The specific details of a superhero movie plot seldom really matter; all we usually need to know is that an evil superpower, sporting a foreign accent, is out to destroy the world as we know it, and it is up to the superhero not only to protect the community from destruction but also to preserve our way of life. Dozens of superheroes have been created in comic-book land, and all of them have been sharing time on the silver screen for the past decade or more, with half a dozen of their adventures released this year alone. So far audiences are flocking to theaters with the same enthusiasm that kept our grandfathers heading to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon to see the latest installment of Buck Rogers.
These films tend to reflect the fears and values of whatever may be the current culture, which is one of the reasons for their lasting popularity. We see our worst fears in the threats posed by the enemies, and our hopes and fears in the characters of the heroes. But lately those heroes have been somewhat reluctant and unsure of their roles as heroes, and the people they have sworn to protect have been less trusting and appreciative — they complain about collateral damage and even question the heroes’ loyalty. In an era of relativism and situational ethics, a full-on hero with overwhelming power seems hard to support.
The Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions.
This month it’s Captain America’s turn to save the day. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, Captain America (alter ego: Steve Rogers) is a WWII fighter pilot who is transformed from a 5’4” wimp to a 6’2” muscle man through a scientific experiment intended to create an army of super warriors. He ends up being cryogenically frozen and is thawed out in modern times. Part of his appeal is his guileless naiveté, especially as he reacts to modern technology and mores. He uses his virtually indestructible shield to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (okay, that’s the other superhero, but their morals are virtually the same). I like Captain America’s shield — it signifies that his stance is defensive, not aggressive.
As The Winter Soldier opens, nothing is going right for the Avenger team led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Police, government agencies, and even agents of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, the organization that oversees and deploys the superheroes) are attacking them and treating them as national enemies. The Captain and former Russian spy Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, have become Public Enemies number 1 and 2, but they don’t know why. They spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names and save the world, without any help from the government they have sworn to uphold.
While the specific plot isn’t particularly important in these movies, motivation usually is. Why do the characters do what they do? Meaningful dialogue inserted between the action scenes reveals the values of both good guys and bad guys, and away we go, rooting for the guy who is going to save us once again.
I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lives up to its potential. As a libertarian, I can agree with most of the values it projects. First, politicians, government agencies, and the military industrial complex are the untrustworthy bad guys in this film, and for once there isn’t an evil businessperson or industrialist in sight. Additionally, the Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions. For example, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aka Sam Wilson, tells Steve about his buddy being shot down in the war, and then says, “I had a real hard time finding a reason for being over there after that.” Captain America admits, “I want to do what’s right, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.” Like Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, he is ready to think for himself and determine his own morality. (Compare that philosophy to Peter Parker [Spider-Man] being told by his wise Uncle Ben that responsibility is more important than individual choice in Spider-Man 2, followed by Uncle Ben’s death when Peter chooses “selfishness” over responsibility.)
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State (Robert Redford — yes, Robert Redford! He said his grandchildren like the franchise, so he wanted to do the film for them) says cynically of a particular problem, “It’s nothing some earmarks can’t fix.”
The mastermind behind the assault on freedom (I won’t tell you who it is, except that it’s someone involved in government) justifies his destructive plan by saying, “To build a better world sometimes means tearing down the old one” and opining that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. If you take it from them, they will resist, so they have be given a reason to give it up willingly.” Another one adds, “Humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom for security,” echoing Ben Franklin’s warning. These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course. Such tactics are as old as Machiavelli. Yet nothing could feel more current. I’m happy to see young audiences eating this up.
Captain America first appeared on film in 1944, at the height of WWII. He has never been as popular as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. A made-for-TV movie aired in 1979, and a dismal version (with a 3.2 rating) was made in 1990. However, the latest incarnation, with Chris Evans as the wimp-turned-military powerhouse, has been highly successful, with three films released in the past four years: two self-titled films (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and this one) as well as one ensemble outing (The Avengers, 2012).
These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course.
One of the things I like about the Avengers is that they aren’t born with innate super powers à la Superman or X-Men; for the most part their powers come from innovation, technology, and physical training. They’re gritty and real, and they bruise and bleed. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were determined to make this movie as real as possible too, so they returned to live action stunts whenever they could instead of relying on CGI and green screen projection. Yes, they use stunt doubles when necessary, but, as Anthony Mackie (the Falcon) reported in praise of the Russos, “if they could build it [a set piece], they built it. If we [the actors] could do it [a difficult maneuver], we did it. . . . That’s why the movie looks so great.” Many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and often look more like dancing than fighting, especially when Captain America’s shield is ricocheting between him and a gigantic fighter plane.
Of course, the film has its share of corniness too. When you’re a hero named Captain America, you’re expected to be a rah-rah, apple-pie American, and Captain America is. He even drives a Chevy, the all-American car. So does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who brags about his SUV with a straight face as though it’s a high-end luxury vehicle. In fact, all the SHIELD operatives drive Chevys, as do many of the ordinary commuters on the street. That’s because another concept that’s as American as apple pie is advertising. Product placement permeates the film, but most of the time it’s subtly and artfully done. Captain America wears an Under Armour t-shirt (which is pretty ironic when you think about it — under armor beneath a super-hero uniform), and the Falcon, whose superpower is a set of mechanized wings that let him fly, sports a small and subtle Nike swoosh on his after-hours attire. (Nike — the winged goddess, get it?)
Captain America is a hit, and for all the right reasons. The dialogue is intelligent, the humor is ironic, the action sequences are exciting, and the heroes are fighting for individual freedom. It even contains a theme of redemption. And for once, the bad guys aren’t businessmen. Ya gotta love it.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Sony Pictures, 2014, 136 minutes.