Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

Director(s): Joe Russo & Anthony Russo
Runtime: 136 minutes

Compared to the attention that Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Thor all received as part of Marvel's cinematic universe, the first Captain America film felt like an afterthought. Though not a disaster, Joe Johnston's take on the patriotically monikered hero felt like a less significant development in the run up to 2012's The Avengers, despite the major jump in time it had to go through to catch up with the rest. The good Captain has no superpowers or super armor, and his entire concept feels outdated in the current superhero revival that's dominated Hollywood for about a decade. 

Yet where Marvel's other Phase II films, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, have stumbled, Captain America has thoroughly redeemed himself with his second outing. The sequel, subtitled The Winter Soldier, explores new ground for its title character, and does so while working in genre elements unlike anything encountered in the Marvel universe to date. With a smooth script, engaging performers, and efficiently doled out commentary, The Winter Soldier is the best standalone Avengers film since the first Iron Man

When we first run into Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) this time, he's more adjusted to the modern world, albeit still with questions (he keeps a list of things to try or research). Yet he remains an insanely buff fish out of water. One of the best things about Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's screenplay is how it weaves Rogers' clashes with the modern world into the conspiracy-flavored story. S.H.I.E.L.D., the military intelligence agency tasked with filling in the gaps of the Avengers, finds its leaders under attack. Rogers is already on iffy terms with  S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The pair have rather different views on honesty and freedom, and Rogers feels increasingly uncomfortable with the level of surveillance that S.H.I.E.L.D. is tapping into. 

Things don't get much better when a series of calamities befall the agency, putting the Captain on the run from his former comrades and co-workers. Only the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) seem trustworthy. Meanwhile, a dangerous assassin named The Winter Soldier is running amok, complicating things even further.

However, even with all of this plates spinning, new directors Joe and Anthony Russo keep the film running smoothly. The different Marvel characters offer opportunities to explore different genres on their own, and The Winter Soldier does by far the best job. In its DNA are strands of spy thrillers and the conspiracy films of the 70s (Robert Redford even appears as an upper echelon S.H.I.E.L.D. member), right alongside the flashier, more expected superhero components. Though the pyrotechnics get a bit heavy in the finale, the film remains committed to its plot and characters enough to hold together. 

With so many potential explanations for everything going on, it would have been easy to mess up the big reveal. Yet again, the film surprises. In a fun cameo from the first Captain adventure, The Winter Soldier is able to lay out its big moment in a way that is genuinely exciting. That it is able to do so while establishing a connection to the previous film (which took place in World War II), while still upping the dramatic tension in the present, is an even bigger accomplishment. Where other Phase II films moved inches forward with actual developments, The Winter Soldier takes massive leaps forward, introducing a complicated new world order to an otherwise overly safe cinematic universe.

The actors seem to be having quite a bit of fun with it as well. Though it would be all to easy for a character like Captain America to be dated and bland, Evans' portrayal remains charming, rather than sleep-inducing. The trickiest part of the Captain, his old fashioned, slightly idealistic worldview, comes through nicely as it clashes with modern ideas of politics and national security. Meanwhile, Johansson and Mackie make nice contributions as the Captain's would be sidekicks. Their histories (or cover stories) are, like other character development, handled efficiently, giving them enough weight to be resonant, yet never melodramatic. Each character is also given enough to do when it comes to the action, thus ensuring that no member of the main cast feels like filler.  It's especially nice to see Johansson get so much more to do with her Black Widow character, and it makes the promise of an upcoming solo film for her seem like an even better idea. Charisma may ultimately win the day over raw displays of acting prowess, but that's exactly what this sort of adventure calls for, and the main actors deliver without forcing the chemistry. 

The central roles are so nicely handled that it hardly matters that the Winter Soldier himself is a bit undercooked as a villain. Those who have seen the first film or looked at the cast list will know his true identity. But, unlike the other characters, his past experiences don't register enough. He's more of an empty villainous pawn that a compelling antagonist in his own right. 

Similarly, most the tech categories don't offer much of worth, accomplishing their jobs at a plain, functional level. The compromise of this modern-day Captain America is that, in isolation, his new world is a bit of bland setting from a visual standpoint. Sound, stunt work, and editing, at least, have the appropriate punch to lend an extra oomph to the relatively grounded action sequences.

Thankfully, the film's heart is in the right place where it counts. Visually impressive it may not be, but The Winter Soldier certainly makes up for it with its sharp attention to characterization and plot. It also deserves credit for tackling modern issues like government surveillance, modern warfare, and preemptive "kill lists" such that it feels germane to both narrative and character growth. There are no heavy-handed monologues striving to transform The Winter Soldier into an overbearing philosophical diatribe. Instead, these important issues play a role in creating a better sense of the world in which the Captain still struggles to blend in with. That extra touch of thought is what allows this Marvel sequel, the last building block before next year's The Avengers: Age of Ultron, to be thematically resonant while still providing rollicking blockbuster entertainment. 

Grade: B

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