Ninetysomething and still faster than you, Steve Rogers/Captain America nevertheless encounters challenges specific to his unique circumstance. He’s adjusting to contemporary life by keeping a handwritten list of the American pop culture he missed during his Rip Van Winkle years. “Nirvana (band)” is already on it. Then we see him add Marvin Gaye’s 1972 Trouble Man soundtrack album on the advice of his new pal, veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).
Cap notes that the internet has been very helpful with his education, but it’s clear that he’s got more 70s era blind spots to correct, and if he knew what was good for him he'd start with cinematic journeys into paranoia and disillusionment, movies like Chinatown, The Conversation, Network, or the Watergate-based, Alan Pakula-directed film All The President’s Men. If he watched that last one, especially, he’d not only scratch his head pondering the physical similarities between its star, Robert Redford, and Alexander Pierce (also Redford), the chilly, aging State Department official integral to this sequel’s action, but Rogers would also enjoy a somewhat less steep learning curve when it comes to understanding the corruption of power.
As little plot as possible to avoid fan-wrath: the U.S. government, responding to the 9/11-style destruction of New York City in The Avengers, develops the technology and machinery platform to protect the world from future attack and to pre-judge, Philip K. Dick-style, whoever might try to do it. Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), understandably bothered by this, attempts to intervene. Bad stuff happens, so Rogers puts on the Captain America uniform and steps in, ably assisted by Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new S.H.I.E.L.D. helper Wilson/The Falcon. Cap’s organizational nemesis HYDRA figures in all this, too, of course, and in their employ is a mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Somebody's going to have to throw his mighty shield.
The gigantically scaled action that follows is what you’ve come to expect and, more importantly, enjoy from the on-screen Marvel universe. Machinery collides, mega-fighting transpires, exciting car chases and even more exuberant car crashes aim right for your face. It’s loud and, lucky you, designed for maximum impact (well, a PG-13 suggestion of impact, anyway; this isn’t The Raid 2).
As The Avengers’ most gee-whiz warrior, Captain America is a weirdo even by S.H.I.E.L.D. standards. He’s as opposite as can be from the cold, calculating Nick Fury, the smirking Tony Stark, the self-aggrandizing Thor and the slinky, sardonic Black Widow. You don’t turn to him for knowing humor. He is sincerity incarnate, his story ripe for deep character development, empathy and sadness. His status as the lost ally for truth makes this installment’s theme of disillusion moving. He is 1945’s freedom from global fear versus 2014’s protection through global fear.
And he can’t possibly know it but 2014’s Cap is also thoroughly tangled up in what mainstream American moviemaking has become. More or less gone are the days when audiences flocked to films about regular citizens trying to make sense of ugly political realities, stories where happy endings weren’t guaranteed and trust in anything and everything quickly eroded. Now we have superheroes – and that’s fine, comic book people have been talking about the analogous political nature of the medium since the first San Diego Comic-Con – extra-human protectors whose job it is, at least in most translations from print to screen that don't involve a certain Dark Knight, to save us over and over without fail. No more walking out of the theater in a state of anxiety over the unfixed center of a world where nothing is true. Today we’re reassured that Iron Man or The Hulk or Thor or all of the above are going to step in and fix it. Somebody has to fix it. What sets this superior chapter in the ongoing Avengers saga apart from the pack is that Cap’s ability to do his job may be permanently disrupted by modern political realities, his dream of genuine goodness never realized. Fixing it may not be an option.