One of the most famous quotes from the classic comic strip Pogo didn’t actually appear in the strip originally. Cartoonist Walt Kelly used the corruption of Commodore Matthew Hazard Perry’s famous quote on a Pogo-themed poster for the first Earth Day in 1970, then later on used it in a panel for the comic. While many today might not know Pogo, most have heard that phrase: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” That conundrum is at the heart of the newest Marvel Superhero movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), better known as Captain America, is now located in Washington, DC, working out of SHIELD headquarters. While running laps on the Mall, he meets and bonds with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former para-rescue soldier now working with vets at the VA hospital. Like Rogers, Wilson lost a close friend on a mission. Rogers is interrupted by a call from SHIELD, a rescue mission after one of their surveillance ships is hijacked. Also on the mission is Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). While the mission is a success, it’s jeopardized when Rogers finds Black Widow is working at cross purposes from him. When he complains to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Director of SHIELD reveals a new project – three next-generation air battle cruisers. When Fury tells him that they’re to protect freedom, Rogers responds “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”
Fury goes to the head of SHIELD’s board of directors, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and asks to delay the project. Romanoff suggests Rogers get together with the nurse who lives next door to him (Emily VanCamp), but instead he goes to the Smithsonian where they’re hosting an exhibit on Captain America and his service during WWII. (In a nice touch, they have Gary Sinise provide the narration at the exhibit.) While driving in town, Fury is ambushed. He fights his way out of it and almost gets away, but then he comes face to face with the Winter Soldier, a one-time Soviet assassin with a metal arm who’s been tied to killings for fifty years.
As a comic superhero, Captain America is an oddity. He was the first hero in the Marvel Universe – before there was a Marvel Universe at all. During the dark days of March 1941, when the Nazis controlled Europe and were blitzing England, he made his first appearance in Timely Comics, a predecessor of Marvel. The Captain was tremendously popular at that time, but after the war his popularity waned and the comics were discontinued in 1950. Then, in the 4th Avengers comic in 1964, he was awakened from suspended animation in a glacier to lead the Avengers in the modern world. The movies Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers basically play on these stories. Captain America could have been a jingoistic anachronism – his name alone skirts close to that – but good writing and Chris Evans’ fine performance use the man out of his own time as a reminder of the sacrifice of the “Greatest Generation.”
Winter Soldier goes well beyond that, thanks to a script that is much more complex, and contains more plot twists, than you’d normally find in a superhero movie outside of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The movie harkens back to movies from the early 1970s such as Three Days of The Condor, which starred Redford. In the wake of revelations on domestic spying at that time, the movies had a jaundiced, even paranoid view of the government and intelligence agencies. With the new revelations of spying on a massive number of individuals by the NSA, this is a movie that is topical while still conforming to the superhero genre. It’s a brilliant choice to pair straight arrow Captain America with Black Widow, who’s morally compromised even as she tries to make amends for her earlier actions. At one point, Captain America and Black Widow have a low-level bad guy on top of a building, trying to get information out of him. When he says the threat to throw him off the building won’t work because he knows Captain America wouldn’t do that, Rogers says, “No, I wouldn’t – but she would.” They get the information.
Evans, Johannson and Jackson are known commodities now after their multiple appearances in the interconnected Marvel world. Winter Soldier marks the introduction of Condor, the first African-American superhero. Mackie is a welcome addition, and provides balance between Black Widow and Captain America. The movie was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who’d worked mostly on TV shows such as “Community” in the past. At two and a quarter hours, Winter Soldier may be a tad too long, but for the most part the Russo’s keep the story rushing ahead. This is one of the better movies in this genre, with more emotional resonance than the Iron Man or Thor pictures.
Do stay through the credits. As with The Avengers, there are two teasers, both of which set up the next Captain America film scheduled for 2016. I’ve already marked my calendar.