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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review- Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.  Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson.  Running Time: 136 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Once the post-Avengers 1 works of the Marvel saga started up last year, the whole endeavor vaulted past the line where newcomers could waltz into any of the films and feel fairly safe, diving right into either-you’re-with-this-or-you-aren’t territory.  And given the fact that the films have all, for the most part, played it as safe as they could for a project this insane, and have stuck to plenty of traditional tropes and story archetypes, I can understand those who gave up a long time ago and have sworn off Superhero movies until this particular cinematic era dies down and the dust has a chance to settle. 

            Me, I’m still just enjoying the ride.  Sure, none of the movies have managed to reach any real emotional depths with their characters (although this one is easily the best in that regard), and a few of them (I’m looking at you, Ironman 2) were, quite frankly, not that good at all.  But when they’ve worked, they’ve worked just fine for me, and like with Thor 2, The Winter Soldier actually succeeds in being an improvement over its perfectly fine predecessor. 

            Whereas Thor 2 and Ironman 3 focused on how the events of The Avengers affected their mains on a personal level, The Winter Soldier attempts the extra mile by focusing less on how it affected Captain America himself- his continuing arc is still, primarily, adjusting to the changes (and sometimes lack thereof) in the world since he was frozen in the Arctic.  Instead, much broader strokes are used to delve into how the world of us regular people, and particularly the super spy agency SHIELD, has decided to adapt its policies in response to the literal hole in space and time ripped open by Loki in New York.  Specifically, they are now in the process of developing a whole fleet of those AWESOME aircraft-carrier-planes, programmed with a special system designed to “calculate threats before they even happen,” so that SHIELD can act preemptively.  If 13 years of post-9/11 US policy aren’t enough for anyone to not get the obvious allegory in two seconds tops, then this really, really isn’t the movie for you.   

            The approaching launch of this fleet, along with a general turn for the worse (in Captain America’s opinion) in terms of how SHIELD operates, has the good Cap worried about where America, and indeed the world, is headed.  Before he has the chance to piece any of the parts together, however, outside forces begin to move, and he, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and their few remaining allies find themselves under constant attack from enemies within and without SHIELD, led by a mysterious and apparently decades-old assassin called the Winter Soldier, who bears a mysterious metal arm capable of stopping the Captain’s massive wonder-metal shield without so much as a grunt of effort.  The race is on to see if Rogers and his crew can figure out who’s behind what in time to save millions of potential victims. 

            I don’t know yet if I agree with many other reviewers that this is the BEST film yet in the Avengers franchise, but the more I think about it, the fewer reasons I can come up with to disagree.  This is an excellent action flick, solid all the way through, even if it does drag a bit towards the end.  If I had one personal nitpick, it would be that we get less of Rogers’ struggles to adapt to the 21st century than I would have liked, but what we do get is very well-done.  A lone scene with him and Peggy from the first film (now slowly dying in a hospital) is probably the most powerful personal moment we’ve yet had in one of these movies, the kind of scene we could never get from Tony Stark or the bombastic Thor (although Loki has come close more than once).  A few more scenes in that vein would have made for a nice balance with the constant action beats.  Thankfully, my issues with that were alleviated by the fight scenes being (for the most part) expertly choreographed and filmed.  There is some shaky-cam, sometimes, but only infrequently.  Most of the time, the camera is pulled back enough that we can really enjoy the action, seeing every punch, kick, knife-thrust, and ricochet from the shield.  If only every action movie could be this confident in itself….

            Chris Evans shines as he’s never been able to before as the real heart of the Avengers squad.  There is a quiet humility to his bearing, and a nice sincerity, that would be utterly impossible to get out of Downey’s egotistical Stark or Hemsworth’s I-am-literally-a-God Thor.  We might be able to get some scenes like that with Bruce Banner, but Lord knows if they’re ever going to attempt another movie centered around him.  Maybe he’ll get a subplot in Avengers 2.  Fortunately, he is not the only character getting some long-overdue depth.  I remarked in an earlier post that this series had thus far not done anything interesting with Johansson’s Black Widow.  It seems I spoke to soon, because here she finally gets to be something other than blatant fan service (although there are still a few shots centered squarely on her swinging buttocks).  We don’t get a fully fleshed-out backstory (and I sincerely hope we never do), but we do get to enjoy her and Rogers developing a genuine rapport and sense of confidence in each other.  It’s that rare male-female action team-up that never feels the need to throw in a will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot, which I always find to be a blessing. 

            Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson, but even he gets to become a little bit more than Generic Badass McGee, and we get a needed sense of the danger inherent in working solely within a world where everyone never stops going behind the backs of everyone else, and how that can shape someone over time.  His major counterweight and foil is Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, a fellow high official within SHIELD.  What exactly happens concerning his character I will not dare spoil here, but I will give Redford credit for bringing such a perfect balance to his character that it’s difficult to judge which side he’s really on until he out-and-out turns to the camera and SAYS where he stands.  It’s a performance as powerfully subtle as Evans’, and if we didn’t already have Loki, he would be my favorite antagonist of the entire franchise this far.  In a series that always stands the risk of drowning itself in its own silliness, bringing in a veteran like Redford for a bit role brings a bit of much-needed gravitas to the world.  

            We also have another major side character show up in Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, whose jetpack-wings combo is my new favorite toy of the Marvel universe (now if only someone would pull out Jean Starwin’s caster gun from Outlaw Star).  And, wonder of wonders, unlike the much-abused Iron Patriot, he ACTUALLY gets to contribute to the heroics in the third act!  Fancy that!  Alright, alright, I promise I’ll stop beating that particular dead horse, but it really is a relief to see an additional character of color getting decent screen time.  Even more promising, it looks like the two of them will be teaming up in the next Captain American movie, which reminded me that this series is yet to include a straight-up buddy adventure romp. 

            Ironically, it’s the actual Winter Soldier who really ends up getting the short end of the stick, with no more than a few token scenes to establish the genuine threat he poses with that metal arm of his.  There is also, of course, a twist concerning his character, which if nothing else makes me very interested in seeing where they take his character in future films.  That combined with the credit scenes has me even more excited for the next Avengers film next year, so that evens out his absences in my book. 

            If you are a fan of either the Avengers franchise as a whole or if you just appreciate good action, The Winter Soldier is definitely a must-see.  It’s an early start this year to the blockbusters apparently.  We shall see what this year brings next. 

-Noah Franc 

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