Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo.
Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and Ed Brubaker based on the comic book by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow), Maximiliano Hernández (Jasper Sitwell), Emily VanCamp (Kate / Agent 13), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Toby Jones (Dr. Arnim Zola), Garry Shandling (Senator Stern), Georges St-Pierre (Georges Batroc).

Surprisingly out of all the different series about individual superheroes that feed into The Avengers, the Captain America films have become my favorite. I say surprisingly, because before the first movie, my limited experience with Captain America led me to believe that he was a little bit square – a little but too rah-rah American patriotism for my tastes – as he was created during WWII as a sort of propaganda character. Smartly, the first movie acknowledged Captain America’s birth by making the character himself a little bit of propaganda for the American public in the context of the movie – and having him be frustrated with that. The first film is also the only one of all of these Marvel films that had its own distinct visual look – using a slightly muted color palette to suggest an older film. The rest of the films, including this one, all look the same – in many ways all the films surrounding The Avengers have become a kind of big screen TV series instead of a series of movies. The last three films – Iron Man 3, Thor 2 and now Captain America 2 have all been directed either by TV veterans, or in the case of Iron Man 3 a second time director whose previous film was a low budget indie. Like a TV series, the directors of these movies basically have a visual format to follow and they stick with it. What makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier one of the best of these Marvel movies then is not the visuals – it looks like the rest, although it has a choppier editing style in the action sequences that I found annoying – but the story itself. These Marvel movies have essentially embraced their fantastic side – there really isn’t a sense in any of them that they are addressing something even close to the real world. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier actually does that – and in doing so has made the darkest, and most complex, of all the Marvel films surrounding The Avengers yet. No, it doesn’t go as dark as the Nolan Batman films – nor would I want it to – but I appreciated that the film actually seems to have something a little bit more on its mind this time around.

The film takes place in the wake of The Avengers, with Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) still struggling to adapt to the new world he woke up into after decades frozen in ice. Pretty much everyone he knew is dead or dying, and he’s not sure where he fits into the new order. Early in the film, Captain America, alongside Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and SHIELD TAC team are sent to rescue a boat that has been taken over by pirates. Rogers thinks he’s just there to save the hostages – but Fury sent Romanoff in with a different mission – to gather all the intelligence on the boat. Rogers doesn’t like this – he doesn’t like leading a team where he doesn’t know that different people have different objectives. To try and calm him, Fury shows him the new project SHIELD is working on – a fleet of three huge flying ships, that will never have to come down, which will essentially police the world and are capable of gathering intelligence, and acting on it, nearly simultaneously. Rogers likes this even less. “This isn’t freedom, it’s fear” he tells Fury, deducing (correctly) that if you keep order by keeping everyone in fear, there really is no freedom. Fury doesn’t really care “We take the world as it is not how we want it to be” he responds. I won’t say much else about the plot except that eventually, Rogers and Romanoff – alongside new recruit Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie aka Falcon) have to go rogue – hunted by the government as enemies.

Directed by TV vets Anthony and Joe Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining blockbuster from beginning to end. Evans makes a pretty much perfect Captain America – idealistic, charming, good looking, funny and a little out of sync with the times. He is perfectly matched with Johansson’s Black Widow – making her largest appearance in any of the Marvel movies so far. While he is an idealistic, she’s a cynic – willing to do just about anything if she believes in the cause. The two have great chemistry together, and watching this movie makes me wish that Johansson’s Black Widow would get her own movie – she may not have superpowers, but I’d watch her to just about anything. Samuel L. Jackson scowls through the movie the way only he can, although I am getting a little tired of Nick Fury – a little of him goes a long way. Anthony Mackie is fine as Falcon, even if I think the reason he has his name is more than a little ridiculous. Robert Redford is excellent as Alexander Pierce the Secretary in charge of the World Security Council – and someone you know almost instantly you shouldn’t trust. His casting is interesting, because normally we associate Redford with idealists like Captain America, but he’s more than adept at playing the opposite this time around. The title character, The Winter Soldier, is a rather one note villain – basically a killing machine – but then again, that’s the role.

I was impressed that Captain America: The Winter Soldier took the chance to address some real world concerns. Drone warfare is explicitly addressed throughout the movie, and there’s a moment late in the movie that seems to address the Edward Snowden scandal as well. I suspect the politics of the film will rankle some of the Fox News crowd, but who really cares. Perhaps Marvel felt safe in addressing these concerns because, after all, who could possibly doubt Captain America’s patriotism? Here, he reveals himself to be the nation’s conscience – the America we want it to be, not the one that it is.

Iron Man series feels played out a little bit – they are just repeating themselves there at this point, and need to find another direction to go if they are going to continue doing stand-alone movies with Robert Downey Jr.’s hero. The Thor movies are fun, but never for a moment believable. The Avengers was great as a hulking piece of entertainment – but I wonder if they can really pull it off a second time. But the Captain America movies are still top notch. I hope Marvel allows the other movies in this series an opportunity to get a little darker, a little more serious like they did this time. They’d be smart to, because the rest of the series is starting to wear a little thin.

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