Captain America: The First Avenger AND Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Summary: During World War II a nerdy weakling becomes a super soldier and saves the world from Nazi scientists. Seventy years later, he does it again. And he’s still a virgin.
by Niall McArdle
Fanboys rule the world, or at least the part of it to which Hollywood pays attention. Why else would Comic-Con, which used to be a quiet, safe meeting place for socially-awkward guys who work in tech support, have become the attention-seeking media whore that it is? Why else was there so much attention paid to Harrison Ford’s leg or Mark Hamill’s beard? Why else would Warner Bros. (a studio, remember, that used to make socially-conscious movies) be planning a roster of silly superhero stories that will dominate the culture for the next six years? Or dominate half the culture, anyway, the other half being occupied by mutants, gods, and guardians? Even television is not immune, which is why in addition to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Arrow we are getting Beat Cop Jimmy Gordon, HRG 2.0, and tonight’s premiere of The Continuing Strange and Wonderful Interdimensional Adventures of an Elderly Eccentric & His Comely Assistant.
Some of this isn’t all the fault of today’s fanboys. After all, long before the Avengers assembled to take money out of your pocket, it was a previous generation of movie-goers that needed a bigger boat, hung out in phone booths so they could phone home, and used the Force, ensuring that summers would be the domain of blockbusters and merchandise tie-ins.
All of which is a preface to me saying I wasn’t looking forward to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and first I had to watch Captain America: The First Avenger as I hadn’t seen it, so I was preparing myself for for a double-bill of spandex silliness.
I was pleasantly surprised: for comic-book movies, they’re not half-bad.
The first film is a superhero origin story set during World War II. 90lb midget weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans after some digital dieting and shrinking) wants to join up and fight the Nazis but he keeps failing the physical. A schnapps-drinking German scientist (Stanley Tucci) and a genius engineer, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) inject him with a super serum that makes Private Rogers super-buff and much taller (no mention is made of Private Rogers’ privates, but you should know that the serum works on all his muscles). There’s Peggy (Hayley Atwell), an English girl who has the hots for him, but she’s not just a pretty broad, you know: she’s also a Major and gets to punch out a sleazy jerk and shoot some bad guys. There’s also a gruff Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones grumbling a lot).
After some running around chasing bad guys Private Rogers is promoted to Captain, winds up in Europe and single-handedly rescues hundreds of Allied POWS from the clutches of HYDRA (the Nazi’s “Deep Science Division”), which is doing all sorts of experiments on its prisoners (the film has some odd Dr Mengele moments like this, and it seems at pains to point out that while Hitler and the Nazis are horrible, they’re nothing compared to the HYDRA boys; incidentally, it also disses Raiders of the Lost Ark)
By way of the Norway, the bad guys have got their hands on an alien energy source, and no, I don’t mean a-ha. HYDRA is led by evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving looking like a boiled lobster) and slightly less evil Dr. Zola (Toby Jones doing his best “ve’re not so different, you and I”). Captain America now has his own platoon of sorts, the remarkably multicultural Howling Commandos, and soon they’re running around beating the crap out of the Krauts.
It’s quite silly, obviously, but it has a refreshing sincerity, probably because it’s set in a time when irony and cynicism were frowned upon, and when you could talk earnestly and in simplistic terms about good guys and bad guys without being laughed out of the cinema. It looks like the 1940s, sort of (in a bright, clean comic-book way). The action scenes are well put-together, and unlike other action and comic-book films of recent years, you can actually follow the fights. Captain America has a nifty undentable shield made of ‘vibranium’, and he has a grand old time whacking bad guys with it.
The sequel has even more action and a slightly more complicated plot, which is fitting, because after being frozen for seventy years, Captain America has to deal with the world of 2014, where the lines between good and evil have been blurred. He’s still learning the ropes: he carries a little notebook of things he needs to look up, including the Moon landing, I Love Lucy, Nirvana and Rocky (Rocky II has a question mark beside it, which is either an acknowledgement that it isn’t very good, or a very sly comment on the unoriginality of sequels in general, including the one we are watching).
Once again HYDRA is the enemy; the organisation has thrived over the years. Toby Jones, or a version of him anyway, returns as Dr. Zola to provide much-needed exposition and kick the second act into gear. HYDRA’s plan involves using its influence within governments (and within S.H.I.E.L.D) to wipe out undesirables from the planet. Also returning from the first film is Captain America’s best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has had his memory wiped by the baddies, been given a metal arm and cryogenically frozen for several decades, and is now the mythical Winter Soldier, an elite assassin.
Fittingly for a film about the corruption of power and how the lines can get blurred, it’s set in Washington D.C., and the film opens with Cap running around the capital and making friends with Sam Wilson, another old soldier carrying survivor’s guilt (a bulked-up Anthony Mackie). Then he heads off to the Indian Ocean with his fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, looking like she spent too long at the tanning salon) to save some S.H.I.E.L.D hostages from pirates who’ve seized their ship.
And this is where it gets a little complex, as it turns out Black Widow has her own set of orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and he may not be quite all he seems (the character has been shown before as ethically dubious when it comes to playing with heroes’ feelings). Fury doesn’t trust anyone, which probably saves his life. Trust is a major theme of the film, as is the idea of doing bad things for a good cause (there are several mentions of some of the nastier things that the Greatest Generation actually did to save the world.) Also in the mix is Fury’s duplicitous superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, looking well for a pensioner.)
There are several well-done set pieces, including a cool car chase (finally, Sam Jackson gets to do something other than speechify) and a shootout that owes something to Michael Mann’s Heat. Black Widow gets to kick ass a lot while wearing figure-hugging outfits (she’s probably wondering which Avenger she has to sleep with to get her own stand alone movie). Speaking of outfits, at one point Captain America dons his original uniform, probably to indicate that although the world has changed, it hasn’t really, so old-fashioned pluck will do to save the day. As in the first film, you can follow most of what is happening on screen. It also does a good job of explaining the presence and absence of several characters from the first film, mostly through the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian (narrated by Gary Sinise) which is a neat way for this film to summarise the first one. It’s also quite funny in places; I never expected a superhero film to include a reference to Pulp Fiction.
And perhaps best of all it has Jenny Agutter.