Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Marvel films’ second best release
With each new Marvel superhero film that bullies its way into multiplexes, the magnitude of the company’s achievement gets more impressive, if not historic. Focusing just on the Marvel characters controlled by Disney (as opposed to Sony’s lockup of Spider-Man and Fox’s oversight of X-Men), they’ve launched three successful individual franchises (Thor, Iron Man and Captain America) and another franchise combining all the separate characters, the first of which became the third highest-grossing film of all time (The Avengers). Each movie contains characters or story threads that feed the other movies, creating what amounts to a visually and monetarily profligate series of old-school comic book crossover issues.
The industry has never seen anything quite like it and the biggest surprise is that, by varying degrees, all the Marvel / Disney films are engaging, exciting and fun. Marvel has been very savvy in its choices of directors and cast – the entire gargantuan enterprise probably would never have launched without Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man – and the dense, but not overly plotted, stories feature quip-heavy, if occasionally mechanical, dialogue that’s polished to a shine.
If there’s a legitimate knock worth mentioning, it’s that the satisfying high one experiences after watching the latest whiz-bang Marvel gizmo soon fades until all the films seem a tad interchangeable. (Which one starred Mickey Rourke again?) That criticism, however, is not entirely applicable to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the second best of the Marvel films after The Avengers. Updating Cap’s concerns from World War II-era Nazis to 21st-century government surveillance, Captain America: The Winter Soldier thankfully avoids the lazy, cynical, modern trap of playing Cap’s star-spangled patriotism for laughs. Indeed, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have devised a ticklishly topical story springboard that plays off Cap’s defining characteristic as a straight-arrow, government-trusting veteran of The Greatest Generation.
Captain America vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.
Here, former weakling turned super-soldier Steve Rogers finds himself at odds with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the organization’s top-secret Project Insight. This George W. Bush (if not Barack Obama, at this point) wet dream is comprised of three enormous, gun-laden helicarriers that use spy satellites to analyze personal data on thousands of citizens to preemptively stop crimes. When Cap’s misgivings convince Fury to ask S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to delay the project, gunfire, explosions, car chases, fistfights, plot twists, and other PG-13 mayhem ensue.
As Captain America, Chris Evans continues to be very likable and earnest, further distancing him from those two horrible Fantastic Four movies. He’s too handsome to truly convince us he’s an aw-shucks square, but he does convey a strong sense of fighting purpose and a wisp of melancholy he’s unafraid to use at the appropriate moment. In the latter regard, the script is too busy with other concerns to do any serious emotional lifting.
The one scene where Steve visits his now-elderly love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is too timid to affect our emotions. The anachronistic beats are mostly played for chuckles, including a clever moment when Steve takes out a list of everything he has missed in 70 years, including Star Wars/Trek. But what’s lacking in character depth is made up for with action that rarely lets up once Cap’s objection to Project Insight makes him an enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the shadowy Winter Soldier, whose dark, aggressive look adds real menace.
Chaste sensuality + groundbreaking non-white superhero
Superhero films tend to be rather chaste, which takes some explaining here, since Cap’s partner is the beautiful Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). In the middle of a mission, she’ll occasionally suggest someone for Steve to date, which really serves to tell the audience there’s a zero percent chance of a superhero sex scene, so calm down. Evans and Johansson have nice chemistry, with Black Widow a legitimate asset to Captain America, and her interest in a mysterious flash drive lifted from a hostage-rescue operation on a freighter is a welcome touch of conflict between the two allies.
Cap’s other ally addresses the fact that superhero films are regrettably Caucasian. So here we get an African-American war veteran, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, fitting right in). Strapping on a pair of metal wings that, frankly, look like a very easy target during a battle, he joins the team as The Falcon, whooshing and swooping his way into Marvel’s movie universe.
It’s proof of Marvel’s Midas touch that they somehow divined that the sitcom-directing duo responsible for the forgotten comedy, You, Me and Dupree would slam dunk a nine-figure superhero tentpole. Sure, Ohio-natives Joe and Anthony Russo are eternally indebted to second unit director Spiro Razatos (Fast and Furious 6 and 7), but their inspirations are spot-on. The movie’s feel for urban warfare takes its cue, though not its severe, disturbing edge, from street-level spectacles like Heat and Ronin. When Nick is chased around D.C. in his heavily-armored SUV followed by unknown pursuers, the camera gets so close you feel you’re in the next car. When Captain America and Black Widow engage in a vicious street fight against the Winter Soldier, the furious blows, ricocheting bullets, and flying chunks of pavement at least suggest reality, unlike the climatic, mind numbing, CGI-laden fight in Man of Steel.
The movie’s other inspiration are ’70s conspiracy thrillers like All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, which the Russo brothers honor by wisely and miraculously casting Robert Redford, who starred in both films. It’s a thrill to see the iconic actor, who previously managed to sit out the tentpole era, although he has little feel for a movie like this. But Redford’s willingness to play against his liberal icon status is pretty shocking.
In fact, Robert Redford’s presence and character also feed an idea that occasionally worms its way into a Marvel film: distrust of government. In the first Iron Man, Tony Stark built his artificial heart after getting accidentally blown up by a U.S. landmine while in Afghanistan. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the American government can be infiltrated by enemies biding their time before doing us ill. And the only person who can save us is a member of the Greatest Generation adjusting to a post-American Century New World Order. Whether that notion survives the visual and aural onslaught surrounding the film is doubtful. But that’s fine. In these types of movies, we’ll take big ideas however they come.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Director: Joe and Anthony Russo.
Screenplay: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely.
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Grillo, Maximiliano Hernández, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones, Jenny Agutter, Bernard White, Garry Shandling, Dominic Cooper, Thomas Kretschmann, Stan Lee.
Voice cast: Gary Sinise.
Chris Evans Captain America: The Winter Soldier image: Marvel / Walt Disney Studios.