In evoking the spirit of classic ’70s paranoid thrillers, the new Captain America is the smartest, most complete Marvel film yet.
You do anything fun Saturday night?
Well, all the guys in my barbershop quartet are dead. So no, not really.
Steve Rogers is a square. That’s why I like him.
I mean, I love Thor, more than many. I love those fantasy elements. I love the Shakespearean heft of the Asgard saga. And of course, everyone loves Iron Man, largely because of the sardonic edge Robert Downey Jr. brings to the role. But the Avenger closest to my heart, the answer I get on every “Which Superhero Are You?” Facebook quiz, is Captain America. Because he’s a square. He was a weakling with a good heart who was given extraordinary powers. He’s a walking throwback, earnest and sincere, idealistic, and entirely above reproach. His primary weapon is defensive. The problems of the other Avengers are well-defined: Tony Stark is self-destructive; Thor had to overcome arrogance; Bruce Banner is an open nerve. But Steve Rogers…well, he’s largely a victim of circumstances, not hubris. That’s not exactly writing 101, but there’s something honest and pure, and admirable, about not trying to find the “darker side” of Captain America. He doesn’t need a compass — he is the compass. After all, every group of superfriends needs one. And Chris Evans is remarkably good in the role, playing the straight arrow in a film full of wild cards.
So it’s fitting that for his second solo adventure, our “man out of time” finds himself adrift from the reality he’s worked so hard to reconstruct, beset on all sides by the agency that brought him out of the deep freeze. Winter Soldier is itself a throwback, but not like the last film was, with its rah-rah patriotism and “Greatest Generation” esprit de corps. Instead, in the tradition of Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men, it’s a conspiracy thriller, capturing the paranoia of an out-of-control government and the man who suddenly finds himself on the run from it.
It’s no coincidence that two of those three films I mentioned starred Robert Redford, who is the latest A-lister to take a role in a superhero film — appearing here as Alexander Pierce, the director of SHIELD. His square-jawed, All-American intensity provides a jolt to the proceedings, and — thankfully — it never feels like he’s slumming. I wish the script gave him a few more colors to play with, but it’s still crazy to see these Hollywood legends (like Anthony Hopkins or Ben Kingsley) in comic book stories. I think we’ve long passed saturation point for these films (the oddball Guardians of the Galaxy will be a real litmus test), but as long as they keep attracting premium talent, they’ll have my attention.
So in between catching up on an ever-growing list of stuff he “missed” as a Cap-sicle (Star Wars, Marvin Gaye, Apple), Steve Rogers is on call for SHIELD, stamping out terrorist threats in black ops missions around the world. The film’s first act gives us a thrilling sequence where he, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and some strike agents infiltrate an ocean liner to rescue hostages, with the Captain taking the bad guys out one at a time. Right away, this is a very different film than CA: The First Avenger, with handheld cameras and hyper-speed editing like many other action films in the wake of Jason Bourne. Overall, these sequences are well-choreographed and cleverly designed, with a clear sense of geography — certainly miles above anything since the first Avengers film, even if the editing occasionally gets too aggressive for its own good. A brawl inside an elevator, as a positive example, is a mini-masterpiece of building tension and cathartic release.
The directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, only have two previous feature credits: the tepidly-received Welcome to Collinwood and the poorly-received You, Me, and Dupree. But TV nerds appreciate them considerably more for their work on all-time classic series like Arrested Development and Community. I have no idea what compelled Marvel exec Kevin Feige to give them a massive tentpole like Captain America, but his trust has been rewarded in a huge way. The film has complete mastery of pacing and tone, with many of the smaller, character-centered moments playing even more successfully than the heroic antics. (They’re already signed on for the third installment, and good for them.)
Steve Rogers is at first content just doing his job, though he expresses discomfort at SHIELD’s new emphasis on preemptive strikes and (wait for it) drone warfare. “This isn’t freedom–this is fear,” he tells Nick Fury, who is preparing to launch a high-tech, always-airborne defense system called Project Insight. (Samuel L. Jackson is still awesome, by the way, and look for a sneaky-funny Pulp Fiction reference that I think myself and only four others in the theater got.) But after an attempt is made on Fury’s life, who then gives Steve a secret computer disk and a warning not to trust anyone at SHIELD, Pierce turns his sights on the Captain — reluctant to give up that info — and makes him the prime suspect, a fugitive to be captured dead or alive. Also on Rogers’s trail is the mysterious “Winter Soldier,” an assassin with a bionic arm, some clear anger issues, and a surprising connection to Steve. Yes, there will be lots and lots of punching.
Fortunately, the Captain has two friends in his corner: Natasha, feeling equally burned by the agency and exhibiting off-the-charts chemistry with Steve (though, come on — Johansson and Evans could have chemistry with a potato, so putting them together is almost a safety hazard), and new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), an Army vet with a sweet pair of mechanical wings. Yep, he’s Falcon. And he rocks, as does the bond he forms with Rogers as a fellow soldier, with both of them having seen things the rest of the world just can’t understand.
As the three work to uncover the conspiracy, they come face-to-face (sort-of) with an old enemy, and though the climax leans toward the conventional given the intelligent pulp that precedes it, the events of the film have huge, world-shaking ramifications for the entire Marvel stable (not to mention the mediocre television series, Agents of SHIELD). Where the series goes from here is going to be source of endless fascination, but Marvel has shown a remarkable fearlessness when it comes to these bold moves — freed up, partially, because the films still make bank regardless, but also because it’s just excellent storytelling. And thanks to the Russos, it’s not just great for a “superhero film” — it’s great filmmaking, period. A moment early on where Rogers visits his “girl,” Peggy Carter (who went on to marry and have a life after he crashed the Hydra plane into the ice), could have been played as maudlin or just unnecessary, but the cinematography and performances work on an emotional, subconscious level as the scene takes a turn for the heartbreaking.
While it’s not the most unabashedly fun film of the saga (partially by design), Winter Soldier is the most complete. Evans is totally at home as the Captain, and the mythology continues to unfold in organic and engaging ways. (As always, look for causal references to Stark and the rest, as well as future projects. Stay ALL the way through the credits!) And for a hero who many thought was too “uncool” to succeed in an age of antiheroes, Captain America might be just the man we need for cynical, suspicious times. He remains a symbol of integrity and decency as his world crumbles down around him. What’s more admirable than that?