If you want to understand what Captain America: The Winter Soldier is all about, watch the shield. Yes, it’s a very good movie, probably the best of the Marvel flicks so far. Yes, it’s a four-color take on a Seventies political thriller, which is why Robert Redford was so wonderfully cast. Yes, it had issues of moral complexity that, depending on where you sit were either painstakingly simplistic or deeply adventurous for a billion dollar tentpole flick.
But what matters is the shield.
Because when Captain America’s shield hits something in this movie, there’s an impact. It slices into walls and stays there. It gets used to hack open padlocks and smash through things. When Cap takes a corner too fast and bounces off the wall, shield-first, it leaves a mark.
And that’s what the movie’s about. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything makes ripples. Everything has unintended consequences. Even the purest thing on the planet - either Cap’s conscience or his vibranium alloy shield - can’t help leaving a trail of damage wherever it goes, even if it was put into play for what were presumably the best of reasons.
Which is why, and I know i’m getting all Film Critic Hulk here (maybe Film Critic Doc Samson? Film Critic Abomination? Whatever) it’s such a big deal when Cap throws his shield at the Winter Soldier and the Winter Soldier catches it before returning serve and knocking Cap on his ass. The purest thing in Cap’s arsenal just got turned around on him. Never mind what just happened to Nick Fury, this is the real signifier that the old rules don’t apply, and that your best efforts just might be what gets you killed.
So that, really, is why I loved the movie. Well acted, yup - it’s really an ensemble piece for Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie, and they play off each other beautifully. The deep cut easter eggs for the Marvel true believers are fun without requiring you to be Comic Book Guy. The action scenes feel like a comic book, Batroc the Leaper gets his fifteen minutes, and the Russo brothers do a superb job of melding the slippery camerawork of those 70s thrillers with the shiny CGI demanded of a Marvel blockbuster.
That being said, it all comes back to the shield. And every time it cut into sheetrock or metal, every time it left an imprint on the world I cheered a little. This was the first time a modern superhero film really interacted with its world. Talk all you want about the Nolan Batmans and the Manhattan carnage of The Avengers, their violence was all spectacle. Buildings explode. Stadiums crumble. Bridges go down. Cliffside mansions get knocked into the ocean by arrays of missiles. These are things beyond the scope of the everyday. They’re showy statements. (That, incidentally, was always the basic disconnect with Nolan’s Batman: he’s a street-level character without superpowers who exists on a plane of wealth so far beyond comprehension that his Batman-ing seems the least effective thing he could do. Better to buy up Gotham - real estate’s cheap - and rebuild it than squat on rooftops waiting for muggers.)
Cap, however, makes dents you can see. Maybe the ones in your office wall are a little smaller and not quite as deep, but that’s a difference of degree, not of kind. These are impacts we can understand. These are, to be brutally honest, the things we all leave behind in our lives as we struggle along, bouncing off people and things, and leaving indelible marks as we do so.
Even if we try not to. Just like Cap, and his shield.