Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In the lead up to writing this review, I asked Thaddeus what he thought of the original 2011 Captain America (needlessly subtitled "The First Avenger"). He admitted that while he'd seen it, he didn't really remember it that well. While I liked that film a bit more than he did, I couldn't fault his recall. By design, Marvel Studios' productions have been a bit of a meringue: sweet but insubstantial. They've generally fallen under the heading of light adventure/comedy, prioritizing giving the audience a fun popcorn-munching experience over being memorable.

It was quite to my surprise, then, that my first reaction after watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Cap 2, for short) was, "They've finally made a real movie." Cap 2 is a straight-up action movie, something closer to the James Bond or Mission: Impossible series than to the movie's Marvel peers.

Here's the setup: since last we saw him in The Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans) has continued working as a commando for the international espionage/peacekeeping force, SHIELD, alongside his Avengers teammate Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) under the command of Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson). Cap--a World War II super-soldier who's still alive and youthful in the 21st Century due to accidental cryogenic suspension--is at a crossroads. He has no personal life, since all of his Greatest Generation peers are either dead or dying of old age. However, he is also unenthusiastic about continuing to be the good soldier for Fury, a man whose organization often pursues shadowy agendas.

Cap's misgivings about SHIELD come to a head when he learns they are developing a series of helicarriers (in this movie, basically suborbital Death Stars) for the topical purpose of waging targeted preemptive war against terrorist organizations. Cap's doubts lead him to consider life after the military. In this he's inspired by a new friend, Sam (Anthony Mackie), a former airborne soldier who now counsels traumatized veterans at the VA. 

Is America's greatest soldier ready to stop taking orders and start living his own life? This personal crisis is rudely interrupted when the subtitular Winter Soldier, an assassin with a bionic arm and a mysterious past, starts targeting Cap's SHIELD co-workers.

Evans, a superhero movie veteran even before he took up the mantle of Cap in 2011, brings an appealing groundedness to a character who could easily come off as a jingoistic cornball. He has solid chemistry with Johansson (who's enjoying a career revival reminiscent of the McConaissance) in a mismatched buddy-hero relationship, the honest supersoldier teamed up with the duplicitous superspy. Robert Redford has great fun adding some 70s-style paranoia to the proceedings as Fury's boss.

The plot here is primarily a delivery vehicle for huge action setpieces, which Cap 2 has in abundance. The movie is darker than other Marvel films, with a hard PG-13 rating for extravagant gun violence and a high body count. The Russo Brothers, best known for TV comedies and the Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me, and Dupree, make the superpowered mayhem simultaneously fantastic and realistic. The only downside to the action is that, given the film's 136-minute run time, we might get too much of a good thing.

The Russos also do a great job of putting the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the service of their movie. Cap 2 picks up a bunch of minor characters from previous Marvel movies to give the film an epic scope that's in many ways bigger than The Avengers. In the story's climax, the additional characters provide the sense that our heroes are part of a larger fight, without adding narrative bloat and additional backstories to the proceedings.

Cap 2 is very highly recommended, on par with The Avengers, and just shy of the pinnacle of comic book filmdom (a title jointly held in my book by The Dark Knight and Spider Man 2).


  1. Great review, DJ! The movie sounds very exciting and a lot of fun. I'm really glad you had such a good time watching it.

    While I never saw the second Hulk film, I have been very mixed on the Marvel movies. A meringue - a trifle - sounds about right. Iron Man 2 was poor, muddled, repetitive, and Iron Man 3 left me feeling weird, and you've stated above how I felt about Cap 1.

    I never felt any need to see Thor, until I was sick and it was offered for streaming on Netflix (same way I saw Cap 1). And Thor was a real even mix of "oh, this is surprisingly nice" and "oh, I have to do all the work of caring here because they haven't made me care." For all its nice points, Thor felt made for the sake of making it, for putting another linchpin in the Marvel movie universe.

    So what I've been left with was feeling terribly impressed by Iron Man and The Avengers and being able to skip the rest - unless I'm deathly ill. It's good that Evans is getting a nice spotlight, and that this movie sounds put together so well.

    The next step, I guess, is deciding what to do with the Hulk. I have no doubt Ruffalo can ace it, but they need to get one hell of a good story and a solid writer to create it - because the Hulk is such a problematic character, for anything outside of a comic book context... or perhaps guest appearances on a cartoon.

    Maybe that will be the proper way to utilize him? As a co-star in films for the other Marvel mainstay roles?

  2. The first Thor was more a proof of concept than a real movie--the idea of the Norse mythos being real and a blonde thunder god flying around with a big-ass hammer was probably the toughest sell in the original Avengers lineup. What the movie needed to do was to establish the setting and characters in a credible fashion (and establish Chris Hemsworth, who was close to an unknown when he was cast in the role). In that sense, the film was a huge success, even though as a movie in its own right--rather than a character introduction--it didn't work terribly well.

    Incredible Hulk is an incredibly hard movie to grade, because it got swamped by outside factors: it can't avoid comparisons to Ang Lee's brilliant-but-failed Hulk, and the film came prepackaged with the stench of failure because Ed Norton feuded with the producers over scenes that were edited out and an uncredited rewrite that he did. It was an OK film, but nothing special.

    Kevin Feige--Marvel's Cinematic bossman--agrees with you about Hulk, there are apparently no plans for another solo Hulk movie (and this is a guy who supposedly has the Marvel Cinematic schedule planned out through 2028). There's no real reason why Hulk couldn't carry his own franchise. Despite the brilliant supporting turn Ruffalo gave in Avengers, Hulk's actually a bad pick for a supporting player in the solo movies because the character isn't supposed to be social. I can't see him being more than a deus ex machina if used that way.

  3. I think the fact that the plot was mostly a delivery vehicle for action set pieces is why I didn't enjoy this movie as much as I expected to (especially following all the good reviews). I mean, I didn't walk away unhappy, but it felt lighter and more based around spectacle that I was expecting even for a superhero action movie. I'd have actually happily left much of the action on the cutting room floor- not because it wasn't well executed, because it was, but because I started to get action/spectacle fatigue. The thing that saves it from being like, say, Pacific Rim (a movie that many loved but that I walked away deeply dissatisfied with) is that I do really like these characters, they do a good job of introducing them and humanizing them and hinting at inner lives and back stories that make them interesting and relatable. I want to spend more time with these characters, so the film doesn't feel quite as empty as it might otherwise. But I still walk away feeling like I've the aspertame/HFCS version of something when I really wanted the full-fat and sugar verison.

    I also have been thinking that it feels like every new Marvel movie moves further away from characters and drama and deeper into spectacle. When I think back to Iron Man, there's really only the giant punch up at the end that meets the same level of giant action set piece (rather than the smaller and briefer escaping from the cave scene, and the scene with the village and the fighter jets, which while action-y, didn't become these giant complicated fireworks of action and managed to remain more focused on the characters).

    1. I understand where you're coming from, Doc! When I think back to why I liked IM so much, it's the amount of, well, "heart" that they managed to pack into the story. It was the distinct feeling that I want X character to live/die/do something fun because I had feelings about the character.

      Now, I haven't seen this film, tho I found Cap 1 to be forgettable and Thor to be a decent cotton candy experience. People say Thor 2 works, yet it also sounds kind of thin. But GotG will probably be too flip to be comparable. Maybe DJ can speak up about this better than I?...


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