Friday, April 4, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

            Screw you, Donald Rumsfeld.

            There will be SPOILERS…

            The term “Winter Soldier” first became popular during a court hearing in 1971 dealing with Vietnam War crimes. It derives itself from a quote from Thomas Paine, who wrote that, “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country;” in the process singling out the fair-weather soldiers who deserted Valley Forge once the going got rough.  Those veterans who represented at the hearings (chief amongst them a young John Kerry) gave themselves the opposing name of “winter soldiers;” instead of returning to society and forgetting the atrocities they’d seen and taken part in, they chose instead to testify the harsh truths taking place in Vietnam and all across Indochina.

            So it’s entirely fitting that the name “Winter Soldier” would be used for a villain in the Captain America franchise, confronting the ultimate ideal of American culture with its darkest, dirtiest secrets.  Making a movie titled Captain America: The Winter Soldier in this day and age comes with all sorts of political baggage, and to their credit, Marvel Studios doesn’t shy away from any of it. I mean, sure: the politics handled therein are done so in simplified, comic book terms, but the fact of the matter is that the film raises questions about government and America and the true price of freedom, and refuses to provide any easy answers amidst all of the explosions and chase scenes. Which are of only the highest caliber of kickass, by the way.

            Taking it's cues from the excellent run of the comics by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, the movie picks up where we left Cap after his first film and The Avengers, with the super-soldier still trying to adjust to modern life after being frozen for seventy years. Cap is now working as an agent of SHIELD full time, but is growing increasingly wary of the duplicitous organization and its secrets within secrets - such as the new protocol which sees a fleet of helicarriers designed for watching over the world and eliminating potential targets before they can become a true threat. Things are further complicated with the arrival of the high-tech assassin the Winter Soldier, who defeats and maims SHIELD director Nick Fury, sending Cap and fellow Avenger Black Widow on the warpath to discover the seedy underbelly of the top spy organization of the world.

            Chris Evans returns in the titular role, and once again makes Cap/Steve Rogers the most empathetic superhero in the Marvel stable. Although it doesn’t deal with the whole “man out of time” element as much as I’d prefer, Evans still cuts to the heart of the character in a way that seems deviously simple yet still loaded with meaning - there’s a core loneliness to the character that you see flash in his eyes every once in a while, something that Evans handles with nothing less than perfection. Scarlett Johansson also makes a return appearance as Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow, and plays a key role in Rogers’ journey throughout, with the morally-dubious character operating as a nice contrast to the Captain and the film itself. Johansson continues to evolve the character into the fascinating arc begun in The Avengers - hard to believe she began as little more than eye candy in Iron Man 2.

            Sam motherfuckin’ Jackson also returns as Nick Fury, finally getting a chance to get in on the big screen shenanigans his costars have enjoyed throughout the Marvel movies thus far. But more importantly, even more of Fury’s character is revealed. He’s a spy - the ultimate spy - and thus there’s always an element of untrustworthiness to the character, as Fury constantly keeps his cards close to the chest with an agenda all his own. But no matter how jaded working for SHIELD has made him, Fury still only wants what’s best for the world around him - he started the Avengers for a reason, and he believes in Cap for a reason, and although he himself knows that sometimes you have to get your hands dirty to protect the world, he’s still constantly searching for another way. The film makes some rather dramatic and lasting changes to his character, and I for one can’t wait to see how that plays out in future Marvel movies.

            The villains this time out aren’t quite as colorful as Hugo Weaving’s wonderful portrayal of the Red Skull* in the first film, but they’re no less effective. The Winter Soldier himself ultimately isn’t as much of a factor in the film as audiences might have been led to believe, but still fits in with the larger themes the film is playing at. Sebastian Stan reprises his role from the first film as Cap’s best friend and partner Bucky, as it is revealed that he survived the war and was brainwashed into becoming the ultimate assassin for the KGB, and later, SHIELD. If the film (either here or in The First Avenger) stumbles at all, it’s in the relationship between Cap and Bucky - the groundwork is there, and there are some truly remarkable and heartbreaking scenes that nail the emotions needed for their scenes together, but so much is going on elsewhere in the film that that relationship - which should have been the centerpiece of the film - gets a bit lost in the jumble.

