Spoilers follow for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Institutional paranoia may be the low-hanging fruit of the American blockbuster, but Captain America 2 exploits it well - even ingeniously, when the movie does reality one better by claiming that all of our online presence is being cobbled together, not into a giant database by which to drive ad sales, but rather into a HYDRA-designed algorithm that analyzes your social media data and decides whether or not you're going to be a terrorist someday. Bet you never thought of that when you posted your breakfast to your Facebook wall this morning!
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rather like America herself: there are a lot of guns and a lot of cars, and (underneath the aforementioned, overwhelming little-guy-against-the-big-bad-government malaise) a rather sweet heart. That heart is the key by which the character of Captain America remains something other than a ludicrous patriotic boilerplate. In the films (this was true in Captain America: The First Avenger, as well) as well as in the comics, Cap runs less lock-step with the whims of the American government than with an idea of ground-level decency that America is, in theory, built upon.
Albeit told in the most comic-booky terms (fatuous Senator Garry Shandling furtively whispering "Hail HYDRA!" in Maximiliano Hernandez' traitorous ear), one must respect a tentpole blockbuster stalwart enough to educate a new generation of American youngsters on the ins and outs of Watergate-era distrust of the intentions of the ruling class. The Winter Soldier casts Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D. Secretary Alexander Pierce to underscore the point, and Redford must have enjoyed playing the kind of blue-eyed, dead-hearted legislator who was behind every bad thing that happened to his character in Three Days of the Condor.
Redford, the best Captain America that Hollywood never cast as Captain America, might inadvertently be even more subtextually interesting here for his relationship to Sundance than his relationship to the 1970s paranoia thrillers. If The Winter Soldier is about yet another institutional powerhouse built with good intentions by idealistic folk (a brief shot of framed, black-and-white portraits of our heroes from Captain America 1 in the underground S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker reminds us that this agency wasn't always run by assholes) that became just another pretty face concealing more base ambitions within, the migration of Sundance from independence to Hollywood's hipster launch pad is as relevant a context as any.
I'm a Thor guy by preference, but if there's something a Thor movie reliably lacks, it's subtext. (Subtext requires subtlety, and hammer-wielding space gods have little or none, and thank goodness.) The other Avengers have been doing better, subtext-wise. Iron Man 3's sly disrespect towards the concept of foreign despots (and daddy issues) remains the richer soup overall, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier does a credible job of questioning its overlords' motives while simultaneously upholding those motives to a T.
It's a car-chase movie where stuff 'splodes and a Heat-level fusillade of machine-gun casings are rained down on the echoey concrete streets of Washington, and yet it's also an earnestly goofy franchise table-flipper where the ghost of Toby Jones has been living in a warehouse-sized bank of tape-fed computers for fifty years, and by the end of which the Marvel cinematic universe's now-ratty, overarching lifeline - the agents, and aegis, of S.H.I.E.L.D. - have been tossed away.
Finally, that godawful TV show has become, if momentarily, appointment television. I couldn't give less of a fuck about why Coulson is back from the dead (explain to me why anyone thought making him a lead character was a good idea before you bother with the science fiction - it's the far harder notion to swallow), but I can't wait to see what they'll have to do to reengineer Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., now that two of those four words no longer apply.
The weirdest element of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is simply the Winter Soldier himself, who seems like such an overall afterthought in the construction of the script's logic (excise him, and what changes?) that I can't help but think that's precisely the point. The friendship of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes was hardly the backbone of Captain America: The First Avenger (there, as here, it's Chris Evans' magnificently judged performance that's holding the whole shlamozzle together), so Barnes' return from death is hardly a game-changer, either for this story or the franchise as a whole.
But in and around the notion that one could save Toby Jones' brain in a bank of tape-fed computers and thereby give birth to a new HYDRA that grew up cancer-like within the structure of S.H.I.E.L.D. while Steve Rogers slept in that glacier, there's the altogether more unsettling idea of Barnes skipping like a flat stone across the surface of all the years Steve missed, surgically stitching together a darker and darker world. His memory critically erased after each epoch-shifting op, the Winter Soldier slowly conjures an America that justifies something as gruesome as an algorithm that uses your Facebook breakfast to decide whether you should be taken out from orbit by an extremely long, helicarrier-borne, S.H.I.E.L.D. gun.
For the second time in three movies, Marvel is flirting with the idea of an American organization creating shadows of evil in order to justify their concealed ambitions. That's a disconcertingly adult idea for a comic book movie, even if it also gives rise to the most basic of American (and Captain American) fables: that there's still one regular fella, who's simple and decent enough to stand up for what's right, even if it means crashing floating aircraft carriers into the Potomac.
The Winter Soldier's final 40 minutes are an unnervingly heady brew of overlapping image systems, as the military-industrial complex literally collides with the seat of American government while good ol' U.S. of A. forthrightness (back in his Golden Age uniform, natch) gets the hell beat out of him (and shot out of him) by his creepy doppelganger with the bad memory and emo eyes.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier scratches all over the skipping record of the Marvel movies, sure enough, but it leaves an altogether more unsettling taste in the mouth than merely having torn a few pages out of our favourite comic book. Slapdash archetyping with Baron Von Strucker and the Scarlet Witch in the first stinger is one thing, but the slender second stinger at the very end of the credits is the real question mark: the disconcerting possibility that the Winter Soldier might wake up in Captain America's America, and start making choices for himself.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.