Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sunday Best: Super-Hero Movies of All Time #7 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I know it has been a few months since I visited this list, so here is a quick recap:

25.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
24.  Deadpool
23.  Avengers: Age of Ultron
22. Thor
21.  The Incredible Hulk
20.  The Crow
19.  Dredd
18.  Batman Begins
17. Batman
16. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
15. Spider-Man 2
14. The Dark Knight Rises
13. The Wolverine
12. X-Men: Days of Future Past
11.  Captain America: Civil War
10. Superman II
9.  The Incredibles
8.  Iron Man

Now, as this list began a number of months ago, it does not reflect the inclusion of:
Wonder Woman
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok
Justice League

So now we are at #7:


Now, some may object to this movie going in front of the original Iron Man on this list.  But I stand by my choice.  If we were ranking these movies by importance to the overall genre, Iron Man would trump Winter Soldier.  But just in terms of film quality, this Captain America movie is better.

It is important to remember at this point what a strange risk this film was in the series.  Captain America: The First Avenger was an enjoyable movie but didn't break through the way other comic films had.  Screen Junkies even joked in their Avengers honest trailer that of all of the heroes on the team, Steve Rogers was nobody's favorite.

But Winter Soldier changed all of that.

The departure in tone, story, and style from the first one is akin to Christopher Nolan's evolution from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight.  The original story was a nostalgic look at the past.  This second film was a fish-out-of-water story.  But whereas Steve's old-fashioned ways were more of a punchline in Avengers, they served as a moral compass to The Winter Soldier.

What amazed me about the story was how relevant it felt without feeling preachy.  We instictively feel that there has been erosion of values in our country, but it is hard to pinpoint where.  And what was more amazing was that Steve's insight did not come off as simplistic in the style of Pollyanna or Forrest Gump.  The solutions to the problems presented were bold, radical, and costly.  I was shocked at how this movie attempted to change the Marvel status quo by not compromising with corruption. 

From my original movie review:

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

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.


 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 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.


Briefly I want to return to that elevator scene.  Whenever this movie is on TV, I wait for this scene and re-watched several times if I can.  It might be my favorite action sequence in any Marvel film.  That scene is the embodiment of the entire film: smart, tense, action-packed, and immensely satisfying.  And that more serious tone makes it stand apart from modern Marvel films even more. 

And while I am a romantic at heart, I found it very refreshing to see a man/woman onscreen couple that had chemistry but were not entangled in romance.  Captain America's relationship with Black Widow as well as Nick Fury was so interesting.  Despite their cynicism, you could see that they looked up to him and deep down wanted his approval.  He is the embodiment of the Greatest Generation and we still live in their shadow, hoping we have been good stewards of the freedom for which they paid.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Captain America  movie and has earned its place as the #7 Greatest Super Hero Movie of All Time

1 comment:

  1. This is actually my least favorite of the Captain America movies. It's still good, but honestly, the thing that bothers me about it is that the violence is too gritty. The hand-to-hand combat is fine, but people getting shot down left and right in urban settings for the sake of popcorn thrills leaves a bad taste in my mouth.