HOW MUCH CREDIT should Captain America: The Winter Soldier get for being the first superhero movie to feel like it was written by Edward Snowden? Eh, probably not a ton: By the time its end credits roll, the creepy, real-world issues that the film touches on are neatly wrapped up, and thanks to its gleaming CGI, it's impossible to forget Winter Soldier is the latest blockbuster from Marvel, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies to date, but in blockbusters this big, there isn't a lot of room for political commentary.
Still, it's kind of insane how far Captain America has come: In 1941, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's star-spangled superhero first appeared, he was little more than a propaganda shill. (On the cover of Captain America's debut issue, Cap is blithely unconcerned with the bullets ricocheting off his shield—he's too busy planting a fist in Hitler's face.) Seventy-three years later, Winter Soldier gives Cap a very different enemy: a faction within the American government that's determined to use surveillance technology to eliminate anyone it considers a threat.
The first Captain America movie strived to feel retro with a simplistic, deliberately hammy tone, but Winter Soldier feels old in a darker, smarter way: It owes so much to the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s that the presence of Robert Redford, as Cap's new boss, points a neon arrow at the film's hopes of being a super-powered riff on Three Days of the Condor.
But Condor and other '70s paranoid thrillers were born from unique circumstances: some of America's best directors, an era of creative control, and newly cynical audiences who'd been rocked by Watergate. In 2014, Americans' reasons to be wary of our government are greater than ever before—yet filmmaking, at least the kind practiced by Disney, is in a more conservative place than it's been in decades, more intent on exporting franchises than recapturing the verve of '70s cinema.
That doesn't mean modern blockbusters can't be smart (plenty are) or that they can't say things worth saying (plenty do). It is to say that playing with real-world fears in a superhero blockbuster is a tricky balancing act—and I'm not sure Winter Soldier, for all its enthusiasm, quite pulls it off.
Regardless, it's a hell of a lot of fun: Directors Anthony and Joe Russo put their comic skills, honed at Community and Arrested Development, to excellent use, and show off some unexpectedly impressive action chops, particularly in a hard-hitting car chase featuring Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Despite its spectacle, Winter Soldier's best moments showcase its characters, like when banter is bounced between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), or when, in scenes that wouldn't feel out of place in The West Wing or House of Cards, Cap starts to suspect those running the country whose flag he wears might not have his best interests at heart.
Winter Soldier is going to be some kid's first experience with Captain America, which means the first thing that kid will see Captain America do is fight his own government. (As role models go, that's pretty badass.) But by the time the end credits roll, the villains are dead and the threat of an inescapable security complex—which works so well in the film chiefly because of its sinister familiarity—is handily vanquished. Between all the shootouts and superheroics, Winter Soldier brings up a slew of issues Cap can't punch his way out of—from PRISM to post-traumatic stress disorder—which means it's kind of bummer when Cap does just punch his way out of them. As a Marvel movie, Winter Soldier is obligated to send us out of the theater with a thrill. But a real paranoid thriller would've left us with a chill.