07 April 2014

First Impressions: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Listen, I shit a lot all over most Marvel films for being the kind of safe, cookie-cutter uninteresting fan-service Hero smash and mash that they are, most notably in my recent scathing preview for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I'm not to proud to admit a mistake though, and The Winter Soldier is not only clearly one of, if not the single greatest film the studio has produced, but easily ranks as one of the better superhero movies, hell, even one of the best action / thriller movies of the last five years. Have I gone full circle to overselling it now? SPOILERS to come in the fruitful discussion to follow:
After this trailer scene is out of the way, there's also
a surprisingly lack of glibness.

I'm not sure what it is that makes superhero sequels generally superior to their predecessors. The second installment is generally considered the best one in nearly every hero's franchise - X2 (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and The Dark Knight (2008) are big ones, but even Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) ought to be considered over Fantastic Four (2005), even if they're both big letdowns. We can even go back to the stirring critical success of Superman II (1980), director drama aside. The success probably lies somewhere in the fact that superhero origin stories are long, messy, and boring because everyone really knows them. Sequels can hit the ground running and develop themes that come with dealing with powers instead of gaining them.

Still, Marvel has had a bit of a blind spot in this area with its two largest critical failures being Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor: The Dark World (2013), which were both nigh incomprehensible beat-em-ups without much solid story. The Winter Soldier continues a strong run of Captain America movies daring to push what a superhero movie can be (a period war film, a political thriller), while simultaneously making the guy everyone thought would be the most boring character on screen, Steve Rogers, into the most interesting fellow in the current glut of men in tights parading through cinemas.

The film starts and ends with the principles of Chris Evans' Captain America, which leans heavily on a nice touch of Mark Millar's Civil War, including uncompromising liberal principles and a realization to abandon government in favor of country. And on the Civil War side of things, it's notable that Tony Stark helped create the Death-From-Above Hellicarriers' repulsor lifts, a slight nod to him being a part of the conservative pro-government side of things. But we're getting ahead of ourselves diving into the film's themes - for now, it's fitting that someone who couldn't care less about this role seems to be having a great time and brings one of his more mature performances in a respectable film.

Everyone else is electric. Robert Redford fits in perfect in both a nod to the kinds of political movies he made in the 70s (The Candidate [1972], Three Days of the Condor [1975], All the President's Men [1976]) and at the same time legitimizes the proceedings in the way that Anthony Hopkins legitimizes the extreme goofiness of the Thor movies. On the other side is Sam Jackson, who is given more screen time than ever before, including some stand-out action sequences (where he gets his ass kicked), a fake death befitting the master spy, and one of the coolest send-offs in recent memory. He burns his eyepatch, puts on some stone cold women's beach glasses, laces up a purple hoodie and stands over his own grave that reads "The path of the righteous man..." Ezekiel 25:17. It's a dream.

Speaking of dreams, Scarlett Jo is also able to let loose as Black Widow like never before. She was basically a pretty face that could kick ass in Iron Man 2, offered a slight development in The Avengers (2012), but she's finally a fully fleshed out character here. I'm not sure she deserves her own movie yet, even though there's apparently plenty of backstory to her character and Scarlett has made her more interesting than was ever conceivable five years ago, but she holds her own, especially when sharing screentime with Evans.

The Falcon is still a lame hero, but Anthony Mackie brings some changes to the character that fit in nicely with Evans' Rogers. I really want this duo to meet up with Stark / Rhodes and compete for who has the better black sidekick. Cobie Smulders and Emily VanCamp round out the cast with little refreshing moments without a real weak link.

As for the other side, this film also stands out among Marvel movies for its impressive array of villains, which the studio generally has a hard time getting a grip on. Moments like Garry Shandling's Senator Stern saying "Hail HYDRA" puts new light into his efforts to destroy Tony Stark in Iron Man 2 (2010) - he's not just a dick but a Nazi sympathizing dick. There are also bad guys with more subtle comic ties like Brock Rudlow's Crossbones, whose stage name is never mentioned, and Batroc the Leaper. Wait, what the hell? Yeah, these shoddy villains got exactly as much screentime as they deserved.
He's your father, Cap!

