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.
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.