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Captain America: Red, White, and False
In Winter Soldier, Hollywood politics meet ersatz patriotism.


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Seen close up on the 3D screen, actor Chris Evans’s ruddy lips, bright complexion, and sparkling eyes look like a Pop Art personification of red, white, and blue patriotism in Marvel Studios’ Captain American: The Winter Soldier. Referred to as “The greatest soldier of all time” by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), his paramilitary boss at S.H.I.E.L.D.,  Evans’s Steve Rogers, who was scientifically re-engineered into the ever-youthful, muscle-bound World War II veteran of the title, represents a timeless idea of American strength and virtue: “I’m 95, I’m not dead,” he tells flirtatious superhero colleague Natasha (Scarlett Johanssen).

Evans’s cartoon image lacks the uncanny moral resonance that distinguished the compassionate Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel – the best in the recent surfeit of comic-book movies, where feeling and action were combined to a graphic/spiritual purpose. Evans’s emblematic face has no emotion behind it. What he conveys, actually, given the way the actor plays down physical passion in favor of bland duty, is a political anachronism. That’s because in today’s Hollywood the idea of an honest, uncomplicated fighting soldier is more foreign than a Prius.

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This fact makes the latest installment of Marvel’s Captain America franchise oddly insincere and unconvincing. It vitiates that sometimes disingenuous phrase “I support the troops.” Instead, the film’s subtitle recalls the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier, in which Vietnam veterans repented their battlefield violence. Such disillusionment now infects even a comic-book franchise, so that the Captain America idea stops short of nationalist fervor. As Rogers takes his daily superhuman run around the basin of Washington, D.C., he introduces himself to another morning runner (and us) with the repeated look-out phrase “On your left . . .” Not a coincidence.

Through modish reinvention, Captain America — a dated, sanctimonious brawler-innocent — represents the undeniable fantasy of a particular political perspective. Leaning to the left, he prevails over internal threats to U.S. security (in the form of a neo-Nazi underground called Hydra, whose members include a senator and a State Department honcho played by Robert Redford). Yet the motivation for his intrepidness isn’t deep; it lacks a certain conviction. The fanboy audience (including adults), which has more dedication to the comic-book genre than to the Selective Service, may cheer him on with hollow enthusiasm while falling for Hollywood’s imaginary patriotism. Ignoring the complexities of realpolitik, moviegoers respond to formulaic CGI action scenes as if saluting the flag.

In The Winter Soldier, talk opposing the deployment of drone-like aircraft yet defending the release of government secrets via Internet links gives this sci-fi fantasy the pretense of topicality. The filmmakers, producer Kevin Feige and directing team Anthony and Joe Russo, casually referred to this as “a political film.” But the politics are merely au courant –as shallow as the red, white, and blue shield that Rogers wears magnetized to his back. That it makes him resemble a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is fitting for an enterprise where a cartoonish, idealized icon stands in for military respect that has largely vanished from popular culture. The Winter Soldier, with its doomsday threat borrowed from Dr. Strangelove and a subplot, about Rogers’s boyhood-friend-turned-automaton, borrowed from The Manchurian Candidate, provides a trite simulation of political urgency. It’s all folderol, which, in movies these days, has taken the place of genuine political substance and patriotic feeling: ersatz heroism and charade ethics.

When the filmmakers go through the motions of combat and national defense (the Russo brothers’ action technique is way behind Zack Snyder’s visionary kinetics and indistinguishable from the explosions and gymnastics in a dozen other blockbusters), the audience can only go through similar motions of routine relief, unsurprised recognition, and empty gratitude.

