Captain America: Winter Soldier has been out for a few weeks now, so a review of it now would be unnecessary. What we can talk about is how it compares to other movies, namely another superhero action blockbuster that starred an all-American idealist hero. Winter Soldier and Man of Steel were released within a year of each other and tackled the same heroic archetype in two contrasting manners. We’re going to see that Man of Steel absolutely sucks compared to Winter Soldier.
The things Man of Steel did wrong could be a rant in and of itself but the main sin is that the movie destroyed Superman’s character. Man of Steel Superman is plagued with self-doubt and insecurity. How can he be accepted into the world as a human when he has all these superhuman abilities? Every other Superman medium deals with this conflict by bothering to distinguish between Clark Kent and Superman. Clark Kent is the identity used to blend in with humanity while he becomes Superman to save them. In Man of Steel, Superman has to travel around the world and level all of Metropolis before he comes to this conclusion.
Man of Steel Superman has his head and intentions in the right place but does not use his powers in the right way. Despite having the power to survive in space, he fights Zod and the other Kryptonians in highly populated areas. Superman makes no effort to minimize civilian casualties or draw the Kryptonians out in to lesser populated areas. We watch him suppress his powers when his foster father is in danger, all because he was told to. Maybe DC figured a more “realistic” Superman who struggled to do the right thing would make for a better film.
If Man of Steel‘s mixed reception didn’t question that decision, Captain America: Winter Soldier certainly should. Marvel had all the reasons necessary to make Captain America more gritty. Adjusting to 21st century America could have caused Captain to lose his idealism. Instead of altering his character, Marvel reinforced Captain’s identity in Winter Soldier without making him a jingoistic parody. By staying true to who Captain America is, Winter Soldier ended up being positively received.
Throughout Winter Soldier, we see Captain America as someone who’s not loyal to SHIELD. He has some moral qualms over how secretive they are, the ends they attempt to reach and the means they’ll go through to justify them. When he finds out HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD and used them for their own ends, he doesn’t abandon his idealism. Instead, he soldiers on and even rallies some of SHIELD to his cause in the climax after an inspiring speech. Captain America also tries to limit how much property damage and civilian casualties his fights cause despite having nowhere near the power Superman does.
Man of Steel decided not to bother with the heroic archetype. “We have to make Superman more gritty, more palatable to today’s modern movie audience” was, presumably, the DC executive thought process. “We have to make him angsty, more like Batman.” Marvel decided not to change Captain America’s identity. Their ideology was “we’re going to use the modern era to reinforce the characteristics of our all-American hero.” Considering the state of Marvel’s cinematic universe compared to DC’s, Marvel made the right call.