Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Alternate Title:  Morning in America

One sentence synopsis:      Captain America, Black Widow, and Falcon must team up to stop a deep-rooted conspiracy from destroying SHIELD and the entire world.

Things Havoc liked:  The Marvel movieverse is a miracle of modern filmmaking. It is an act of a benevolent god. This is simply not how films are made, let alone good films. There have been movie series before, sure, even some that were longer-running than Marvel's (James Bond, for instance). But most movie series are a sequential list of one movie after another, as sequel follows sequel until the inevitable reboot. Marvel, meanwhile, decided some time after Iron Man was a success to produce four separate lines of movies, all within the same universe, and then merge them together for periodic crossover mega-extravaganzas. This is not normal! And yet with the exception of Edward Norton's Hulk film, every single one of the eight movies they have produced in this line to-date has not only been a financial success, but a great film, the least of which was merely "good", and the best of which were among the finest movies produced in their respective years.

And yet for all the quality of those eight movies, number nine might be my favorite one of all.

Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011's Captain America, is a tour-de-force, a fantastically good film from a studio I had begun, I must admit, to worry about. Following the somewhat disappointing Iron Man 3, and the fun-if-pointless Thor 2, there was some concern on my part, albeit limited, that Marvel might be milking their franchises a bit too far, that the magic might be starting to fray the way Pixar's did following Wall-E and Up. Consider my concerns officially abated. Winter Soldier is everything I could have possibly asked for from a Captain America film, bigger, deeper, crisper, and more impressive in largely every way than its predecessor. It is a fresh vindication of whatever raving madness it was that compelled Marvel to try something this ambitious. It is excellence itself.

I don't even know why I continue to marvel (no pun intended) at the casting in these films, but for what it's worth, let's go through it again. Chris Evans, whom I mentioned in my Avengers review I thought was a bit shaky in the original Captain America, has grown into his role in a big way. His Cap is defined, not by the fact that he beats people up, nor by some uberpatriotic claptrap or sermonizing saintliness, but by simply being a good, decent guy. In a world of flashy superheroes and literal gods, the filmmakers seem to have centered, ironically, on Cap's normalcy as being the proper window for his character. He beats and kills people with aplomb to be sure, but the best moments in the film are Cap simply interacting with people, relaxed, confident, willing to entertain other perspectives but ironclad in his own core beliefs. He is not a stand-in for Jesus, nor given some kind of strawman personality to "contrast" his good points, but manages to make the character interesting and compelling through small touches and quiet moments that blend together in summation to produce a holistic character. One of the strongest sequences in the film is a quiet visit that Rogers pays to his old flame from the first film, now elderly and infirm, inconsequential to the plot, but highly evocative in evidencing the yawning gulf of everything Cap has lost in missing sixty years of his life. Touches like this, his continuing efforts to catch up on modern society, his capacity to adjust his world-view without abandoning his principles, or simply his ability to put down the Captain America persona in an instant and become Steve Rogers once again, are what remind me of the Cap I always imagined when reading the comics, the Cap that I have longed to see realized.

But of course Cap is only part of the draw here. Indeed moreso than any previous Marvel film except Avengers, Winter Soldier is an ensemble piece. Returning characters Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) are elevated in this film to major characters in their own right, with their own goals, backgrounds, motives, and responses to the madness that is the plot. Fury, in particular, I've been waiting to see more of, as I could not imagine Marvel failing to utilize Samuel L. Jackson to his full potential for very long. This film gives us a welcome opportunity to see some of what makes Fury tick, his background and his values, through the tried and true method of placing him in a room with other compelling characters and letting them hash matters out. Widow meanwhile receives a serious upgrade to her screen-time over even Avengers, becoming Cap's unofficial second in command. That Johansson can beat the crap out of people as well as the next man is not a surprise, but the filmmakers here give her character time to be presented organically, with none of the "designated background infodump" sequences that occasionally arose in The Avengers. Given the little time we've actually had with Black Widow, this movie gives us enough to launch her own film, if Marvel should have such a thing in mind, as we begin to understand a bit more about SHIELD's resident spy. But the best of the newcomers by far is Anthony Mackie, of Adjustment Bureau and Pain & Gain, playing Falcon, a minor character from the comics whose primary claim to fame was as the first African American superhero in comics. Put all thoughts of tokenism aside, Mackie plays Falcon note-perfect, a veteran para-rescue soldier who is presented not as Captain America's sidekick but as his friend, to whom he goes for advice and assistance, and vice versa. Though aware that Cap is larger than life, Falcon's role is not to bear witness to his awesomeness, but to provide an example for him, a modern character whose values reflect Cap's own, a bridge of sorts to the modern world. Avengers-fanatic though I have always been, I had never heard of Falcon prior to this film, but this movie sold me on him, a perfect counterpart to Captain America, whom I could stand to see far, far more of.

