Friday, April 4, 2014

Marvel does it again with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

The concept of Freedom-versus-Security has been prevalent in the popular discussion to varying degrees for the last decade and a half, perhaps at its most heated these last couple years thanks to the doings of Edward Snowden.  There are some who claim that when our society cried “never again” after that day in September of 2001, we began the possibly-irreversible process of willingly surrendering our freedoms in exchange for some sense of safety.  Perhaps the deep thinkers among us wouldn’t think of looking to an entry in the Marvel cinematic universe for an illustration of this concept, but in a rather simplified fashion, that is just what we find in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  

While nobody would confuse this movie with such 1970s political conspiracy thrillers as The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, there is a similar vibe running through The Winter Soldier that sets it apart from earlier Marvel films, and makes it possibly the best Marvel film since the first Iron Man movie.  The fear of spoilers shall keep me from outlining the plot of the movie in too much detail, but I suspect that most of those reading this will have a fairly good notion of what’s going on.  Even if you are not pre-educated about the particulars of Captain America’s literary universe, however, this follow-up to the first Captain America solo film three years ago probably serves you better than most of the other Marvel movies, as one could come into this movie cold and not find it very difficult to keep up.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and their screenwriters pull off a pretty nifty balancing act, moving the film along from action set piece to action set piece with actual interesting character development, and the development of SEVERAL characters who are dramatically limited by our knowing they will all be included in future movies.  We all read IMdB, so we know who the “Winter Soldier” turns out to be.  We all know (or can surmise) who will turn out to be the movie’s ultimate villain.  We all know that Cap and Natasha and Falcon and Fury will all survive (although one supporting character who has shown up on the S.H.I.E.L.D. television show a couple of times this year did bite the big one in this movie, much to my surprise… oops, Spoiler… sorry).  The trick is telling us a great story and taking us on a cinematic ride despite those limitations, and the Russos manage to do the job.

Here we find “Captain” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) farther along in his acclimation to modern life than he was when we last saw him in The Avengers, even keeping a small notebook of things he makes a point of researching (the “Rocky” movies, the music of Marvin Gaye, etc.).  He meets Army veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who will later become the mechanically-winged Falcon, at the beginning of the story, and it is the proverbial Start of a Beautiful Friendship that helps humanize this story and keep it from devolving into a mere collection of action set-pieces. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow also comes to this movie and provides enough one-liner delivering and wire-work butt-kicking to make it apparent that a lack of her OWN film is something that must be rectified at some point, in my humble opinion.  Thankfully, the chemistry these three actors share, conveying so much of their communication with each other via glances and body language, does a lot to keep the story actually being about something a little more human.  

Samuel L. Jackson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury gets to chew up and spit out dialogue yet again, as only Jackson can do, but he has a bit more plot-driving function in this script than he did in The Avengers, as well as revealing a bit more about the character.  He is even the focal point of perhaps the best action sequence of the movie, a machine-gun filled car chase throughout the streets of Washington, DC (well, it was actually Cleveland, but we can all pretend) where we first run across the metal-armed assassin, the “Winter Soldier.”  

With all that being said, it saddens me to report that Robert Redford is probably the weakest link in this stellar cast.  Playing a S.H.I.E.L.D. executive uber-boss, he definitely embodies a shadier character than he has since Indecent Proposal.  While Redford may be a living movie legend, he wanders through this movie in a vague, stern-grandfatherly manner, never getting very animated, even when the plot may require it, and never totally convincing me he knew what exactly to do with the role.  I’ve always thought him a rather “cold” actor, and that was pretty apparent here.  His final line of dialogue in the film, which I am reluctant to reveal for spoilering reasons, fell so totally flat with me that I almost groaned, but that was the only such moment.

I thoroughly enjoyed this entry in the Marvel movie saga.  I darn well should, as I am exactly the audience at which it is aimed (well, almost - I’m probably about twenty years older than the target demographic, but I fit the criteria in all other respects).   Long-time comics reader that I am, I loved the tone of the story and thought the shoot-’em-up/blow-’em-up sequences to be fantastic, which is all one could ask of a superhero movie.  From crashing flying aircraft carriers to raging gun battles in city streets to a gang fight within the confines of a glass elevator, there is no shortage of kinetic energy here.

As it is an entry in an ongoing franchise of other films, while at the same time being another chapter in a series about one particular character, Winter Soldier operates under some restrictions to which even a rather formulaic series as the James Bond films are not subject.  How well the movie managed to tell a quality story that felt topical and relevant, and also managed to keep me in suspense and throw some surprises at me, is a testament to the creative team’s abilities.