Steve, for obvious reasons. He is a man out of time who is accustomed to the more black and white, war-to-end-all-wars brand of United States ethics. Go punch a Nazi in the face -- that’s Steve’s motto!
But no matter how well-researched he may be, Steve does not truly understand the complex place in which the United States finds itself in the international community in the modern era. The world is no longer set up along the good-guys-bad-guys lines of World War II. And, let’s face it -- America has done some ethically questionable things in the pursuit of its national security interests. The result is that we’ve become a worldwide superpower that’s always in the crosshairs. We’re already living with that reality, and now, from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s perspective, the only way to keep America safe is to keep on doing things that are profoundly morally gray.
If we’re being honest, yes, to address the volume of threats that face the U.S., there is probably a need for pre-emptive strikes. But at the same time, having these enormous drones that can kill thousands in seconds flat is a huge and extreme leap to take. So Captain America finds himself at odds with his friends and with his country. That’s act one. And it’s stellar. It’s the kind of movie with real-life analogues that’s sorely missing from mainstream moviemaking.
But then, after Cap gets into trouble with S.H.I.E.L.D. and finds himself on the run with Natasha Romanoff, there’s a seismic shift in the kind of movie Winter Soldier is. On the hunt for answers, Steve finds himself back on the base where he was originally injected with the super soldier serum. Great callback, nice way to remind us of where Cap came from as he’s grasping to figure out where he’s going and his relationship with the country that made him.
On the base, he finds someone -- Arnim Zola. Or, better put, Arnim Zola’s mind trapped inside a computer. And it is at this point that Zola reveals that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by HYDRA and that the drones are actually a super evil HYDRA master plan that Steve will never ever be able to stop in time MWA HA HA HA.
To be clear -- S.H.I.E.L.D. is no longer an American organization that is about to make a profound judgment call that will affect the future of American freedom for a perceived greater good. SHIELD is now a once-glorious institution that has been taken over by mustache-twirling Nazis.
And that’s disappointing as hell. Because it’s completely unnecessary for the plot to be made black and white this way. We’ve changed the enemy from our own paranoia and the pitfalls of reacting to threats around the world to cartoon villains who say, “Hail HYDRA.”
The result is a second half of act two and an entirety of act three that is predominantly explosions and Captain America saying stuff like “The bad guys are the ones shooting at us.”
If you liked that, that’s OK. But I want you to consider the movie Winter Soldier could have been.
Imagine that Steve and Natasha find Arnim Zola, but, instead of ever having been in control, he was killed and had his mind transferred into a computer because he wouldn’t go along with what S.H.I.E.L.D. had planned. And it’s not necessarily because he’s a Nazi, but because, according to Zola, “What S.H.I.E.L.D. has planned is something even HYDRA would never dare do.”
Now you have real conflict. Because, on the one hand, Arnim Zola is not a trustworthy dude, but on the other hand, Steve is definitely against the idea of allowing super drones to police all people everywhere, thus making personal freedom as we define it a thing of the past.
Should Steve thwart what S.H.I.E.L.D. is planning? And if he does, is he still an American hero? And what are the consequences to America’s safety?
Yes, have your explodey third act, but, in the end, give Steve the ambiguity of questioning whether he’s done the right thing. Not just because that’s a more interesting movie, but because that’s the story that was set up in act one.
To sum up, Captain America: Winter Soldier isn’t a bad movie, structurally, but it is an overly simple one. It paints the government as evil, conspiracy-laden and inept, while soldiers are pure and righteous. That’s not the world we live in, it's not the world that makes for a truly compelling allegory, and it shouldn’t be the one Steve Rogers lives in either. Because then he’s not really Captain America, is he?
What do you think? Was Captain America: Winter Soldier diminished by the appearance of HYDRA, or was the return to a more black-and-white world a narrative necessity? Share your thoughts in the comments!