erik lundegaard

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


The directors of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Joe and Anthony Russo, heretofore best known for directing failed comedies (“You, Me and Dupree”) and a critically acclaimed sitcom (“Community”), have a new line of work. Because they’ve just created one helluva superhero movie.

Last July, I ranked 65 of the 100 or so superhero movies that have been made, and I’d put this one in the top 10. It’s better than “The Dark Knight,” but I’m not much of a fan of “The Dark Knight.” It’s not as fun as “Iron Man” (not many movies are), but it does have its light comedic touches. (See: “Shall we play a game?” and “The path of the righteous man...”) More, it’s got gravitas. It tackles the issue of the 21st century, freedom vs. security, and all but uses Ben Franklin’s famous line as its epigraph:

Written byChristopher Markus
Stephen McFeely
Directed byAnthony Russo
Joe Russo
StarringChris Evans
Samuel L. Jackson
Scarlett Johansson
Robert Redford
Sebastian Stan
Anthony Mackie
Cobie Smulders

Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

S.H.I.E.L.D., by the way, is the entity interested in safety; Captain America is the man interested in liberty.

Of course, the decks are stacked. The bad guys are double agents for a fascistic organization, Hydra, which is creating the circumstances that will allow it to take over. Too bad. Imagine if those circumstances, terrorism and the chaos of the world, were outside their control. Imagine if Hydra’s mouthpiece, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), was not a double agent but simply someone with a different worldview. Redford, thankfully, plays him that way. He plays him as someone so strong on defense that he goes on offense. He’s Dick Cheney. Ten years ago, in the debate between Pierce and Captain America, many Americans, maybe most Americans, would’ve agreed with Pierce.

Many still do.

This isn’t freedom

Captain America was born in 1941 as a superpatriot, but he was reborn in the 1960s to the left of the superpatriots. When he woke up, he woke up and questioned America. For a time, around the Watergate period, he was so disappointed in the U.S. he gave up being Captain America and became Nomad, Man Without a Country.

This Captain America is similar. Shown S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new high-tech helicarriers, which will be used to spy on the world and neutralize threats before they happen, he says, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” He says, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” This is Steve Engelhart’s Captain America. It’s my Captain America.

“Winter Soldier,” written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from a story by Ed Brubaker, begins quietly and smartly.

Two guys are jogging around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., and the second is running so fast he’s lapping the first. “On your left,” he says. “On your left,” he says again. The first is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Iraq. The second is Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), recently returned from saving the world from Loki, et al., in “The Avengers.” They’re strangers, these two, but bond over their shared experience of being soldiers: how, after the hardness of life abroad, the beds at home are too soft to sleep in. Then Sam recommends music for the man who was famously on ice for 70 years. Typically, it’s someone well-known: Marvin Gaye. Atypically, it’s not “What’s Going On,” or “Let’s Get It On,” but the jazz-influenced album in between these two: “Trouble Man.” Dutifully, Steve writes down the title in his notepad next to other historical/cultural artifacts he needs to catch up on, including “Star Wars” and “spicy Thai food.” At which point, the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) vrooms up in her sport car, mentions going to the Smithsonian to “pick up a fossil,” and she and Cap, and the movie, are off.

A ship has been hijacked in the Indian Ocean by Algerian pirates and 25 people are being held hostage, including S.H.I.E.L.D. strategist Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez, late of “The Americans”). So Cap, after some banter with Natasha about girls he might date (a recurring bit), jumps out of the plane and into the ocean, climbs aboard the ship, and, in one of the better action sequences in superhero movies, or any movies really, takes out half the terrorists. Remember those complaints about the fights in “Batman Begins”? How you could never tell what was going on? No longer. You get a real sense of Cap’s speed, stealth and strength here. In the big fight scene on the ship with the superpowered terrorist leader, Cap performs an over-the-top leg kick that got half the audience at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle Friday night to sound like Keanu Reeves: Whooaaaaaaaa!

But there’s a wrinkle. The ship was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, it was trespassing, and the purpose of the mission seemed less to save hostages than gather intel. Cap confronts Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about all of this and receives this bit of advice: trust no one. Then he’s introduced to Project Insight: three helicarriers that need never come down; they can hover forever in the skies above us, watching us. That’s when we get the freedom vs. security discussion above. Cap says Project Insight is like “holding a gun to everyone in the world and calling it protection.” Later, he visits Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in a hospital, now aged and suffering Alzheimer’s, and tells her he just wants to do right but doesn’t know what that is anymore. Interestingly, this echoes Robert Redford’s 1975 thriller, “Three Days of the Condor”: “You miss that kind of action, sir?” “No, I miss that kind of clarity.”

I liked all this early stuff. I liked Steve visiting the Smithsonian and the Captain America exhibit, and going “Sssshhh” to the kid who recognizes him. I liked seeing where he lives. The thing with the neighbor, Kate (Emily VanCamp), doing her laundry, was a bit odd. Shouldn’t she be starstruck? But overall I liked the troubled calm before the storm.

I was just a bit disappointed when the storm actually hit.