            The biggest criticism one could level at all of the Marvel movies thus far is that they are too jam-packed - there’s at least a dozen characters we have to keep up with here, and although each is an example of the pitch-perfect casting Marvel Studios has shown thus far, there are just too damn many. Anthony Mackie leaves quite an impression as Sam Wilson/the Falcon, but the idea that he already has a pair of funky wings comes a little out of nowhere (still nice to see Cap and the Falcon on the big screen together, though). Ditto for Emily Van Camp’s Agent 13/Sharon Carter, who the film conveniently forgets to tell us is Cap’s girlfriend from WWII Peggy Carter’s great-niece (or great-great-niece, given the modern time difference). It’s inevitable she’ll be more involved in further sequels, but those not as familiar with the comics might be left scratching their heads as to why she’s in this movie in the first place. 

            Robert Redford makes an appearance as the real bad guy behind the scenes, as member of SHIELD’s high council Alexander Pierce, who we find out is ultimately a traitor working for the rival organization HYDRA. Redford’s appearance here relies far more on his presence than his acting ability - the filmmaker’s are definitely playing on Redford’s classic Hollywood looks (indeed, had they made a Captain America movie worth a damn in the ‘70’s, Redford himself would have been ideal for the part). The character sadly feels a tad underdeveloped, however, as we never really get a good sense of why Pierce is compelled to do what he’s doing**. Still, Redford is a superb actor, and couldn’t give a performance any less than authentic if he tried.

            It’s hard to remember a time when Marvel wasn’t able to quite stick the landing when it came to their superheroic action scenes, but it’s a moot point now: Captain America: The Winter Soldier features some of the best big-budget set-pieces seen in years. Mostly stunt-driven and devoid of pixels (at least until the crazed finale), the various fights and chases come with the same kind of bone-breaking panache found in recent action fare like The Raid. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are probably best known as a comedy duo for their work on TV like Arrested Development and Community, but their work here shows that they’ve got the chops to not only play with the big boys, but show many of them how it’s done.

            But even with the much-improved action scenes, the greatest takeaway from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is its breezy handling of modern-day issues. Although never becoming truly deep or biting, the film still has a lot on its mind when it comes to issues like what it truly means to be free in a “free” society, and in turn how freely we’ve given up our privacy and need for personal security all for the sake of safety. We know now that the NSA’s got logs of all our information and that drones are utilized to destroy entire villages to take out a single target, and The Winter Soldier plots those courses all the way to their eventualities; where potential threats can be monitored and neutralized before they even happen. All well and good, except for the fact that anyone holding the controls can in turn make anyone they don’t like or see as subversive a threat, and take them out without the least bit of provocation. The Winter Soldier cleverly realizes this as the Nazi sub-group HYDRA from the first film has survived, acting as the true puppeteers behind SHIELD and with sleeper agents imbedded everywhere. An organization devoted to robbing the world of its freedom, HYDRA discovered during WWII that trying to take it by force only furthered the need of the population to rebel, and so adjusted their plans to make the world give up its desire for true freedom with resultant terror attacks and widespread panic. The ideas are only as skin-deep as the movie allows, but still impressive for a film in which the main character wears the American flag as a costume.  

            All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is another feather in the cap of Marvel Studios - one of their best efforts yet in a multi-franchise that will most likely go down as being the best in film history.

            * I kept hoping Robert Redford would pull of his face and reveal himself as the Red Skull, but alas, it was not to be.

            ** Which would have been fixed had they revealed him to be the Red Skull all along! Sorry, but I just really wanted to see the Red Skull again.

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