‘I’ ON CULTURE
Summer is arriving, and we already have blockbusters. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not only a fun superhero movie, but a thoughtful political thriller. While most movies in the Marvel universe are simply big special-effects shows, this movie also has roots in the conspiracy movies of the 1970s. Some of the dialogue, about a super-state providing freedom by knowing everything about us and selectively applying government violence against those it opposes, could be part of today’s political chatter and provides grounding for all the effects.
While the original Captain America fought Nazis during World War II, this one features title character Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) dealing with far more subtle heirs. The leader of the ultra-evil gang behind Nazi research, the dreaded Hydra, had his brain transplanted into a huge computer and is still plotting, leaving us with whispered phrases of “Hail, Hydra.” His voice (Toby Jones) explains that while humans need leadership, it can’t be forced on them. “They have to be made to want it.” And the convolutions go on.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the operational director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the group dedicated to stamping out bad guys, is attacked by a mob of presumed police in a great set piece. Somehow escaping not only dozens of armed bad guys but a character known as “the Winter Soldier” (Sebastian Stan), who seems Captain America’s equal in terms of ability, he escapes to Rogers’ apartment, where he is fatally shot. Rogers is blamed, and the chase is on. S.H.I.E.L.D., now led by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is certain that Captain America is a liar and sends waves of people to take him. Rogers, while not understanding why S.H.I.E.L.D. has turned, develops his own allies, and the battle is on.
The most effective of his comrades is Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Black Widow, a woman with a checkered past who had chosen to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. While Rogers is still the old-fashioned “good boy” of the WWII era, she is far more sophisticated, more able to deal with shades of gray. He also has Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who quietly seems to be able to infiltrate everything. But his best ally turns out to be Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a pilot who had served in the Middle East. Captain America, unlike the rest of the Marvel superheroes, works as part of a team.
The cast is excellent. Evans is slowly moving away from the totally black-and-white world of World War II as his character begins to appreciate and understand the changes in society. His fumbled courtship with the adorable girl next door, who turns out to be Secret Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), assigned to cover his back, is charming. Johansson walks away with many scenes. Jackson is strong, although mostly one-dimensional in his anger. Redford does much with his part, managing to project waves of sincerity while not living up to his own image. The most interesting of the characters, the former airman, is played wonderfully well by Mackie. While clearly not a superhero (his character uses modern technology for him to become the Falcon), he injects a spirit of everyman into the proceedings. His was the most rounded of the performances.
The cast, unlike in many action films, is diverse: There is a strong female presence and black presence, which adds some reality to the genre. Stan Lee, the Marvel creator, has his best cameo ever. The final confrontation between Captain America and the Winter Soldier, which reveals their long-held connection, was perfectly placed in the middle of the final battle.
In summary, we have a really good summer blockbuster that is helped by the fact that it is rooted in today’s paranoia. Arguments from both the left and right wings about the danger of each other’s notions seem to blend in well. Combine that with some great set battle scenes and some good dialogue, and you have a really fun movie event. It is the best movie I have seen in quite a while.