LOS ANGELES — When it comes to the superhero spy game, an easy facility with falsehood can get you far. Which helps explain the unlikely friendship that develops between Chris Evans’ unfailingly forthright patriotic hero and Scarlet Johansson’s ethically dubious operative in Marvel’s latest comic book adventure, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
“She made a life based on lies and deceit and malleable morality, and Cap couldn’t lie if he tried to,” said Evans, seated beside his costar in a sparsely furnished chamber at a Beverly Hills hotel.
“These aren’t two characters that you would necessarily know had so much in common,” Johansson agreed. “They’re deceivingly similar. They’re having this huge identity crisis. … ‘What do I want? Why do I want it? What do I need from someone else?’ We started to say, ‘Maybe they see the reflection in one another.’”
Arriving in theaters Friday, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was conceived as Marvel’s answer to the gripping thrillers of the ‘70s — “The French Connection,” “Three Days of the Condor” — though perhaps its closest modern-day comparison would be to “The Bourne Identity,” if Jason Bourne occasionally wore a red, white and blue spandex suit and could safely sky-dive out of an airplane without a parachute.
The $170-million production has the requisite car chases, explosions and a third act brimming with CG spectacle, but the film also has far more on its mind than cheap visual thrills.
Drone technology, government surveillance, corruption and the unchecked consolidation of powers are all engines that power the narrative. (Tackling Big Issues seems to have become de rigueur in Hollywood blockbusters of late — “Elysium,” “RoboCop,” even “Noah” has a topical bent — but “Captain America” might be the only movie to update Cold War paranoia for the Edward Snowden age.)
The movie, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, has received near universal praise in advance of its opening, with critics responding to its mix of intrigue, action and emotional performances, as Evans and Johansson guide Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff through a setting that challenges them both to reevaluate choices they’ve made and where their loyalties lie.
Vulnerability is a rare luxury for characters who essentially seem indestructible, but the scenes in which Cap and Black Widow let down their guard and flirt with the idea of taking their friendship in a less platonic direction were the most satisfying for the actors, longtime friends offscreen.
“It’s nice for Chris and I to get to do dramatic work together,” Johansson said. “We work well together, I think, and admire one another as actors, and we’re used to being able to throw the ball back and forth because we’ve done that in the past in other films that we’ve done. We’re also older actors now and more comfortable taking our time. You can wait for the emotion to come and let the moment happen.”
In person, the duo has an easy manner not entirely dissimilar from their action movie counterparts’. With his off-duty beard and a frame more slender than Steve Rogers’ robust build, Evans alluded to his struggling to reconcile himself to his celebrity — even suggesting a future when he works predominantly behind the camera as a director. Johansson, hair tied back and snacking on peanut M&M’s, signaled her readiness to dive back in for another mission.
Evans and Johansson first appeared on screen together 10 years ago in the high school heist film “The Perfect Score,” about seniors out to steal the answers to the SAT. That was before his first turn as a superhero in “Fantastic Four” — he played another Marvel hero, Johnny Storm, also known as the Human Torch — but just after her memorable performance in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 romantic postcard “Lost in Translation.”
They also both appeared in 2007’s “The Nanny Diaries” — she starred in the chick-lit adaptation; Evans played the love interest character dubbed the Harvard Hottie. It was Johansson who originated her current Marvel persona first, in 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” while Evans arrived in Joe Johnston’s 2011 World War II-era “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which chronicled the beginnings of the hero, who was co-created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon and made his comic book debut in 1941.
Captain America and Black Widow originally teamed — as part of a group that included Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk, among others — to battle an alien invasion that threatened to destroy Manhattan in 2012’s “The Avengers.” It was during the extensive global press tour that anticipated the release of Joss Whedon’s $1-billion-plus hit that Johansson, 29, said she first became aware of the plan to partner her character with Evans’ in “The Winter Soldier,” but she initially couldn’t picture the pairing, given Widow’s flexible mortality and Cap’s unwavering code of honor.
