I really like what Marvel is doing with their treasure trove of cartoon heroes and villains and story lines. We’re heading towards another Avengers, obviously, but meanwhile it’s possible to make several Iron Man movies, a few Thors, now a second Captain America. Of course, they’re all disposable, cultural fast food. But they’re fun, exciting flicks. I’ve seem pretty much all of them, and haven’t really had a bad time yet.
One of the things I like best about them is that they’ve recognized that the star of a Captain America is the fact that it’s a movie about Captain America; you don’t need an established movie star to play the character. You just need a good actor. That’s what they’ve got in Chris Evans (it’s also what they’ve got in Chris Hemsworth, in the Thor movies). Evans faces a terrific challenge when playing Cap. Captain America is a square. He’s not an angsty teen, like Spiderman, or darkly conflicted, like Batman, or a womanizer playboy, like Iron Man, or just flat preposterous, like Superman. Cap’s an All-American kid, a Boy Scout. Captain America is decent, patriotic, idealistic, fundamentally good. He’s a square. And it’s a very small step from ‘square’ to ‘drip.’ He could be a figure of fun; he could be a blockhead. But as Evans plays him, Cap is all that, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly etc., but he’s also dramatically compelling. Partly that’s the writing, of course, but a lot of it’s Evans; he’s very good in the role. Basically Captain America is a decent, honorable soldier, who finds himself mired in the ugly realities of the war on terror. And he hates it, and hates how hard it is to fight it honorably, decently. The rest of the movie is Captain America’s quest to live up to his (and our) own highest ideals, to, in the best sense of the word, lead.
That’s not to say that these movies don’t have real movie stars. Samuel L. Jackson brings his unique brand of American hip cool to Nick Fury, the leader of SHIELD. Robert Redford’s in this too, so good to see him again, though time has not been kind to his movie star good looks. Plus, of course, Scarlett Johansson, but only as a second lead. But she’s great at action sequences, and she can act; I’m glad she’s in it.
SHIELD, we assume, is on the side of good. My wife and I have become quasi-fans of the ABC TV show, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. It’s sort of a strange show, definitely in the same world as the Avengers, but lower key, without superheroes, though in a fictional wilderness in which superheroes exist. It’s about six SHIELD agents, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who was in the Avengers movie, and featuring a computer hacker, two scientists, and two fighters. And they fly around in an airplane and have adventures and fight bad guys. It’s not a great show, but it’s all right, and I’m kind of a Clark Gregg fan. But it’s basically about SHIELD, this massive, international terror-fighting organization that doesn’t seem to have any oversight or supervision and basically can do whatever it wants to.
That’s a recipe for tyranny, and so kudos to this new Captain America movie for recognizing that fact, and putting it in the center of the movie. Basically, having created a fictional world protected entirely by this big SHIELD organization, Marvel uses this movie to deconstruct it.
It’s really nicely done. And I don’t mean to suggest that an action movie about a guy who wears a costume and beats bad guys with his amazing round shield thing is, you know, profound. But I like it. I liked the way this disposable entertainment ended up at least asking some interesting questions, about the ever-present tension between security and liberty, and the balance we have to strike between them.
So: SPOILER ALERT.
Robert Redford’s the bad guy in this movie.
Redford plays Alexander Pierce, who seems to be the managing partner of SHIELD, one of a group of five people who give the organization what supervision it actually has. And he has a plan. He wants to build a death star.
Well, not really, more like three huge flying killing helicopter platform things which, when coordinated, can kill 20 million people pretty much immediately, and be sort of surgical about it. And SHIELD also enjoys using an NSA 2.0 sort of surveillance apparatus, that can literally listen to any phone conversation and read every email, and figure out who in the world is either a bad guy, or inclined to become one. So there’s the question. Let’s suppose there are 20 million such people on the planet. We can instantly kill all of them, and massively reduce any kind of terrorist threat to the world. That’s what Pierce wants to do, and he has the means to do it. Should we let him?
Well, Captain America can’t allow that to happen, and that’s basically the movie; Cap trying to
blow up the Death Star destroy these big heli-killers. And it’s all very exciting, because of course all he has as a weapon is his shield, plus super strength, speed and endurance. And Scarlett Johansson, as the Black Widow. And Anthony Mackie as Falcoln, a soldier with wings that allow him to fly really fast (and dodge anti-aircraft fire). And it’s all very CGI and exciting and fun, although the action sequences are a bit too Michael Bay for my taste. Too much shaky-cam, too quickly edited, so we’re never quite oriented in time and space, and frankly can’t always tell what the heck is going on.
Also, I have no idea how Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is going to deal with suddenly-evil-SHIELD. But I’m really glad this movie went there. Of all the superhero characters in the Marvel fictional universe, Captain America is the right one to question the civil liberties implications of SHIELD’s very existence. And the right one to send a message to everyone in SHIELD inviting them all to join him in rebellion against the organization’s worst impulses.
And the cause of moral ambiguity is also well served by the ‘Winter Soldier’ of the film’s title. Sebastian Stan (another talented no-name actor), plays him, a super bad guy, terrifyingly good at violence and single-minded in his devotion to the twisted duty to which he’s been assigned. But (SPOILER ALERT), he’s also Bucky Barnes. He’s Steve Rogers/Captain America’s best friend from the last movie, cryogenically preserved, genetically enhanced, and now an evil killing machine. He is, in short, Darth Vader. And Cap (Luke?) can’t bring himself to kill him.
Sam Jackson gets a terrific Pulp Fiction joke near the end of the movie, and of course Marvel creator Stan Lee gets a cameo. Long live pop culture po-mo self-referentiality! And I’m willing to overlook how infinitely negotiable death seems to be in this universe, as well as how quickly characters seem able to recover from near-fatal gunshot wounds. It’s a movie about Captain America. I’m glad it took itself seriously, and I’m just as glad that it didn’t take itself too seriously.