Saturday, April 12, 2014

Film Review: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

I was not expecting this movie to be as good as it is.

One of the great treats is that this movie is different than any other Marvel movie.  All the Iron Man movies are essentially the same type of movie; the same can be said about the Thor movies.  But Captain America: The Winter Soldier is so very different in style, story, and tone than the first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger.  It's like the difference between The Empire Strikes Back and The Phantom Menace.

The story takes place after the events of The Avengers.  Our title hero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a leading operative for the uber-national defense agency SHIELD.  Having been displaced from his own era, he throws himself into his missions.  But when he begins to question the ethics of his assignments, tension mounts between SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his mission partner Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson).

Fury pushes Steve on his old fashioned ideas of freedom, by introducing him to Project Insight, an operation designed to analyze and neutralize threats around the world with brutal efficiency.  This sets off a chain of events that pulls Steve into a world of tension and intrigue where he does not know who to trust, whether it is Natasha, Fury's superior Secretary Alexander Pierce (a weathered, but potent Robert Redford, or even Fury himself.  This forces Captain America to go on the run from nefarious forces that send the mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who are probably most famous for their work on the show Community, knock this film out of the park.  They have a tight, taught thriller dressed up like a superhero film.  Once the first act takes off, the movie really doesn't let up.  Even when there isn't any visceral action, the Russos ratchet up the tension.   The movie is visually dynamic and is just a joy to watch.  The only major criticism I have is that, like most modern action directors, they are addicted to shakey-cam.  This shows a lack of confidence in the power of their action set pieces, which is unfortunate because those sequences are fantastic.

Writers Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely have turned in the best non-Whedon Marvel script.   It is tense when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be, and it has a wonderful twist right before the 3rd act (but this is only a surprise if you are unfamiliar with the comic book).  There are also a lot of hidden gems to not only the grander Marvel Universe, but to previous Marvel movies and short film.  The writers wisely incorporate these as extra fun rather than require you to keep up with the events of the TV show Agents of SHIELD in order to follow The Winter Soldier.

 Captain America is often dismissed as a slightly strong guy in a Star Spangled suit.  And to be sure the directors do an excellent job of making Cap's fighting prowess a fun visual spectacle.  But the movie wisely goes out of its way to point out how smart Steve Rogers is.  He isn't just a fighter, he is a leader and a strategist.  Evans does a great job of playing him as sincere but not naive.  He is an honest, earnest man who is not blind to the subterfuge of others.  Some of my favorite moments in the movie are when get into Steve's head and see what he sees.  This was especially fun right before one of my favorite sequences in the film, a knockdown elevator fight between Cap and 10 killers.

Evans embodies the character perfectly.  He has the physicality of a warrior, but he has the easily likable personality that people immediately become his friends, like veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).  He has a much larger and deeper character arc than in his previous films.  But Evans wisely plays Steve as a man of the Greatest Generation and holds his pain in with quiet dignity.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Johannson plays the Romanov as cynical and violent in a way that acts as a wonderful foil to Steve as they make an exciting fugitive odd couple.  Mackie brings a lot of charisma to a character that could be reduced to flunky/sidekick.  Jackson does a great job as a cold pragmatist that is, much against his own will, being influenced by Captain America's idealism.  Redford visibly wears his age, but he still brings his A game to this part.

The Winters Soldier departs from the other Marvel films in its serious tone.  There are some good comic relief moments, like Natasha constantly haranguing Steve to ask a girl out.  But the other films have their tongues often firmly planted in their cheeks, as we saw with Trevor Slatery (Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3 or intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) in the Thor movies.  You don't have any of that in the new Captain America movie.  It is much more in tune with the recent DC movies like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel.

The themes are also more ambitious than anything we've seen from Marvel.  Political thrillers are difficult because you don't want to date yourself by staking your theme to a particular time and place.  You also want to avoid strong allegory to a particular political party or ideology or you could alienate your audience.  Wisely, the story deals with universal ideas of freedom vs. safety.  When the main enemy is revealed, there is actually an understandable perspective espoused that is diabolic in its pragmatism.

And it works so well because the filmmakers don't betray Captain America's essential character.  Even as he becomes disenchanted with his government, he never once puts that view on his country.  He is a character who not only embodies American exceptionalism, but he believes that believes that Americans are exceptional.  He knows that we are capable of great evil, but he also inspires good.

I have seen the movie twice now and it is even better the second time around.

The Avengers is a movie magic that almost no one can touch.  But Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best of all the other Marvel movies.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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