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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Did the first Marvel Studios movie of 2014 live up to the hype?

For the most part I like the Marvel Studios movies. The fact that I can lump them together like that is the main drawback for me; in most cases they are pretty formulaic, and all feel like they are only steps towards the team-up rather than satisfying on their own (especially in Phase One). It's tough to find a balance between that model and DC's (if you can call it a model) of using more auteur directors to widely varying results. However, I think Marvel has gotten to a point where they are working out the kinks in that process, and this is the first of their films that I really felt that.

Warning! Spoilers follow!

The Story
I was looking forward to this movie for a couple of reasons, but the one I'll start with is the source material. I hadn't read the Winter Soldier storyline by Brubaker and Epting until recently, but the fact that Marvel chose to adapt (to some degree, anyway) a story that is so new, only a few years old, is exciting as hell. The Winter Soldier himself is not an established villain in the popular consciousness, and for them to take a chance on it was great news from the start. What's more impressive is that I feel they pulled off a lot of the fantastic tone and feel of the original story while making smart changes to make it fit within the Marvel movie universe.

We get a couple of stories sort of rolled into one here. Primarily, there is the very topical theme of privacy vs. freedom: at what point does keeping citizens safe become controlling them? While this movie obviously does not provide the most intelligent discussion point on this topic, I felt it did a great job of rolling it into the story in a way that feels very natural and gives the story a great central conflict. Tied closely to this is the fish-out-of-water story that we didn't get in The Avengers. This is a man who fell asleep during WWII and woke up in present day, and while we only got a handful of lines about it in The Avengers, it's very fleshed out here in a way that makes sense and lends a surprising amount of pathos to its titular character. We see him taking notes on important things that he's missed (the Berlin Wall and Marvin Gaye, for example), visiting the elderly Peggy, and connecting with fellow soldier Sam Wilson. Most importantly, perhaps, is that his unique perspective allows a pretty interesting moral conflict, pitting his traditional views against a more morally grey modern point of view.

Most exciting, though, is that the story gives them a lot to play with. There's a fairly impressively complex spy/espionage thread that follows Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon trying to discover who is behind the assassination of Nick Fury. That story opens up into some surprisingly fun science-fiction ideas as we meet Arnim Zola's current 'body'—made up of hundreds of ancient tape-reel computers—and his algorithm that compiles everyone's private records and analyzes them to find possible future threats. And of course, peppered in liberally throughout the movie are many big action set pieces. 

Despite my enjoyment of the character development and more spy-based storytelling, I must admit that I thought the action here was pretty phenomenal. There were a few bits here and there where seeing CGI Cap jump around on top of an airplane felt unnatural, but overall the action is handled very well. The early scenes of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team rescuing hostages on a pirate-boarded ship are wonderfully fluid; the punches feel powerful, the acrobatics are graceful but not unbelievable, and while Captain America is clearly the strongest one in any given room, there's always a sense of danger and vulnerability–he's not Superman.

There are a few problems, but I think they are relatively minor. One thing that felt a little funky is the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D.—what does that mean for the TV show? (Not that I'd complain if it got cancelled, just curious) While they make a big deal about taking out S.H.I.E.L.D. along with Hydra, in the end it seems like they've reached essentially the same status quo: Fury is still running secret missions and all the main S.H.I.E.L.D. players are still in place. However, I do like that they seem to be trying to change things up a bit, as that's always a good thing when you're cranking out half a dozen movies a year. 

I'm not sure how I feel about the revelation of the Winter Soldier's identity, but that's hard to tell whether that's because I (and any other casual Marvel fan, or anyone who bothered to Wikipedia Winter Soldier) already knew the secret. My problem with it is that it doesn't seem in line with the rest of the movie's themes. While the Winter Soldier is a great villain—despite the fact that they seem to ignore his Russian roots, giving him instead to the German Hydra—his identity and backstory don't add anything to the issues of privacy and freedom. Again, it might be because I saw it coming, but the reveal seemed fairly empty, and wasn't really a central conflict for Captain America like it was in the comic. I would be interested to hear what non-comics readers thought, but for me, it just seemed like they could have saved that for another movie; the movie could have ended without us knowing his real identity and it wouldn't have changed almost anything.

My only other real story problem is with Alexander Pierce, who turns into the primary villain. While I thought he was played well by Redford (more on that later), I felt like he could have been a bit more grey. It seems like they gave Fury more of that, letting him struggle with whether he was doing the right thing or not, but it would have been much more fascinating to see Pierce go through that. Instead, we get full on Hydra, identical to the infallible 'Nazis are Bad' style villain, which allows for at least one extremely goofy scene with Garry Shandling whispering 'Hail Hydra' in a fellow evil-doers ear.

Characters and Acting

Chris Evans' Cap is by far my favorite portrayal of all the Avengers even before this movie, and he solidifies that here. He's got such a sense of earnestness and charm that makes his patriotism and 40's origin feel like a breath of fresh air among angsty heroes. He gives the character a surprising amount of weight and continues to be a joy to watch. 

Robert Redford does a pretty good job portraying what eventually becomes a fairly one-dimensional character in Alexander Pierce. There is one scene in particular that stands out: he says goodnight to his cleaning woman as she leaves, then sits down in the dark to talk with the Winter Soldier. This is the moment we are sure that he has become the primary villain, which is reinforced when his cleaning lady stumbles into their clandestine meeting. With surprising sympathy in his voice, he says, "Oh Renata, I wish you would've knocked" before shooting her.

While Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson do decent jobs despite their steady flow of one-liners, the real standout is Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon. In some ways, his character ties the movie together, and unlike some secondary characters in other Marvel movies, lets say, uh, Thor, his character's jokes really come across as genuine and funny. He made a good pairing with Evans, and I hope he continues to show up.


There are a number of things I really enjoyed about this movie:
  • The diversity of genre, hitting action, spy thriller, and a touch of sci-fi
  • Evans and Mackie as Captain America and Falcon
  • Excellent action
  • Smart and topical themes
  • A nice action score
And only a few things I didn't:
  • The inconsistency with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s dissolution
  • The boringly clear villainy of Hydra (Hail Hydra!)
  • The wasted reveal of the Winter Soldier's identity
Overall, I'll say I enjoyed the film tremendously. For me, this is the first step towards Marvel making films that are more individual, better crafted, and less popcorn movies. I feel like I could have walked into this without being a fan of comics or superheros and still really enjoyed the movie, which I'm not sure could be said about any of their previous movies. Hell, I'll go ahead and make the leap: I think this is the best Marvel Studios film so far. Despite it's handful of flaws, it was fun, clever, and thrilling, and that adds up to a worthwhile and enjoyable trip to the cinema for me.

I would give it an A-.
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