The new film takes place months after the events depicted in “Avengers.” Based on a famous 2005 comic-book story line by writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Steve Epting, the movie opens with Steve having remained in the employ of international espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and occasionally teaming with Widow on key missions.
After an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. top dog Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) puts the hero in conflict with the organization’s leader, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford in a key supporting turn), he finds an unexpected ally not only in ex-military man Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who has his own heroic identity as the Falcon, but also in Johansson’s spy.
“That was one of the things I liked about the script, that even if you took the superhero element out of the story, you would still have a pretty grounded story,” said Evans, 32.
The push-pull between Cap and Widow leads to a complex, sexy screen dynamic that at moments threatens to tip into romance, but their relationship ultimately is painted as nothing quite so black and white.
“It’s not really defined,” Evans said. “I think that’s what makes it more dynamic. It’s what makes it more similar to life. Not every single male and female bond is going to be rooted in romance. Sometimes movies make things too perfect.”
“But the chemistry is there, which is important,” Johansson added. “Just because they’re not romantically involved doesn’t mean that they’re not still attracted to each other as people. I like that the door is open a little bit.”
The Russos, writer-directors best known for comedies including “You, Me and Dupree” and “Welcome to Collinwood” and episodes of cult favorite TV series “Arrested Development” and “Community,” said that the actors’ offscreen history helped flesh out Cap and Widow’s rapport.
“Why I think their chemistry is so good together is they’re very close friends,” Joe Russo said separately. “They brought a lot of their own ideas to their scenes and a lot of personal energy to those scenes to create what we like to call a work wife/ work husband relationship between those two characters.”
“Winter Soldier” shot in Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles last year, and immediately after the film wrapped, Evans embarked on a different kind of mission, directing his first feature, an East Coast-set romantic dramedy titled “1:30 Train,” in which he also stars. He also is featured in a starring role in “Snowpiercer,” the anticipated English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, due in U.S. theaters June 27.
Johansson too has been on a professional run, with turns in films including the Academy Award-winning “Her,” in which she gave voice to a sentient operating system. On the same day “Captain America” opens, she can be seen as a seductive alien in Scotland in Jonathan Glazer’s low-budget indie “Under the Skin.” Weeks later, she’ll appear in Jon Favreau’s indie restaurant movie “Chef,” and in August she’ll star in Luc Besson’s action film “Lucy” as a woman who gains superpowers after ingesting drugs.
At present, the duo is suiting up as Steve Rogers and Natasha once more for Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the Marvel blockbuster scheduled to open next year that will reunite the group of A-list crime fighters against an evil robot voiced by James Spader.
Early reviews of “Winter Soldier” certainly suggest that the stars — and Marvel’s team of filmmakers — have raised the bar for the comic book genre. The movie has been widely hailed as one of the best from the powerhouse studio (which has a flawless record of hit films stretching back to 2008’s “Iron Man”), earning praise for its mix of serious action and contemporary resonance.
Although he’s grateful for what the role has done for his career, Evans seems somewhat ambivalent about his superhero super stardom. The mantle of Captain America doesn’t rest entirely lightly on his broad shoulders, and he’s stated that once his Marvel contract is complete — he’ll star in a third “Captain America” film in addition to “Age of Ultron” and another “Avengers” sequel — he might hang up his star-spangled shield.
Johansson, though, is ready to step into the void and possibly star in her own Black Widow franchise — something a vocal segment of fans has been clamoring for, citing a dearth of genre films anchored by compelling women.
“This character, because she’s this kind of reluctant superhero, because she doesn’t have superpowers, because she does have this really rich back story that doesn’t just involve putting on a suit and turning into something else, she’s earned her scars,” Johansson said. “There’s something to explore there. We see in this Marvel universe that these movies are kind of audience-driven, so if the people want it … I’m going to have to paint that suit back on.”