Thursday, April 10, 2014

Culture Shock 04.10.14: 'Captain America' pits patriotism vs. the government

Since he defrosted 50 years ago in "The Avengers" Vol. 1, No. 4, Captain America has been at odds with his government almost as often as he's been on its payroll.

The world of Vietnam and Watergate into which Steve Rogers awoke is nowhere near as black and white as the world of Hitler and Tojo he left behind. In a 1974 "Captain America" storyline, Rogers becomes so disillusioned he abandons his Captain America alter ego, taking on a new costume and a new name: Nomad. He becomes a patriot without a country.

His Nomad persona was short-lived, but not so the idea behind it. Ever since, Captain America, the iconic symbol of freedom and patriotism, has drawn a bright line between serving America's ideals and serving its government. That's the Captain America we get in the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." And it's one of the franchise's best.

Picking up where "The Avengers" left off, Captain America (Chris Evans) is still working for the global spy agency SHIELD and still catching up on everything he missed since going into deep freeze in 1945. (He still hasn't crossed "Star Wars" off his to-do list.)

Cap's latest mission teams him with an elite SHIELD strike force and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow to rescue a ship hijacked by pirates. From the start things aren't all they seem. The ship isn't just any ship. It's crewed by SHIELD personnel on a classified mission, and Rogers is already getting tired of cleaning up SHIELD's little accidents.

Back at headquarters, Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides it's time to bring Cap in on the big secret. SHIELD is about to launch Project Insight. Three specially designed SHIELD helicarriers will stay airborne at all times, identifying and eliminating threats before they happen.

Project Insight is preemptive war meets the National Security Agency, and Rogers is far from convinced. "This isn't freedom," he says in a trailer-worthy summation. "This is fear."

Like the underrated "Iron Man 3," this is a superhero movie with more going on than the surface pyrotechnics. This is the comic book equivalent of a post-Watergate thriller. It's no coincidence that Fury's immediate superior in the SHIELD hierarchy is played by Robert Redford ("Three Days of the Condor," "All the President's Men"). Redford brings more than gravitas; he brings a direct link to 1970s paranoia. But like they say, are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?

When an attempt is made on Fury's life, all signs point to an inside job. SHIELD has been compromised, and Cap isn't sure he can trust anyone. Even the Black Widow, who helped Cap save the world during the Battle of New York, isn't above suspicion.

The only person to whom Cap can turn is a fellow Army vet, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and even Sam has a secret, although one that's not a secret to readers of the "Captain America" comic.

All the while, threats from Cap's past keep cropping up, from Hydra, the formerly Nazi-backed super-science cult, to mad scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) to the mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

While that may seem like too much for one movie, directors Anthony and Joe Russo skillfully juggle all the balls screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely throw at them. And they still find time to stage some of the best action sequences in any of the Marvel films to date.

In her third supporting outing as the Black Widow, Johansson proves it's past time the Widow got her own movie. And Mackie is instantly likable in his sidekick role. But it's Evans who must and does carry the film, giving Cap a humanity other iconic characters often lack. (I'm thinking of Henry Cavill's Superman in "Man of Steel," who always seems to be faking it.)

By the time "The Winter Soldier" reaches its climax, Captain America stands ready to reveal everyone's dirty secrets. He has become Marvel's Edward Snowden, which is only appropriate, given Snowden has become the real world's Nomad.

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