The one thing you'd expect from a super-hero named Captain America is that he'd be about truth, justice, and the American Way. That's actually a reference to DC Comic's Superman, as portrayed by George Reeve in the 1950s. Captain America is Marvel Comic's version of a hopelessly square, unhip, and un-ironic character, a little like Superman but (until now) less known. His role is not just to beat up some bad guys, but actually define what American values are. That's why his shield has a red-white-and-blue design.
So you'd think that the "Cap," portrayed by Chris Evans, would the first guy to get behind America's Homeland-Security efforts. Well, he was, but in his latest adventure — Captain America: The Winter Soldier — his new job becomes that of freeing us from people who would use secret Homeland-Security-type agencies to enslave the world.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and the Patriot Act are never mentioned by name, but they are the obvious target of the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely. The subversive nature of the story is hid behind names such as "SHIELD," "Hydra," and "Insight" — but note that the "H" in "SHIELD" stands for "Homeland."
The first Captain America film was an origin film set in the 1940s. This film is set in contemporary times, just after The Avengers, in which the Captain has emerged from cryogenic freeze. There's a theme here contrasting the moral simplicities of the Greatest Generation (Allies Good, Nazis Bad) with the moral complexities of our own age.
So how does such a subversive set of ideas manage to slip into the cultural mainstream without being lambasted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and company (that is to say "Lim-basted")? Probably for the same reason that the 1960s Star Trek could get away with themes no other show could: It's so obviously a fantasy. The political edge is obscured, as well, behind the non-stop action, action, action. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo never saw a fist fight, shoot-out, or explosion they didn't love.
Sometimes, the action is occasion for wit, as in a winning, over-the-top scene in which more and more sinister-looking agents step onto an elevator with Captain America, until it becomes clear that before the elevator reaches its destination all the men intend to beat Cap to a pulp. Seeing the situation, he formulates a plan to overcome the assailants and says, as if he were Clint Eastwood, "Before we start, does anyone want to get out?" Then he demonstrates that if they knew what was good for them, they would've taken him up on his offer: Don't mess with the Cap'n.
If only the rest of the film could be this clever or fresh. But by the end of its two-hour-fifteen-minute running time, one is likely to feel exhausted. Most of this action, by the way, should play just fine in 2-D. The 3-D version only takes advantage of a couple of shots. Admittedly, those few scenes border on the spectacular, as when we see the Captain falling off one of the flying aircraft carriers we first saw in The Avengers.
The cast is good all around. As Captain America, Chris Evans shows he's among a very small group of people who can do a fine job of dramatic acting but can also "suit up" in a red-white-and-blue costume without looking completely silly. (Compare and contrast George Clooney as Batman.) Evans doesn't play it like Robert Downey, winking at at the audience. Instead he plays the Captain entirely straight, which in some ways is harder.
Returning from The Avengers are Samuel Jackson, who defines cool on screen better than anyone, in his role of Nick Fury; Scarlett Johansson, who is butt-kicking in her leather outfit; and Anthony Mackie, who portrays a different kind of superhero. I'll give you a clue: He flies like a Falcon. Most telling is his line, reflecting on his service in what had to be Iraq or Afghanistan: "After a while I didn't know why they sent me over there."
Finally, there Robert Redford as a high-ranking government operative. He turns out to be a strong choice, even though you'd never expect him to be in a film like this. Once you see the political angle, however, you'll understand why Redford wanted to do this.
But one longs sometimes for the simple, spare plot lines of the first two Christopher Reeves' Superman movies, or the slow, subtle build up to action in Christopher Nolan's Batman series. Here, the action barely lets up long enough for you to catch your breath… aside from the occasional conspiracy scenes, like those with Redford where there's a lot of discussion about political maneuvering and secret plans. Otherwise, it's go, go, go.
Marvel Comics fans will no doubt be pleased with the result. As for other people, it's possible that the political angle will be enough to make this slug-fest intriguing.