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Captain America 2: Now playing in Russia

Alexander Pierce meets Captain America.
Alexander Pierce meets Captain America.
Marvel.com

The world is ripe with irony -- some of it so ready to fall from the tree of truth that it's rotting on the branches of incongruity and contradiction. Popular culture has had its share of irony: there are the kids who wear Che Guevara t-shirts as if he was a rockstar, despite the fact he repressed rock 'n roll in Cuba after murdering and executing his political enemies. There's the Ostalgie phenomenon in unified Germany that longs romantically for the return of the GDR. (Check out the great satirical film, Good Bye Lenin!, to get a full taste of what Ostalgie is all about.) That tide of Soviet chic has crashed into the shores of Crimea more recently, where a dubious referendum revealed that the people wanted to be aligned with Russia. One need only ask a Tatarstani about referendums. When a referendum and election is held within Russia, the level of farce escalates into a political Theatre of the Absurd. But that is quite another story.

One aspect that highlights the ironies behind these political pushes and putsches is the blatant Western style of capitalizing upon the movement. In Germany, Ostalgie spawned a cottage industry overnight with the sale of East German iconic foods, knickknacks, and memorabilia. Now, in Russia, with the new thrust of rebuilding the empire one Crimea and Stan-state at a time, the popularity of Western cinema has never been stronger. Curiously, as Russia symbolically cut-off the 'Voice of America' in early April, 2014, which affected few listeners given its accessibility via the internet, the Moscow movie box offices have been abuzz with selling tickets to Hollywood blockbusters, from Noah to Rio 2 -- and wait, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier? Yes, indeed. The Captain is on sale at the kino! Check out the listings (including the one at Kinostar New York that's designed to resemble the American metropolis) and watch the Russian trailer. It's a gas watching Captain America speak Russian, though we expect it from Natasha Romanoff, no problem.

Not only are Russians buying tickets to see Captain America 2, but they have a plentitude of options: traditional, IMAX, and IMAX 3D, all for under $10 bucks (or 400 rubles in this case). Meanwhile, mind you, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, quietly signed the annexation treaty to welcome Crimea into the Russian Federation. Putin is, perhaps, our generation's General Karpov, looking at himself rescuing the Motherland and rebuilding it to its former glory, the way Karpov reanimates America's stealth assassin hero, Bucky Barnes, as their own Winter Soldier -- brainwashed into believing that the world is a better place under the rule of a dictatorship. That Russian audiences are flocking to Captain America 2 should come as no surprise given that the Winter Soldier has his love interest with sexy Soviet spy, Black Widow (a.k.a. Chernaya Vdova, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson). And there are a few additional marketing spins in the Russian release of the film. Russians aren't searching for the title, Captain America 2. Instead, the film is called The First Avenger: Another War, as a follow-up to the first Captain America film that was called suspiciously, The First Avenger.

Culture sensitivities are also evident in some key insert shots: those who have seen the movie may recall the reminder list for the formerly frozen superhero. In the U.S. version of the release, the first 5 items on the list are I Love Lucy (TV show), Moon Landing, Berlin Wall (Up & Down), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Disco. In the Russian release, the first 5 items on the list are Yuri Gagarin (the Soviet Union's über hero given he was the first man in space), Vladimir Vysotskiy (a famous Russian singer), Soviet Union Dissolution - 1991, and Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears (the Academy Award winning bittersweet Russian film). Oddly, Disco is common to both lists.

Certainly seeing American cities attacked and serve as playgrounds of destruction can be provocative and exciting for some Russians. And there's plenty of that. But maybe the attraction is sincere: escapist entertainment, with a message that resonates for Americans as much as for Russians. As S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, Alexander Pierce declares, "To build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down. And that makes enemies." And sometimes, one might add, to build a better Crimea means tearing it away from the Ukraine. And that makes enemies. Just ask the thousands who fled Crimea as the Russian annexation was fait accompli.

That Captain America's superhero outfit is faded and his shield battle-scarred is not by accident either. The world is depicted politically ambiguous, a kind of New World Disorder. Russian audiences paying attention to their news headlines and reading between them ought to find great irony when Captain America informs Falcon how one can tell the good guys from the bad guys: "If they're shooting at you, they're bad." For the record, the guys who blitzed into Crimea were toting guns -- and during the referendum voting, the same guys pointed those weapons to exact a favorable vote. Oh, if only the Russians and Crimeans had been introduced to the imagination of genius cartoonist, Walt Kelly, they might have enjoyed another twist: in the indefatigable words of his creation, a real American hero, comic possum, Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Perhaps Captain America's popularity in Russia goes in step with Putin's rise in popularity since he commenced his quest to pick up more turf. A poll following the Crimean crisis taken in mid March, 2014, revealed Putin's approval rating was up 10%, the highest it's been in the past three years. Maybe Russians, like Americans, like to root for champions -- heroes who stand for something. Putin stands for something, as Captain America used to stand for something, before he became faded, culturally sensitive, and dialed-in to the Zeitgeist of his target markets internationally. Maybe Russians enjoy Captain America because he's soft on killing (that's why there's a Winter Soldier, after all); maybe Russians like the last shot of the trailer where Captain America Frisbee-hurls his shield at the Winter Soldier who catches it and solidly stops it; maybe they appreciate an American hero who is culturally tapped in to them, knows their pop culture, their history, their common bond of disco. Or maybe, just maybe, Russians just want to see Captain America 2 because of Alexander Pierce, who is portrayed by film veteran, writer, director and star of Reds, Robert Redford. Wouldn't that be ironic?

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