Thursday, May 15, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Better Late Than Never

Or “Because I Promised and This Beats What I Have Lined Up Next.”

Well, I did say I would get to Captain America, so-several weeks after everyone else-it's time for Captain America.

I'm gonna be honest-This was a review I had a hard time with. Not cause this was a bad movie, or even that hard to explain; if anything, this was a great time. The problem is, because it took me a few weeks to get to seeing it, what can I say about it that the rest of the world hasn't already said?

I wrestled with that for several days before I decided to just say “Screw it!” and make good on what I promised back in Jodorowsky's Dune. So in the event you feel like you've already read this review elsewhere...hey, I did my best for you guys, but really, barring some Armond White level reading in, this is one that can only be laid out just so many ways.

Now then...

I have to start this by saying something I've noticed with the whole Avengers line of Marvel movies. In general, the brand has been quite good. With the possible exception of Iron Man 2, they haven't really missed on anything to date. At the same time, the majority of the films more come to rest at being "okay" to "pretty good." Films like the first Captain America and the Thor duology are fun popcorn films, but not without their flaws, particularly with pacing. Prior to this, I'd say the only two times to date Marvel has gone above to make a great movie with their properties have actually been the first Iron Man (luckily so, given this was the title that had to get everything rolling) and The Avengers (which, for all the buildup going into it, understandably needed to bring its A-game.) Anyway, the first few offerings after The Avengers weren't bad – I will say that, but there was still a sense of a brand that was coming down from its built up hype and just taking a moment to bask in the afterglow of a MASSIVE box office coup.

So when I started hearing that The Winter Soldier was their first big post-Avengers hit, and talk that the slump was finally over, I was intrigued. Especially given that the first Captain America was a hit and miss movie overall – fun, but not without its shortcomings.

With this, Marvel has pulled a few tricks – their first big post-Avengers hit as well as their first successful 'part 2' to really improve on its first offering. A big part of this being born out of them no longer having to use Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, back for another tour of duty) in his World War II element, or as the proverbial straight man to the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth. While The Avengers loosely tugged at the threads of the idea of Rogers as a man from a different age trying to reconcile the world he knew with the one he was living in, it was an idea that didn't really get much play in order to balance all the different characters and personalities. In fact, only once did we previously get to see him questioning the clandestine nature of his handlers in S.H.I.E.L.D. So to have an entire movie dedicate itself to the idea of Rogers trying to work out serving an organization that both lies to the American people as well as to its employees gives this film a lot to play with.

In the world of covert ops, Gallant wears his tactical gear in dark colors, in the interest of keeping a low profile.
Goofus has a shield that stops bullets, so screw stealth, it's ass-kicking time!

Yeah, I realize I'm taking kind of a roundabout way to get into the plot on this one...but in all fairness, by this point, at least the overall story is pretty well known, even to those who've not seen it yet (though will refrain from spoilers.)

One of the things I actually have to give this one over the last couple of 'part 2' Marvel movies we've had of late – and I realize this will seem like a really odd issue – is that this one didn't go whole hog on the humor. Again, I know how odd that sounds, but hear me out:  the Marvel movies in general have had humor in them. It's part of the enjoyment, it's the nature of the beast. At the same time,  I've noticed while looking back at Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World was that, in an attempt to up the ante on just about every level, the humor went from being amusing in the first part to getting really rather grating in the second. It wasn't as bad in Thor's case (mostly coming care of the supporting roles by Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgaard who were already one foot into the humor to begin with, though the way they'd rewritten Skarsgaard as full blown nuts was a little much.) But in the case of Iron Man 2, it REALLY wore on the movie after a while. Even more so considering it was loosely adapting one of the few more 'serious' Iron Man storylines, so seeing it played for laughs just felt really, really weird. There's certainly some laughs to be had here (partially to be expected, Joe and Anthony Russo had been picked to direct this thanks to their work on the Dan Harmon series Community) but they rarely feel like the movie is trying to go into full silliness, so much as they're small bits of levity to help a – for the Marvel movies – pretty dark storyline come up for air.

Said darkness is another one of those areas where this film shows a good level of restraint. From the outset, the Russo brothers were open to admit their big influence on this movie was 70s espionage films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men (which made the casting of Robert Redford as a S.H.I.E.L.D higher-up even better.) This decision really helped them dodge an obvious bullet that a lot of other blockbusters have been tripping themselves up by trying to take head-on. With the story's major theme of Rogers trying to reconcile his 'greatest generation' ideals with the less clean-cut vision of the world of today (even less clean cut in his line of work,) the film could have risked coming across as either overly self-important or just tacky in its attempts to mine current controversial topics for audience reaction (things like last year's Man of Steel's half-hearted jab at drone technology and Star Trek: Into Darkness's REALLY ham-fisted mining of 9/11 imagery both come to mind.) While there are certainly areas where that could have worked its way into this film – a plot point regarding an aerial weapons platform could have fallen with a hard thud had someone tried to draw the obvious parallel too overtly – the Russos resisted the temptation and instead stuck to their thematic story.