Don’t trust anyone

Nick Fury gets it first, attacked in broad daylight in his souped-up van. Oddly, the attack takes place on an apparently deserted D.C. street but as soon as the car chase occurs they encounter tons of traffic. But we’ll let that go. The faceless minions attack first, since that’s the way, saving the ultimate assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), for when Fury makes a wrong turn. We’ll let that go, too. Ultimately Fury is killed, or we see him die on an operating table, but he offers Cap these parting words: “Don’t trust anyone.”

But you gotta trust somebody, particularly when S.H.I.E.L.D., with all its high-tech weaponry, is trying to kill you, so Natasha is the one he goes to. Then they go on the run, to Wheaton, N.J., where Steve, the 4F, first trained, and where they discover in its dusty databanks the disembodied intelligence of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Of course, like all movie villains, Zola takes this moment to reveal his great scheme.

According to Zola, Hydra realized long ago that “Humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom.” Unfortunately, when they tried to take it away during World War II, humanity fought back. So Hydra further realized you couldn’t take the freedom by force; you had to get humanity to surrender it willingly. How? By creating a world “so chaotic people are willing to sacrifice freedom for security.” And that’s what Hydra has done.

It’s also infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. government in the form of Sen. Stern (Gary Shandling, bloated beyond belief now). Project Insight? That’s Hydra, baby. Those helicarriers get in the air and Zola’s algorithms will take out 20 million of Hydra’s enemies in an instant. So it’s up to Cap, and Natasha, and Sam, who is, of course, the Falcon (and a cool-looking Falcon), to prevent the launch, save the 20 million, and keep Hydra from taking over the world.

They do this with the usual tri-part whiz-bang ending that I first saw with “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” and that has infected all of these big-budget extravaganzas. You know how it goes. Cap battles the Winter Soldier, who is really his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, atop a helicarrier. Cut to: Sam battling agents of S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra on the ground. Cut to: Natasha infiltrating the office of, and trading barbs with, Alexander Pierce. Then keep cutting between each.

Cap’s strategy is three-fold: 1) convince enough S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to battle the Hydra agents, which will allow him to, 2) upload an algorithm (created by whom?) to counteract Zola’s algorithm: instead of the helicarriers killing 20 million, they’ll train their guns on each other. Meanwhile, Natasha will 3) disseminate all S.H.I.E.L.D. intel to the world. Meaning S.H.I.E.L.D., which Cap destroys, is basically the NSA, and he and Natasha are basically Edward Snowden.

We live in interesting times.

Fifth columnists everywhere

I owe Chris Evans an apology, by the way. His Johnny Storm was the best thing in “The Fantastic Four”—which isn’t saying much—but I initially objected to his casting as Captain America. Wasn’t he too thin? Too brash? And shouldn’t actors just play one superhero at a time? But he’s been perfect. He’s the boy scout with gravitas, the perfect-bodied virgin, the confused soldier after the war. I like this early exchange with Peggy Carter (probably because it reminds me of me):

Peggy: What makes you happy?
Steve (long pause): I don’t know.

Some of the best parts of the movie, in fact, are not just him moving (as on the hijacked ship), but him thinking (as in the glass elevator, when he realizes he’s about to be attacked by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents). And he has good chemistry with both Johansson, who’s friendly/flirtatious with him (no woman tries to set you up unless she sees something in you in the first place), and Mackie, who’s steadfast but with a twinkle.

Evans’ greatest chemistry, though, may not be with a person but an object: his shield. Captain America fans have waited a long time for this. In the 1944 serial, Cap didn’t even have a shield; he carried a gun instead. In 1979, the shield was clear plastic, and doubled as his motorcycle windshield. It came into play more in the awful 1990 Cannon Films version, but with the usual low-budget quick cuts and over-the-top sound effects. But here? It’s like an appendage. It’s like his companion, his dog, his horse. I felt outrage whenever the Winter Soldier used the shield against him. It was like someone turning Silver against The Lone Ranger.

Sure, some of the chases go on a bit much, the big emotional battle with the Winter Soldier isn’t that emotional, and Natasha’s appearance before Congress is lame and unnecessary. I’m also a bit tired of the internal enemies trope. I think it fuels paranoia and Americans are paranoid enough. The greater enemy is almost always external but Hollywood almost always makes it internal. They should know better. (See: Red-baiters accusing Hollywood of being that internal enemy during the McCarthy era.)

Even so, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a smart, fun, thoughtful movie. I also appreciated its more nuanced approach to another Hollywood action-movie trope: the idea of never compromising. The people who compromise or negotiate in movies tend to be politicians, who are either quislings, spies, or just generally weak-willed, and whose negotiations (fools!) play right into the hands of the enemy. Then the uncompromising hero has to step in and save the day. Here, we begin with something similar. When the hostages are rescued, Stinson says, “Told you: S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t negotiate.” We get a story about an early Nick Fury saving lives in Bogota because he didn’t negotiate. But not negotiating turns out to be the strategy of Hydra. Not negotiating actually plays right into the hands of the enemy. So if not negotiating is the strategy of the enemy, should negotiation be our strategy?

Nuance in a superhero movie? Somewhere, surely, Steve Engelhart is smiling.

—April 5, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard