The first look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier shows Marvel heading in a darker, grittier direction, which pits Cap (Chris Evans) against everything he thought he stood for. According to the official synopsis, Cap is just trying to lay low in Washington DC after the destruction of New York, but he finds himself embroiled in a major political conspiracy after he attempts to rescue a fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. member from attack. He then teams up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who is making his Marvel-film debut, in order to expose the conspiracy and fight off the Winter Soldier. The film also features Robert Redford as the new bad guy in Washington, and brings back fan favorite Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
The most notable thing that the trailer reveals about the upcoming sequel is the film's much darker tone. This time, Cap isn't fighting aliens or criminal masterminds, but is instead taking on the U.S. government itself. It also appears that Marvel intends to continue its trend of exploring the more internal aspects of the characters, like when Iron Man 3 explored the PTSD that Tony struggled with following the attacks on New York. However, it looks like Cap will be struggling with his whole identity, as he grapples with the idea that everything he stands and fights for could actually be his enemy.
It would be impossible for Marvel to make the kind of film or send the kind of message that The Winter Soldier sends with any of the other Avengers. For one, Captain America has always been the most closely tied to reality, with both his in-world and real-world origins so entwined with World War II. Cap may fight aliens or criminal masterminds with the Avengers, but on his own, he leads soldiers in wars and goes head-to-head with dictators. He was created to be the embodiment of patriotism, fighting for freedom, democracy, and above all, America. However, the political climate of 2013 is vastly different than that of 1940, and so audiences might be less likely to accept a character who is so idealistic in terms of fighting for his country. In general, the country is much more skeptical and wary of the government and the idea of going to war, which causes a direct conflict with the character that Captain America was created to be.
In order for Cap to hold up over time, he needs to evolve with society. It makes sense that he would need to reconcile the parts of himself that believes purely in the good of the country and the good of people with the skepticism that modern Americans have towards the government. Our perspective of "the enemy" has changed over time, and people are just as likely to view the people in Washington as enemies as they are to find enemies overseas. The shifting perspectives of our world and society affect the Marvel universe as well, and Cap is the most equipped to address those changes and concerns simply because of the connotations that come with being the superhero that represents America and its ideals. In addition, the fact that he spent several decades frozen in ice makes it easier to contrast the differences between then and now by showing Cap's struggle with them.
Superheroes were created as a form of wish-fulfillment that allows artists and readers to see the things that make them different as things that could potentially make them special. Captain America was created as a conscious counter to the rise of the Nazi party, and a way for Americans to fight back against fascism and have a say in the inevitable road to war. With several unsuccessful wars behind us, and a political divide in Washington powerful enough to bring the whole government to a halt, it's probably safe to assume that Americans don't feel as patriotic as they once did. Captain America couldn't be created with the same kind of success today, and though audiences may still identify with his version of truth and justice, it's important that they become slightly less intertwined with America as an institution in order to fulfill the more modern wishes of Captain America fans.
It's a risky move for Marvel to undertake a political thriller when, ostensibly, all audiences are expecting from them are explosions and physics-defying fight sequences. But if there's any time to take a risk it's now, when there's been such a surge in popularity that even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is staying alive despite unfavorable reviews. There's no doubt that the film will do well at the box office, regardless of how realistic or relevant the character of Captain America feels, but it feels like Marvel has found the right time and character in order to make a statement with their movies.
Captain America 2: The Winter Solider hits theaters April 4.