The original Captain America was a pulp film at its core, a ridiculous romp through Nazi super-tech and WWII insanity. Winter Soldier, by contrast, is a relentlessly serious film, touching on questions of governmental control, surveillance, and preemptive war. These are, admittedly, well-plowed fields in film, particularly in the last couple of years, but rather than simply make sanctimonious points about how fascism is bad, this film prefers to examine these questions in the context of Marvel's super-tech-laden near-future. In a world with literal supervillains, evil gods, and alien monsters invading the Earth, the reaction of terrestrial agencies to prospective threats is liable to be a bit more draconian than their counterparts in our world, as indeed they should. The plot is complex and layered, involving international politics, terrorism, and long-buried conspiracies, worthy of classic spy thriller films from the Cold War. Front and center in the midst of these plots is Fury's boss, SHIELD director Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford in what appears to be a reprisal of his roles from Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game. Redford is not my favorite actor, but that's because of his insufferable tendency towards smugness, something far more tolerable in a government agent than in some sort of self-assured romantic lead. It also centers around the mysterious Winter Soldier, a character whose identity I would not dream of revealing here, but about whom I will simply say that, knowing the comics as I did, I expected him to be insufferable, either through hackneyed personal drama or oversaccharinated cloying sentimentality. Neither is the case in this film, and the Winter Soldier, surprisingly to me, actually provides a perfectly effective foil for our favorite supersoldier.

And speaking of foils, we must discuss the action of this action film. It is awesome. Choreography is bone-shattering and energetic, reminding us periodically of the terrible power that someone like Steve Rogers can unleash at need. The shield work is far more visceral this time, still PG-13 of course, but bloody for it. Fight sequences are designed intelligently, with two standouts being a crazed, cramped battle in an elevator, and the first car chase I've seen in years that was actually new and interesting. Cinematography and direction is spectacularly nuanced across the board, with shots constructed and framed to provide emotional shorthand even within quiet scenes. The actors are instructed to use body language and subtle gestures to re-enforce the relative relationships between them, relieving the script of the need to explain things that are already apparent to the viewers. And while movies like this, particularly ones locked into a larger series, are only able to go so far with their characters, I must admit that there was not one but several occasions in which I actually suspected, rightly or wrongly I will not say, that the movie was actually going to go through with the fundamental changes, be they death of major characters or reorganization of the larger world, that they had been hinting towards. What other studio, midway through "phase 2" of a twenty year movie plan, would have the guts to let their film take risks that might reverberate down the rest of the cinematic universe forever?

Things Havoc disliked: I could nitpick of course. The film has an "interesting" relationship with the nature of certain types of military hardware, particularly CIWS, which is designed to take down ballistic missiles in mid-flight, but are apparently unable to hit a single man-sized target given ten minutes to do it in. The film also fails to understand the nature of V/TOL aircraft, a quality it shares with every other film that has ever featured them. Leaving the military-wank aside, some of the fight scenes are cut so fast that it becomes hard to figure out what's going on, even to the point where the dreaded shaky-cam begins to threaten at the margins. I will never understand the impetus to spend so much time and energy producing an incredible action sequence and then deciding to let nobody actually see it.

But the main issue I have here, as I had in Avengers, is Scarlett Johansson. Not to say that she is bad, or her character is poorly done, for neither of these things are the case, but there remains something... wrong... with her portrayal in a way that is rather difficult to describe. Her character is intended to be a self-assured spy, I admit, but she plays it so laconically that it begins to interfere with her ability to emote properly. I understand that the entire point of her character is her inability to reveal her true nature to anyone, even Cap, but if she doesn't reveal herself to us, then we can't get to know her, and if we can't get to know her, there is a limit to how much we can identify with the situations she is in. Should the rumors of a Black Widow movie be true, perhaps Johansson will alter her performance to give us something more, but playing the character as an emotionless cypher can only get us so far.

Final thoughts:   I was a fan of the original Captain America, but had to couch my praise with warnings that this was a Pulp film that might not appeal to everyone. I make no such declarations here. Winter Soldier is a fantastic film, one of the finest offerings that Marvel has ever presented us, a rejuvenation of the entire Marvel cinemaverse and a perfect lead-in to next year's Age of Ultron. It is rich, emotional, exciting, weighty, visceral, and a hundred other things besides. It is a towering achievement, an automatic candidate for one of my favorite films of this still-young year, a film that anyone who has ever enjoyed a superhero movie should, by rights, adore.

When by the end of the film, we are given our customary hints as to future films from the Marvelverse, I for one was ready to watch the next film in Marvel's repertoire then and there. Indeed, if films like this are what we have to look forward to from Marvel, then I suspect, despite every spectacle we have so far seen, the best may actually be yet to come.

A man can dream.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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