I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the character Captain America. Not really love/hate but definitely love/want to love but often don’t. Cap, like Superman over at DC, is supposed to be more inspirational than your average, run of the mill superhero. I think I finally gave up on ever seeing Superman done right. Especially given that it hasn’t happened since Christopher Reeve portrayed him with humor, poignancy and quiet strength in Superman The Movie. Captain America in the comic books has always been hit or miss. But unlike Superman, Captain America has never been portrayed or looked up to as any kind of godlike figure. Captain America’s pedestal is nowhere near as high as Superman’s and that has always endeared me more to Steve Rogers than Clark Kent.
This doesn’t make Cap any less heroic or any less inspirational. But his beliefs and ideals were forged by events that we as readers can identify with. Superman was never in a world war, never suffered through a great depression. Superman was never poor or unemployed or scared about the possibility of fascism dominating the world because in Superman’s world that could never happen(because, you know, he’s Superman). Superman can sympathize and empathize with these things, but he can never, ever identify with them. While some of Cap’s golden age tales are entertaining, he was never really fleshed out until Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him back from the dead in the 60’s in Avengers #4. In that story, the Avengers discover Captain America, thought long dead since WW2, frozen in ice. Once revived, he struggles to find his place in a new era where his ideals seem quaint. Captain America’s power is to inspire others to feel how he feels about freedom, justice and love of country. This is where the new Captain America film and the performance of Chris Evans is most effective and evocative of Christopher Reeve in Superman The Movie.
We never really got the chance to see the fall out of Captain America(Chris Evans) being thawed from his icy tomb and waking up almost 80 years later at the tail end of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER because he was immediately sent into action in THE AVENGERS. Here we see more of what it’s like for Cap being in a new world with new threats that are less foreign and less black and white and much more domestic and insidious. We also get one of Cap’s dearest comic book friends, Sam Wilson aka The Falcon(Anthony Mackie). Their quickly developing friendship and similar pasts as soldiers give them an instant kinship. Sam has quit soldiering to help returning vets having trouble integrating into civilian life. This helps Sam to understand and sympathize with Steve’s lonely displacement in time. One of the most enjoyable moments in the film is the final scene between Cap and Falcon in the hospital. It’s a moment that just defines the word Friendship and where the best elements of the comic book character are brought to life.
Also returning are Avengers film alumni Nick Fury(Samuel Jackson) and Black Widow(Scarlet Johansson), both agents of SHIELD, which, as it turns out, has been infiltrated and corrupted by Cap’s old WW2 nemesis Hydra. Representing the villains is the return of Red Skull’s chief scientist Arnim Zola, now a disembodied brain with an electrical face in a massive computer. We also get one of Cap’s classic comic book foils, the French terrorist for hire, Batroc The Leaper. Also returning from the first film is British agent Peggy Carter(Hayley Atwill). Atwill is not in the film long, unfortunately, but she gives us one of the most poignant scenes in the film when Cap, visiting her bedside, expresses self doubt to his now elderly, former love. She gives him encouragement and then, due to age related dementia, forgets that they have been reunited and is shocked and disturbed to see her old flame seemingly returned from the dead and at her side.
We also get Robert Redford as the head of the shadowy world council that we saw Nick Fury answering to and defying, in The Avengers. When it’s discovered that Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD, Nick Fury is almost killed and Cap, his image smeared, is forced to go rogue. Along with Black Widow and new pal The Falcon, Cap must bring down SHIELD in order to uncover the embedded Hydra organization bent on world domination. There are some great scenes here such as Cap and Fury disagreeing with how to deal with terror threats. Cap wants to err on the side of freedom and liberty, Fury on the side of keeping humanity safe, at any cost. When Fury tells Cap they need to destroy Hydra and save SHIELD, Cap tells Fury that SHIELD has become too rotten and must be taken down along with Hydra. A decision that doesn’t sit will with Fury. Meanwhile, Cap has trust issues with Black Widow and it’s enjoyable to see her try to earn his trust back after actions she’s committed that make it very difficult. There’s a nice scene where Widow asks Cap if he trusts her to save his life and we see a subtle look of hurt on Widow’s face when he pauses. But this is a Marvel film after all and, consequently, not without some wit and humor. Such as Widow’s various efforts to get Cap back in the dating game. There’s also a great action sequence where Fury, trapped in a SHIELD “company car”, is attacked by a Hydra hit squad that has more than a little trouble getting Fury out of his near indestructible vehicle.
I have to say that Chris Evans is just terrific in his third outing as Cap(I was not a fan of this casting choice when Evans was first cast in the role but have since become a believer). While this movie is far different in tone and narrative than the first film, it makes a perfect companion piece. The first film showed Cap in a idealized, comic book past, fighting a more traditional comic book’ish villain in the Red Skull, anchored slightly in reality by Evans touching performance as a weakling with a heroic heart. That heart is tested in the future that he has awaken in where freedom has been eroded by paranoia and fear. But Cap, against all odds, rises to the challenge. There are moments that made me feel like I was watching Superman The Movie. Such as a scene where Cap gives a moving, patriotic speech in a final effort to reach any honest agents and soldiers in SHIELD that have not been corrupted by Hydra. The tonal change up from the first film to the second reminds me of the shifts from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis in Superman The Movie.
This isn’t the spectacle that The Avengers was, but that’s good because we need the quite moments of character development to see Cap come to life as the hero he is. We need to see Fury’s myriad of necessary deceits and the cynicism of slick professional liar Black Widow melt and give way to Cap’s heartfelt determination to see freedom and justice win out. And we need to see the honest and wearily disillusioned ex soldier Sam Wilson become inspired once again by Captain America to defend the country he loves. Which isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have a more than fair share of incredible action sequences. It does. But when you get right down to it, it’s a film about a good man looking for friendship, his place in the world and fighting for freedom. This movie understands the character and gives us a Captain America at his heroic, comic book best.