"Well, I spoke to the doctors. The good news is, given this a comic movie, he'll be back on his feet in six months. The bad news is, that's still too long for this movie's plotline, so we'll just have to work around him for now."

Of course, alongside how the story is balanced, the cast are a big part of what help keep this film afloat – particularly since they need to help maintain that tricky balance of emotion needed for keeping the tone this film was going for. In this regard, Evans is probably the best he's been in this part of the three movies he's gotten to hoist the vibranium shield. The above mentioned theme of 'then and now' gives him a lot more to work with, and honestly some of his best moments aren't even based on dialogue, but rather just contemplation. For a guy whose previous work in comic book films was as the overly cocky Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, he's gotten to show a lot more range on this one, and I'm curious to see where he takes it from here. Likewise, on her third outing as one of S.H.I.E.L.D's top agents, Scarlett Johannson continues to build up Black Widow as an interesting character for someone whose history is supposed to remain a cypher. Further, the idea of partnering her up with Evans in this movie gives the two of them a lot to run with in their different personalities – his overall ideal sense working with her as the veteran who has seen and done her share of horrible things to keep the system running. Making up the third part of this team – and a VERY welcome addition to the Marvel universe is Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (aka Falcon) a veteran counselor who strikes up a friendship with Steve, and later becomes one of his few allies as those  he can trust dwindle.

In the roles of the higher-ups, we get a good split. On one hand, we have new cast addition Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D official Alexander Pierce. After several films of Fury's stoic, rough edge, Pierce is played as the sort of good cop to Fury's bad cop. He's the supportive, fatherly figure who, feels off in an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D, but you can never quite figure out why. Even as things start to sour within the organization, Redford keeps up the outgoing face and soldiers on. In a movie where no one can really be trusted, he plays that ambiguity quite well, and proves another welcome addition to the film. On the other side, we have Jackson's returning Nick Fury, who, like both Cap and Widow, actually gets to build on his character more. Probably one of his better moments performance-wise being during a talk with Evans in an elevator about his father. It's a minor scene, but one where Fury lets down his guard a little and Jackson plays it sincerely. This extra level of making the seemingly superhuman Fury a bit more human is actually a necessary part of the movie's story, given one of the big narrative points of this film is the idea that the seemingly unstoppable S.H.I.E.L.D could be compromised – as such, seeing the man who has, since the first Iron Man, been the stone cold badass face of the organization actually at a disadvantage, and even hurt and bleeding, is probably the single strongest way the Russo brothers could drive home the idea that nothing and no one is safe anymore.

As far as the titular antagonist, well...this is one of those areas it's tough to say a whole lot on while still observing the spoilers (even though they're likely already pretty well known to most of you.) I will say that, for a character that spends much of the first half as little more than a silent assassin, the film does a good job of building him up, playing on the idea of the Winter Soldier as a sort of espionage ghost story. The end result of the character as far as this movie is concerned makes for some well-choreographed fight sequences and the potential for an interesting new addition to the Captain America films from here on out.

"That's not a--WHOA! Okay, I take it back. That IS a knife!"

Speaking of that combat, these are honestly some of the best action scenes we've gotten in a Marvel movie since- and I hate to be redundant-The Avengers. Except where The Avengers went the way of the big spectacle – a team of superhumans vs an invading alien army, The Winter Soldier plays it closer to the ground and more in line with the style of the spy movie. There are certainly some flashy sequences, such as the film's climax involving the earlier mentioned weapons platforms, and a few rather impressive gadgets you won't get to see in many spy movies (Falcon's flight pack is a movie highlight on its own) but these are still largely grounded in a world of fists and bullets. Comic book-like, but still not forgetting the spy movie roots this movie is born on. This is helped in no small part by the fact that, of the big heroes Marvel has rolled out so far, Captain America is the most (relative) down to Earth. Yes, he's stronger, faster, etc, but compared to his colleagues, he's still fairly grounded in what he can do. With this in mind, his fights offer an extra element of hand-to-hand that none of the other mainline Marvel heroes currently offer. One great set piece for this being a fight that breaks out in an elevator at S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters. Alongside a well shot build-up to the fight with an extra sense of growing tension as more people enter, when the fight breaks out, it's a swift, inventive sequence that plays well with the confined quarters and multiple players.

Like I said at the start of this, this was a tricky review to cover, simply because so much has already been written. I'll even acknowledge a lot of what's been said here has likely already been covered, but I still stand by it. With this, Marvel's finally regaining the momentum they burnt off after The Avengers. My initial misgivings about where they go from here have eased off, and personally I'm now curious to see what happens with Guardians of the Galaxy this summer.

Well...that took me longer to get to than it should have, but it was worth it.

Going to have the next ready in a day or two, so keep an eye out.

Till then.

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