But Sebastian Stan as Bucky as the Winter Soldier reigns supreme. A Soviet / Hydra brainwashed and frozen solider put on ice and thawed out every couple of years to cap some do-gooder is easily the second-greatest Marvel Cinematic Villain, after Loki. As far as twisted mirror images to heroes go, the Winter Soldier is near the top. Literally coming from the same place as Cap, Bucky was tortured and brainwashed into service for his country, and unflinchingly obeys, contrasted with Rogers' capacity for free thought and ability to choose to go against the organization he represents. They're both highly trained government operatives, but Bucky represents the dangers of blind obedience. He's also primarily offensive, while there's a lot of obvious symbolism in how often Cap uses his shield - an inherent defensive weapon used to react and protect rather than to preemptively strike.

Therein lies the brilliance of The Winter Soldier: it doesn't really feel like a superhero movie; more like an action movie, with some character names inspired by good-fitting comic counterparts that takes precedence over fan service. It's not wholly unlike Iron Man 3  (2013), which eschewed standard anticipation in favor of old fashioned action filmmaking with a twist of modern superhero conventions.

While the film is grounded in character, there are also a good deal of contemporary political themes to sift through. The most overhanded of these is the negligible difference between S.H.I.E.L.D., a government agency intended to protect the world from threats more ridiculous than drug smugglers or hostages (like alien invasions, or Space Vikings), and HYDRA, an organization founded by Nazis with the explicit goal of taking over the world. The film suggests that both entities have become indistinguishable, both literally concerning HYDRA's agent infiltration and on a macro level concerning their overall goals. It's a suggestion of accountability - a "who watches the watchmen" sort of derision that brings up strong questions concerning our current state of surveillance. Whether you buy into the paranoid idea of the NSA's eyes on you at all times or shrug at the fact that it makes no difference if you have nothing to hide, that question of accountability is pointedly focused in The Winter Soldier.

The big bad evil plot in the movie is the construction of three massive Hellicarriers armed with a cray cray amount of supertechnology and huge guns that have been programmed by a former Nazi scientist whose brain is now housed in big room on magnetic tape to execute an algorithm that finds future threats to HYDRA's plan of world domination by analyzing SAT scores and job history and killing those people. About 20 million worth. Hmm, yes it does sound silly when put like that, but it's an exaggeration of the current state of things. It's not all that far off from drone warfare, and substitute brown people for Stephen Strange and we're right there right now.

There is also a bit where Natasha Romanov leaks all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s intelligence, which seems to be more than a nod to Wikileaks and Eddie Snowden. It's shocking that in a film so expressly devoted to American ideals (it's Captain America, for goodness sake, you can't get anymore explicitly patriotic. Except for Captain Britain), it heads in such a liberal and progressive direction. In the old freedom vs. security debate, Cap is firmly on the side of freedom, which is in line with his comic counterpart. It stands in contrast with the Nolan Batman films, which have always taken the side that surveillance and one man's judgment of justice is the way the world should work. Jeez Cap vs. Batman would be a great movie. It's also a test of the ideals of the greatest generation put to the test in a modern political environment, where the bad guys don't have literal skulls and lightning bolts on their black uniforms trying to shoot you.

We've also got one of the most mainstream films to deal with the military industrial complex since White House Down (2013). Yes, that was also a politically brilliant film. S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA has been sewing seeds of chaos in order to fuel the need for order for decades, in essence creating a military need for itself to exist. By the films' end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is effectively destroyed (or at least hidden, you've got to believe that Maria Hill working for Stark Industries is still a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent answering to Nicky Fury), and for the first time, the glue that has been holding together the shared Marvel Universe has been shattered. What the hell is going to happen to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show?

All this intrigue is backed by some great action sequences that are some of the best ever put in a Marvel film, including The Avengers - there is more emotional weight and character moments to all this than the bright coloured jumble of other films. It's also generally more fun to see Steve pull off the feats of strength and endurance he does, moreso than even Thor, that human flair is what sets him apart.

With all this praise, there is some messiness to be found. Not all of the plot points really line up, and it does sort of descend into SPLOOOSIONZZZ at the end. Not before Cap's duel with traitorous former friend on the catwalk totally reminds me of the Cradle from GoldenEye (1995) though. It's about as damn near perfect as these films are going to get.

1 comment:

  1. I'm late, here, but this was a pretty damn good flick. I liked it a lot. It is probably the best Marvel movie to date, in my opinion.


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