Most notably ersatz in The Winter Soldier is superannuated Redford’s first super-villain role. No longer Hollywood’s golden-boy hero — a crown passed on to young Evans –Redford yet flies Tinseltown’s liberal colors, last seen in his disastrous, self-directed The Company You Keep, a dismally obvious apologia for Sixties radicals. That position is also apparent here in his sarcastic portrayal of an autocratic politician who harbors fascist intentions beneath a D.C. wonk’s mask. “To build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down” he says while viewing the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument from his office window. Redford used to play subtler political games in films like The Candidate, Sneakers, and especially the underrated post-9/11 dialectic Lions for Lambs (his more famous and overrated All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor were simply unabashed liberal rabble-rousers). But when this rogue politician murmurs his final words – “Hail, Hydra!” — it is embarrassing proof that the Hollywood blockbuster has not only gone political but also gone stupid. It is the whoriest moment of Redford’s ersatz political career.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the upcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The “First Avenger,” Captain America, returns to the big screen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Here’s a (spoiler-free) look at the new film and the history of the character.
Chris Evans returns in the starring role as Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America, a WWII-era soldier frozen for decades, thawed out, and now working for the the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Divisio, or SHIELD.
Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, director of SHIELD.
Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a senior official of SHIELD.
Scarlett Johansson returns as SHIELD agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a Black Widow, and also a member of the Avengers. Pictured, Romanoff and Rogers share a moment.
Sebastian Stan plays the Winter Soldier, a character from Captain America’s past who will be very familiar to fans of the comic book.
Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson, a.k.a Falcon, a former paratrooper and pararescue soldier who has developed a pair of exoskeleton wings that allows him to fly.
Rogers meets Pierce at SHIELD headquarters. Many reviewers have noted the resonance of Redford’s casting with the film’s undertones of paranoia and conspiracy, harkening back to earlier Redford roles such as Three Days of the Condor.
Fury meets with Alexander Pierce. An earlier comic-book version of the Fury character borrowed from Jackson’s appearance long before he was cast in the role.
Fury briefs Captain America on a new SHIELD initiative, part of the story’s nod to the modern-day topics of defense and surveillance. Rogers is not impressed: "You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection. This isn't freedom, this is fear."
Falcon takes to the air. He was the first black character in a mainstream American comic.
ON THE SET: Chris Evans takes a break from being heroic.
From left: Anthony Mackie, co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and Chris Evans discuss a scene.
SUMMARY JUDGMENT: Claudia Puig, USA Today: “Fight scenes are tense, though occasionally it's hard to tell who's doing what to whom. But they have the bone-crunching crack of realism sometimes lacking in comic book movies. … The Winter Soldier is an often breathlessly exciting action thriller told with humor and intelligence.”
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “A little self-deprecation can take you a long way with a character like this, and Evans delivers it, along with the wholesome and genuine sense of virtue that's at the core of this ever-youthful wartime hero.”
Scott Foundas, Variety: “The Winter Soldier is off and running — after all, what paranoia thriller worth its salt doesn’t involve a lot of running, hairsbreadth escapes, improvised disguises, apparent allies who turn out to be foes, and vice versa?”
Armond White, writing in NRO, says: “Evans’s emblematic face has no emotion behind it. What he conveys, actually, given the way the actor plays down physical passion in favor of bland duty, is a political anachronism. That’s because in today’s Hollywood the idea of an honest, uncomplicated fighting soldier is more foreign than a Prius.”
Kennth Turan, L.A. Times: “What is frustrating about this Captain America is that it's saddled with the defects of its virtues. It's a product of the highest quality, but at the end of the day that's what it is: a machine-made, assembly-line product whose strengths tend to feel like items checked off a master list.”
AMERICAN HISTORY: Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and first appeared in December 1940, during the so-called “Golden Age” of comic books. He appeared in the pages of Timely Comics, which later became Marvel Comics. (Pictured, Captain America Comics #1)
Debuting a full year before the attacks on Pearl Harbor that would catapult the U.S. into the war, Captain America was a popular character during the conflict, a pointedly patriotic superhero clad in a flag-themed costume and doing battle with villains that were thinly-veiled versions of real-life Nazis and Communists. (Pictured, Captain America Comics #2)
After WWII, the character’s popularity waned and the title was discontinued. He was revived — in the comic and in bookstores — in 1964 to join the newly created Avengers team. The character’s new backstory — he is frozen in the Atlantic Ocean at the end of WWII — is echoed in the new film series. (Pictured, Captain America #109, January 1969)
Like many long-running comic-book characters, the look of Captain America has evolved over the years. (Pictured, Captain America #350, February 1989)
Steve Rogers: Super Soldier #1, September 2010
With Marvel Comics characters doing strong business at the box office, it’s interesting to note that Captain America was actually the first adapted into another medium, a 1944 movie serial from Republic Pictures. The release of Winter Soldier marks his 70th anniversary on the big screen.
In the serials, which were only loosely based on the comic character, Captain America was the alter-ego of D.A. Grant Gardner.
Shut up, crime.
The character returned in two made-for-TV movies in 1979. Pictured, the first, Captain America.
The sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon
Rogers returned to the big screen in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, with Chris Evans in the role.
The film established his backstory for the new meta-series of Marvel movies, and had him facing the evil Hydra faction from the original comics.
Rogers joined the Avengers in the eponymous 2012 film. Pictured, the Captain stands his ground alongside the Mighty Thor.
A bit of a man out of time, the new films frequently poke fun at his unfamiliarity with modern technology and culture.
Captain America has remained a popular character among comic-book fans such as this attendee at the annual Comic-Con convention.
Updated: Apr. 04, 2014

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