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After Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy raised the "grittiness" bar for superhero films and attempted a sort of realism previously alien to the comic book movie genre, any subsequent superhero film must at least dabble in darker moral questions or visceral street-level action. The Winter Soldier dabbles in both, though in rather uninspiring ways. The film explores questions of encroached-upon liberty under the guise of "freedom" with a veiled critique of Patriot Act-era America, as does The Dark Knight. And also like Nolan's film, Soldier tries to amp up the non-CGI action quotient with high-octane street chases and hand-to-hand combat shot with schizophrenic, blunt-force camerawork. Most of this is supremely entertaining, but little of it packs a visceral punch. And that's a shame.

Robert Redford and Chris Evans in 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'
Marvel Studios

Robert Redford and Chris Evans in 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'

At its best, cinema engages us not only cerebrally but also physically, making us think but also sweat, squirm, and squeal. This is because cinema has the power to confront us with our own embodiment, leading us to identify and vicariously experience the pains, pangs, emotions and longings of our fellow man. In this way it can help us develop empathy, self-awareness, appreciation for both the beauty and fragility of the body, among other good things.

But when a film makes its human characters super-human or even pseudo-human (what sort of being is the bionic "Winter Soldier" anyway?), much of this potential is squandered. The relatable becomes abstract and our understanding of embodiment is further confused. For Christians who believe the true God became flesh and dwelt among us, and that he breathed and broke as we do, such diminishments and distortions of embodiment should raise flags.

Caveat Spectator

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a violent film from start to finish, packed with all manner of gun-fighting, fist-fighting, car-fighting, and most other kinds of fighting. That said, none of it is particularly bloody or graphic. This might be even more disturbing, however. As mentioned in the above review, the film's violence is ubiquitous but seemingly has no devastating effects on any one. The cumulative effect is disturbing and desensitizing, less graphic but more ho-hum about violence than your average horror film.

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty(Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier