Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Captain America: The Winter Soldier [2014] (directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, story and concept by Ed Brubaker, based on the comic book by Joe Simon [IMDb] and  Jack Kirby [IMDb]) continues a fascinating reflection on "America Now and Then" through the character of Marvel Comics' Steve Rogers / "Captain America" (played by Chris Evans).

The story of Steve Rogers / "Captain America" was that he was a sickly American teenager desperate to be able to enroll in the Army to do his part to fight for the United States against the Nazis.  Like MANY younger American teens of that time, he LIED ABOUT HIS AGE (he was actually too young to serve).  Then even as he was really physically unfit to serve in the military, he tried SO HARD that it was difficult for those responsible for basic training to cut him.  His simultaneous enthusiasm and physical inability to deliver caught the eye of the Army brass and he recruited for a WW II-era American "secret weapons" program aimed at creating "super soldiers."  He entered the program, was injected with a "super soldier serum" and became (physically) a totally different man than he was before.

Steve Rogers / "Captain America" was then deployed to Europe to participate in all kinds of "secret missions" including a battle between United States aligned forces, which after the war comes to be called S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland, Intervention, Enforcement and Logistic Division), basically a "Marvel CIA" and a Nazi aligned enemy force called HYDRA (why?  "cut off one head and two grows in its place") bent on world domination in one way or another and by any means necessary.

The battle between S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA is perfect for a comic book universe because it takes place almost entirely "in the shadows" and involves all kinds of super-heroes and super-villains all with super-powers.  This legendary battle in the shadows gains currency in the public imagination (in the collective subconscious...) BECAUSE both the United States and Nazi Germany REALLY DID HAVE "SECRET WEAPONS PROGRAMS." The United States had the Manhattan Project and Nazi Germany had rocketry, aeronautics, bio-weapons and really all kinds of borderline unbelievable "out of the box" projects (an excellent book on the matter of Germany's Wunderwaffen programs was British Aerospace journalist Nick Cook's book The Hunt For Zero Point about Nazi Germany's "anti-gravity," that is, I'm NOT kidding, flying saucer program).  Then after WW II the United States REALLY DID SECRETLY RECRUIT all kinds of former Nazi scientists and engineers to work for the U.S. under "Project Paperclip" (The Soviets were actually far less subtle.  Those Nazi scientists that they captured were simply deported back to the Soviet Union and compelled to work for the Communists).

SINCE SO MUCH OF THE ACTUAL STORY (Manhattan, Paperclip) was kept secret FOR DECADES, this secrecy offered a perfect setting for these kind of fantastic super-hero, super-villain, super-power, super-weapons stories.  Other recent treatments of this subject, often taking on the style of classic late-1940s film noir (with always "an unspeakable secret" at its heart) have included Steven Soderbergh's The Good German 2006] (about the U.S. recruitment of Nazi V-2 scientists and engineers after the war) and Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island [2010] (a fictionalized story inspired by an actual U.S. bioweapons research facility on Plum Island off the coast of Long Island, NY said to have housed former Nazi bio-weapons scientists brought into the U.S. via Project Paperclip after the war.  Among the conspiracies linked to that facility has been the origin of lyme disease as the first recorded outbreak of this tick-borne disease occurred in Lyme, CT across Long Island Sound from Plum Island, and the Nazis had apparently researched using ticks as "delivery devices" for diseases). 

Alright then, this shadowy world of "super-weapon" research becomes perfect fodder for super-hero / super-villain stories.  The coup-de-grace in the case of Steve Rogers / Captain America's back-story is that "after the War, he goes down in an airplane somewhere over the Arctic.  However, since he had been injected with that "super-soldier serum" he was no longer really human (rather super-human) and so he DOES NOT DIE.  Instead, he is merely _frozen_.  Decades later, the crash site of his plane is found and his body recovered and DEFROSTED whereupon he re-awakes IN OUR TIME.

So Steve Rogers / Captain America is conceived as a 1940s era Superhero who was "Frozen in Time" only to reawaken in OURS.  So much of the humor (and insight) involved in his story involves exploring the differences between "his time" (the 1940s) and ours (today).  We got a taste of this in the truly hilarious (and again, insightful...) dialogues in The Avengers [2012] between the boy-scoutish Steve Rogers / Captain America and the far more flamboyant (and sneakier) Tony Stark / Iron Man (played in the current Marvel adventures by Robert Downey Jr), Steve Rogers / Captain America epitomizing the American hero of the 1940s and Tony Stark / Iron Man epitomizing the American hero of today.

The current film Captain America: The Winter Soldier [2014] explores the well-known lament of our time, vis-a-vis the "simpler times" of The Greatest Generation: that "back in the day" we "KNEW who the enemy was," today "it's so much harder."

So, in this post-9/11 world into which the 1940s-era superhero Steve Rogers / Captain America had been thawed, S.H.I.E.L.D. (again sort of a "Superhero CIA / NSA") comes up with a weapons system involving (1) a computer program called INSIGHT which monitoring EVERY ELECTRONIC TRANSACTION/COMMUNICATION of EVERYONE on the planet (hmm... wonder what Eric Snowden would have to add about this story ... ;-)) comes to be able to determine with some accuracy WHO COULD BECOME an ENEMY OF PEACE / ORDER IN THE WORLD and (2) a fleet of TERRIFYING AIRBORNE AIRCRAFT CARRIERS which could project S.H.I.E.L.D.'s power ANYWHERE, the idea being that between the computer program and this awesome fleet of Stark Industries designed "airborne aircraft carriers" S.H.I.E.L.D. could eliminate ALL THE WORLD'S POTENTIAL ENEMIES (20 million of them) in a single WORLD-WIDE preemptive strike and then pick-off new potential enemies (based on their internet history) as they are flagged / discerned.

Wow!  But who exactly controls S.H.I.E.L.D.? Well that's the rest of the story ... ;-)  In past episodes, we had been introduced to Nick Fury (played ever to the hilt by Samuel L. Jackson) who appeared to be a very hands-on head of S.H.I.E.L.D.  But actually, as in the case of the CIA, there's a "civilian commander" here named Alexander Pierce (played in exquisite Washington "who is he?" / "walks between the rain drops" power-broker fashion by Robert Redford).

Anyway, the boy-scoutish Steve Rogers / Captain America is immediately wary of this scheme to simply "take down" potential enemies of Peace.  Yet 'man of the world' Nick Fury tells him that "After New York" (after 9/11? or after the New York "space invasion" story of The Avengers [2012]) there's no room for error.  We must eliminate our enemies before they have a chance to hurt us."

But of course, things start to go wrong, when suddenly Nick Fury himself becomes the target of a heavy-handed/insistent assassination plot.  Who was behind it?  Steve Rogers / Captain America, the Russian born S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanova / Black Widow (played exquisitely as ever by Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson / Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) conceived here as a "Special Air Services" / Afghan War Vet, spend the rest of the film trying to figure it out.

Perhaps the first clue to problem is that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Washington D.C. area headquarters appears to be located RIGHT ACROSS THE RIVER from the infamous Watergate Hotel ... Again how much more "complicated" things are today than they were "back in the days" of WW II when "we knew who our enemies were ..."

My only complaint here is that the level of even "just glass-breaking" (PG-13 level) violence is SO LARGE that it's hard to imagine how ANYBODY living in the Marvel Movies' universe would NOT BE TRAUMATIZED.  These enormous airborne aircraft carriers presumably with crews of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people CRASH AND BURN ALL OVER THE WASHINGTON D.C. AREA ... At minimum, think of the casualties among the pilots/sailors.  Then that the crashing of these enormous craft would not cause "casualties on the ground" would seems preposterous.  So a definite level of "suspension of disbelief" is needed to watch the film.  Of course, the film is about SUPER-HEROES, with SUPER-POWERS to begin with ... so "suspension of disbelief" comes with the territory.  Yet, I really do think that the level of "glass crashing violence" is so great that if this were to really happen, we'd ALL BE BASKET CASES by the end.  Think of the trauma that 9/11 caused and that was "just two buildings ..."

But there it is.  The violence portrayed in the film is certainly gratuitous.  On the other hand, the film is about a fictionalized world inhabited by super-heroes and super-villains, all with super-powers.  So we should probably keep it in stride.  In any case, the film seems to be reflective of the societal concern that "things are not as simple today as they used to be."

Bottom line, this is a very good "Marvel Comics" / "Superhero" film even if there's an awful lot of "glass breaking" and other PG-13 level ("bloodless") destruction. 

Then, after all this who's "the Winter Soldier" from the film's title?  Well ... the answer lies in part with Steve Rogers / Captain America's back-story ... and beyond that, I'm not going to tell you ;-)

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