Captain Courageous

Chris Evans as the title character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Caution: Spoilers ahead if you haven't watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

WHEN it comes to reviews of superhero movies – to use an umbrella term as unwieldy as the relevant object would be in this perfect storm of pop culture – there is a certain tone that has latterly become apparent. The New York Times' and Slate's takes on Captain America: The Winter Soldier are two examples; reviewers mostly unable to look past the trappings of genre, even though that genre has grown and grown up.

Captain America's second solo outing is a spy film. It is also a technological thriller, a buddy movie, a tale of traditional values set adrift in modern times, and the highest-quality pulp you'll find this side of an organic juice bar. More than that, it is proof that superhero movies are not just a genre – they're a vector, and a very flexible one at that.

The genius of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – apart from, you know, the utterly ground-breaking decision to involve people that actually understand these characters in their translation to the big screen – is its diversity.

We're still waiting for a female character to headline her own film, but there's something for almost everyone here. If you don't like the slick, sardonic Iron Man films, you can hop over to the Kirby-Shakespeare love child that is Thor. The common thread in this big, boisterous universe is heart – and its beating heart is Captain America.

The first-week numbers The Winter Soldier is posting are proof that Marvel's plan is working a treat, but also that this is a character that resonates with people.

Cap was a long way from a sure thing, back in those long-ago days of 2010. Some modicum of nuance could be distilled from pictures and prose and the combination of the two, but a movie? With stars and stripes and spangles and swelling soundtrack, a screen Cap could have been a terrifying avatar of cultural imperialism, a focal point for another backlash to the USA's incessant export of itself. Instead, he's as popular in China as he is in Russia.

Chris Evans is part of the reason for this global appeal. He's a better actor than you think, prone to memorable character turns and occasionally catching fire in lesser movies. His Cap is like nothing he had ever done before, a slow burn in quiet nobility and courage that harks back to Christopher Reeve.

Reeve got Clark Kent in the same way that Evans gets Steve Rogers – in or out of the tights, the most powerful thing about Cap or Superman is their restraint. It's an element Zack Snyder and David Goyer completely failed to understand in last year's Man of Steel.

The other important factor here is tone. Captain America: The First Avenger is the quintessential Joe Johnston film, a period piece made with so much joy that even its flaws become endearing. The first two-thirds of that film are far and away the most emotional work Marvel has produced, and the incredibly sweet PG love story threaded through it proves strong enough to hold up even its weaker third act.

Here is another lesson learned in the new age of the matinee serial – while it is hard for these gods and monsters and heroes to be injured, it is easy for them to be hurt. We watch them soar because we cannot, but a broken heart grounds us all.

This iron-clad sense of character becomes particularly important when the sequel rolls around. It is no accident that Cap's most heroic moment – the wonderful grenade scene in the first film – comes before he ever encounters the Super-Soldier Serum.

The other Marvel movies show us characters growing; Captain America is the same person in both his movies, and in The Avengers. It's the world that has changed around him. He's a base to help balance the acid of snark and suspicion, one solid enough to be a foundation for almost any type of movie.

All of this means The Winter Soldier's smart, savvy upending of the status quo feels real and earned almost purely because of Cap's reaction to it. Losing a shield – even one that is acronymous instead of metallic – would make anyone vulnerable.

Arnim Zola's recruitment and the ensuing rot is explained as being part of the real-life Operation Paperclip. Edward Snowden has lent a pervasive heft to the spectre of the surveillance state; it's as unsettling to know someone is probably watching as it is to see Robert Redford's counter-cultural persona subverted, or Captain America take on the country for which he is named.

That last isn't as outlandish as it seems. Cap has always been an inspirational character. The cover of his very first appearance, published a year before the United States joined World War II, featured him socking Hitler on the jaw.

He is not a representation of his country as it is; he's the representation of what his country wants to be, what it could be. He's an idealist clad in an idea, fighting in the no man's land between security and freedom.

Being a square is part of his appeal, and a reason why that appeal transcends genre – Captain America is always going to be the squarest peg in any pigeonhole. Never a perfect fit, but always reliable.

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