[1 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the Avengers’ movie rankings, Iron Man is numero uno. He’s the head honcho, the big box office draw, and the one character Marvel is most concerned about when moving on within their ever-expanding cinematic universe. Thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and his pratfalling playboy performance, this is one superhero who will be sorely missed should his time with the comic book clan come to an end. Next up is Thor, though Norse Gods know why. He’s hunky and cute and all, but is he really the second best option among the mighty protectors of the galaxy? Third place it tricky, however. On the one hand, Hulk has really never gotten a good shot at solo success. Both Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier’s take on the character lacked something when delivering the necessary action spectacle, but within Joss Whedon’s billion dollar baby, the character was golden.
That just leaves Captain America (shut up about Black Widow and Hawkeye—they aren’t really “their own movie” stand-alone status… yet) and it’s odd that he would be bringing up the relevance rear. He’s a great character, with a classic backstory and enough red, white, and blue flag waving patriotic jingoism to fuel an infinite number of Teabag rallies, and as played by Chris Evans, he’s the perfect hero for our times, focused, vulnerable, and duty-bound. He doesn’t have Tony Stark’s often hidden agendas or the Asgardian’s sense of self-importance. Shield in hand, battling the bad guys, he’s as impressive as Dr. Bruce Banner’s alter ego and far more endearing. Yet there was actually talk that the good Captain might not make it past his origin story.
Luckily, whoever decided to hire the Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe) to helm the sequel to Joe Johnston’s noble set-up was more than inspired. In some ways, it was blind luck. After all, did anyone think that the guys responsible for Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree could turn out a film as fascinating as this one. Captain America: The Winter Soldier solidifies Marvel’s desire to play the current War on Terror as a subtext within the ongoing struggles between S.H.I.E.L.D. and their Nazi-formed nemesis, HYDRA. In the middle are a bunch of bureaucrats who are trying to decide whether or not a multi-billion dollar plan to place satellite guided hovercrafts over the planet as a “preemptive” move against terrorists and other social bad seeds.
For Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans, excellent as always), the answer seems obvious. But during a raid to save some important people from a bunch of pirates, he learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has another agenda, one involving his Avengers’ cohort, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, equally impressive). When confronting his contact, Nick Fury (Samuel L. “Bad Ass” Jackson) he discovers the involvement of a high ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Then there is an assassination attempt, and the Captain confronts someone called “The Winter Soldier”. As things within S.H.I.E.L.D. start to implode, Steve and Natasha try to uncover the truth behind what’s happening, the identity of their new foe, and how they fit into this new, technologically advanced new world order.
There are lots of critics going gaga over the presence of the ‘70s biggest superstar and his aged good looks within the otherwise excellent if standard issue comic book movie circa 2014. They are jumping over themselves to reference past institutional espionage thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men as if there is some actual connection between those past masters the his present title. Granted, it’s a great idea to keep the Captain’s adventures grounded, especially when the first film felt like a History Channel overview with big budget special effects. The whole S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. HYDRA angle in The Winter Soldier is indeed filled with lots of backdoor double dealing and serious faced officials giving each other the evil eye. We even get a couple of unexpected twists, a rather obvious reveal, and the addition of Anthony Mackie as an ex-soldier turned flyboy named Falcon.
For its first two acts, Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays like a post-modern spy film. It gives us the Captain, his glorified gal pal Natasha, and his new high flying friend. It also offers up a heavy dose of future foundation, the actions and character referenced here being prepared for their eventual use in an already planned Part Three as well as the next Avengers effort, The Age of Ultron. There’s also a telling Cold War element to the narrative, a desire by Marvel to move away from real world issues to stay true to its comic cosmos. Toward the end, the Russos break out the big guns, giving us massive flying aircraft carriers in freefall around S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, as well as a goal-oriented final fight which sees the Captain, Natasha, Falcon and the Winter Soldier taking names and settling scores.
This is a genuine delight, a smart film without so much of the CG filler these movies can often contain. Steve Rogers is an intriguing personality, his unstuck in time qualities complimenting the audience’s own “stranger in a strange land” experience with the events transpiring and the often odd individuals in it. Redford is a real coup, since he’s not about to don some tights and take off into the stratosphere. He’s legitimate (?) power, not some radiation induced supremacy, and he carries it well. In fact, he’s the equal to Jackson’s Fury, if only less showboaty. Elsewhere, it’s good to see Evans given some room to actually act. After making a stink about superhero movies robbing one of performance opportunities, his work here is excellent. Granted, he’s no Robert Downey Jr. but he carries the hero mantle with authority.
Another surprise here is Johansson. When you consider her career arc post-Avengers - Under the Skin, Her, Don Jon - it is clear that she is experimenting with her public persona, making sure not to fall into the trap that other high profile females have once they’ve tasted the temptation of blockbuster success. Besides, her character here is just as complex as the Captain’s, and the Russos have fashioned Natasha as our hero’s polar opposite. He is truthful. She lies for a living. He has nothing to hide. Everything about who she is becomes an issue, especially in the finale. Finding someone who can deliver on each of those levels is difficult enough—and said actress still have to convincing kick ass. Johansson does that, both with her fists and with her wits.
By going ‘old school,’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves that there is more life in this property than as an iconic reminder of comics’ past. It will be interesting to see where the Russos take this material next (Marvel was so pleased with how this movie turned out they immediately signed up the guys) and how Evans and the cast react to it. For some reason, we never fear for the future of Iron Man or Thor. Hulk is such a freakish force that he seems pretty much invincible as well. Captain America, on the other hand, feels like a facet unfamiliar within modern life. Like this excellent movie, he’s a reminder of the problems and politics of the past. Perhaps, too much so.