Violence is a storytelling tool. Heroes grapple with problems, and violence is a visceral way to tell that story. It's difficult to get an audience on board with abstract concepts like Good vs. Evil or Man vs. Nature without giving them some physical anchors, and having physical conflict as a main narrative vehicle can work well.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a visceral story. Steven Rogers, who is AKA'd as Captain America, is a hero who embodies abstract values but enacts them in very physical ways. "Winter Soldier" pits Rogers' physical heroism against a vast and secretive conspiracy, which is an intriguing premise but in practice simply devolves into Rogers throwing his shield at things extra hard. You know it's not going to be that interesting a conspiracy when you can spot the head of the snake at the very beginning of the movie. When the big reveal is that the military industrial complex is literally run by Nazis (and yes, I know what literally means), we're not talking about a super nuanced plot. Spoiler alert!
I contend that the argument that "Winter Soldier" makes has nothing to do with its actual plot, but with its overuse of violence -- sometimes as a storytelling tool, but too often past that or apart from it.
The movie's first action scene involves Rogers boarding a ship and taking out an entire deck of enemies within 5 minutes, and I immediately felt a little odd about the action sequence. I felt bad for those dudes. They weren't wearing Evil Minion Helmets or Evil Minion Masks, so it just looked like one guy beating up on a bunch of other guys. The audience hadn't really seen any on-screen cruelty or evilness out of any of the people Rogers was killing (other than, you know, self-defense against a hyperengineered mutant soldier who wants to bludgeon them all to death with an indestructible wedge).
It is that indestructible wedge that actually carries this movie. When the plot is predictable or fails to reach its potential, what's left are the action sequences. Rogers has a shield and all the bad guys have guns, which (despite the tenor of the opening action scene) creatures a natural underdog in every fight, despite the fact that he's Captain Freaking America. Every combat sequence was a puzzle to solve, as he had to get creative with the shield. If he throws the shield at somebody, how will he get it back? Can he get it back in time to reflect another bullet? I found myself watching his shield's trajectory a lot more than Rogers himself. Any time he threw it, I'd be wondering, "How the heck is he going to get that back?" And sometimes he didn't, actually, and had to fight without it.
Captain America's shield represents a lot of painfully obvious things, but in this movie it represents the Old Days of combat versus the New. Guns are pretty good weapons, I hear, and Rogers finds himself in a world that is advancing faster than American values can keep up. And so these combat sequences accentuate and hammer home the sense that Rogers is from another era and has to bring old values and old tactics to bear against new problems.
These violent action scenes that are really the bones of this movie operate best after this fashion, where the fighting represents greater or more abstract struggles. When the Winter Soldier basically takes Rogers' shield away from him during a fight, it's more chilling than almost anything else in the movie. In fact, the Winter Soldier himself carries a malicious, relentless presence in these action scenes with his ability to counter the heroes' strengths with seeming ease and across varied environments and problem sets. As soon as the kiddie-pool plot catches up with the antagonist and we're exposed to his history and present confusion, he loses a lot of cinematic kick, in my opinion. Having the "real villain" be some Nazi corporate guy in a suit feels lackluster after seeing the Winter Soldier's physical villainy do so much more for the story.
There were two main problems with the Winter Soldier character. First of all, he was only evil because he was literally brainwashed to be. How compelling is that? Not very. Here's a guy who was following Captain America's trajectory until being lost in combat, and while Captain America got frozen for years and suddenly released Rip Van Winkle style, this guy has been following American politics through the decades and fighting in Vietnam and Korea and the Cold War and all of the more problematic American conflicts. Why couldn't the Winter Soldier just be a disillusioned version of Captain America? Wouldn't it be far more compelling if Captain America's sidekick, who didn't get the benefit of time-capsuling his politics, became jaded and aggressive of his own accord? I mean, sure, he'd have to be working with some evil people, but let the character make some choices himself for crying out loud. Otherwise, the most impressive villain of this movie is basically just a video game character.
The second problem was that we really don't get any resolution with him. This is a problem for a movie that bears the character's name. It should've been called "Captain America: Throwing Shields at Things" or "Captain America: Nazis Still Bad" or "Call of Duty 6: Captain America."
When Rogers confronts the Winter Soldier for the last time, he says the laughable line, "People will die, Bucky." Where has he been for the past two hours? Were people not dying, by his own very hand, for the entirety of this movie? Of course, the airships that Rogers is attempting to destroy will kill far more people than Rogers has killed during "Winter Soldier," but the audience has seen all of Rogers' killings while the airship killings are just an idea, a problem to be solved. The film essentially yields all moral high ground in regards to violence because it relies so heavily upon it to propel its scenes, almost as if it knows it doesn't have enough steam otherwise.
When the Winter Soldier is repeatedly hammering his metal fist into Captain America's face -- a fist that can rip a car door off its hinges -- it was actually more disturbing to see Rogers' face not be annihilated. I knew that there was no way his face would physically survive that, and with the repeated ruthlessness of the action, it was a little despicable.
I came away feeling as if this movie sends a strong message about violence, whether it wants to or not. When the violence is turned up but the normal consequences and ramifications of violence are turned down, the film is making an argument, whether its creators wanted to or not. It's arguing that violence for its own sake has value and is entertaining. Countless people were killed on-screen, past the point of what you expect from a superhero movie and reaching the point of farce.
Contrast that with the argument that "Catching Fire" makes, which is that violence always carries ramifications, and asks hard questions about being spectators of both physical violence and systemic violence, and this movie's problems become clear.