Let’s be honest, sequels always make me very skeptical. I saw “Captain America: The First Avenger” in a theater in 2011 and don’t remember much about it. That usually does not bode well for a follow-up. When I heard about “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, I mostly assumed it was a formulaic and predictable rehash of the previous movie – like many sequels – so it drifted further and further away from my to-do list. I should have been paying closer attention to detail because “Winter Soldier” is not light popcorn entertainment, but a sophisticated political thriller with a cast rounded out by Robert Redford.
If you have not seen a Marvel superhero movie or have never picked up a comic book, there is nothing to fear. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” provides all the necessary backstory for this new adventure early in the film. During a short break from the action, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) goes incognito to the Smithsonian Museum and sits down to reflect on his life. Here a Captain America – his alter ego – exhibit with video clips fills everyone in a a few key details: Steve Rogers was a United States government test subject during World War II whose super strength was used to fight the Nazis in Europe. He was put into cryogenic freeze in order to preserve his youth and said strength.
In the present day, Steve Rogers/Captain America has been unfrozen and recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D., the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. Rogers and his partner Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) take their orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as they all attempt to protect the world from possible terrorist threats. Things go awry when the agency’s guns are turned on Fury, and Captain America has to intervene. He then becomes the main target of a U.S. Senator played by Robert Redford, who has his own plans for S.H.I.E.L.D.
I was certainly surprised to see Redford playing a supporting character in a Marvel Comics blockbuster. While watching the movie, I kept seeing parallels to his film roles in the 1970’s and then something clicked. “All the President’s Men”, “The Three Days of the Condor” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” share a common theme of not being able to trust anyone, even your own government. In this very dangerous and uncertain world, threats could come from anywhere, everyone can be corrupted and your allies have to be chosen with great care.
Redford’s participation in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is almost like a stamp of approval, an endorsement of the comic book movie in general. It’s encouraging to see that a big star of my parent’s generation is aware of what a more youthful audience wants to see at the cinema nowadays. He is not compromising his integrity by having a small cameo in a pointless and plotless “Transformers” sequel for a quick paycheck. Redford does not need the money at this stage of the game, he actually believes in the material and the team behind “Winter Soldier.”
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo impressed me with a level of expertise very rarely seen from filmmakers who have never done a big budget movie of this kind before. While the action scenes were very exciting, the well-developed characters and plot are what keep us interested. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) is a witty and physically strong heroine in her own right, not just a ditsy sex-object. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) isn’t just a gung-ho patriot without any regard for consequences of combat. He is a war veteran who takes part in a support group at the VA for other vets with PTSD.
But it is Captain America himself, whose doubts about his efficacy in the modern world, make him the most complex of all. He feels out of place and I think this is what makes Steve Rogers so easy to relate to. During World War II, there was a clearly defined enemy that could be defeated with enough man power. Now since the Cold War and September 11, 2001, there is a faceless enemy that could be lurking right in our own backyard. It is this paranoia in our digital age which has caused an unhealthy desire for governmental power. The freedom that Captain America fought for has now been perverted into a similar desire for complete control that his Nazi
enemies once had. Freedom has come full circle.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a movie for everyone. The geeky superhero fans will love seeing Steve Rogers defending democracy one more time; the action fans will be enthralled by its excellent fight choreography and car chase scenes. And the casual movie-goer will have a good time being told a great story, getting wrapped up in the spectacle of a live action comic book with the tone of a political thriller.
Ten years ago political thrillers and comic books would have seemed diametrically opposed to one another. But ever since Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy”, these two forms of entertainment can now exist on the same field together. Filmmakers – directors, screenwriters, actors, concept artists, etc. – are now using our parents and grandparents childhood heroes and putting them in a more mature context. The generation gap is closing. If Robert Redford can give the storytellers of today a chance, I think audience members should lend an ear too.