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Josh Reviews Captain America: The Winter Soldier

April 7th, 2014
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As Marvel Studios impresses yet again with another high quality super-hero film, one that honors and respects the source material while also being accessible to newbies and entertaining as a film in its own right, it’s easy to forget what a miracle this is.  There are so many ways that a character like Captain America could have been done so wrong.  Really, it’s so simple to imagine a million different terrible, pain-inducing versions of a Captain America movie.  So once again, bravo to Marvel mastermind Kevine Feige and his huge team of collaborators for giving life to another dynamite film.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not perfect, but it’s a rollickingly entertaining film that I think would be fun for kids and adults alike.  After The Avengers (click here for my review), I wondered if I could ever again be satisfied by these heroes’ solo films, but with the one-two-three punch of Iron Man Three (click here for my review), Thor: The Dark World (click here for my review), and now Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I must say with no small degree of admiration that so far Marvel’s Phase Two (the films taking place after The Avengers and leading up to the next Avengers film, The Avengers: Age of Ultron) has been far more consistent than the much-admired Phase One.

Having been awoken in the twenty-first century, Captain America has continued to fight the good fight as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the array of cloak-and-dagger missions has left Steve Rogers feeling somewhat dissatisfied.  When he learns of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new plan to use advanced technology and weaponry to take their strategy of eliminating threats before they happen to a whole new level, his dissatisfaction turns to distrust.  Soon Captain America finds himself on-the-run, a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D., and facing a powerful new enemy in the form of the Winter Soldier, a cybernetically-enhanced mercenary with a shocking tie to Cap’s past.

In a dramatic and savvy tonal shift from Captain America: The First Avenger’s nostalgic, pulp adventure tone, this sequel is a super-hero movie meets political thriller.  This is a really smart way to thrown Cap into a whole new kind of adventure in which the character’s inherent honesty and nobility is forced to confront the sticky complexity of twenty-first century threats to our freedom.  I loved this aspect of the film, and only wish the script had dug a little deeper into those shades of grey before spelling out for us exactly who the bad guys are.

Chris Evans is again fantastic as Steve Rogers/Captain America.  Probably the most important key to the success of all these Marvel movies has been the casting, and Mr. Evans shows us for the third time how tremendous he is in this role.  He makes it look so easy, but again, I could imagine a thousand ways this character could have been played wrong.  Mr. Evans is able to pull off the physicality of the role as well as the emotional depth.  More importantly — and the key to accurately portraying Cap — is how he plays Steve’s honesty and openness without ever making him look stupid or gullible.  In almost every scene, we can see that Steve is actually the smartest guy in the room, and that more than anything else is what makes him a super-hero.

This film builds a terrific ensemble around Cap in the form of characters both familiar and new.  Scarlett Johansson gets the most to do in her three Marvel films so far (previously she’d appeared in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers) and she truly shines here.  She gets to kick a lot of ass (we really see her use her widow’s sting), and I love her sisterly, affectionate bond with Cap.  I am glad they avoided trying to make these two a romantic couple.  What we got instead was a lot more interesting.  Cap’s long-time partner in the comics was Sam Wilson, The Falcon, and he’s the third member of this trio in the film.  Anthony Mackie is fantastic in the role.  They’ve changed this character a lot from the comics, but to me all the changes were smart decisions necessary to making this character credible and interesting on film.  I love the scene in which Steve and Sam meet right at the start of the film, and their growing partnership as the movie progresses is phenomenal.

Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a high muckety-muck within S.H.I.E.L.D.  It’s incredible having an actor of Mr. Redford’s caliber in the film, though I wish they’d given him a meatier role to play.  Mr. Redford is in far more of the film than I’d expected — this is no mere cameo — but I thought his character was rather two-dimensional, which was a bit of a disappointment.  In better news, the great Samuel L. Jackson also gets a lot to do in the film and ,unlike in The Avengers, here Nick Fury is right in the middle of things, and that’s a very, very good thing.  We also get to see a lot of other familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. faces, including Cobie Smulders reprising her role from The Avengers as Maria Hill, and also Jasper Sitwell, who has actually previously popped up in minor roles all over the place, including Thor, The Avengers, the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and several of the Marvel “One Shot” short films that have been special features on the DVDs.  Sitwell doesn’t have a huge role, but it’s the most screen-time he’s gotten so far, so that was fun to see.  (And his exit from the film?  Wow, awesome.)

For me as a movie fan and a comic book fan, one of the greatest things about these Marvel movies is the continuity from film to film.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays things just right, with lots of little winks and nods that attentive fans will love but that won’t distract anyone else.  As a great example, Jasper Sitwell’s role works in this movie even if you never heard of the character before — but it’s extra cool if you’ve seen this guy rise from basically a background player back in Thor to his more central involvement here.  There are lots of great Marvel connections in this film, but my favorite was the TOTALLY unexpected but delightful return of a minor character from Iron Man 2.  That was SO GREAT!  Hey now!

This movie isn’t perfect, and there are definitely moments when I wished the script had been just a little sharper, the dialogue just a little snappier, the plot just a little more complex.  As an example, I’d hoped that the film would make more meat out of Cap and Nick Fury’s very legitimate disagreement in the early-going of the film, over just how far S.H.I.E.L.D. should go to keep people safe.  Unfortunately, too quickly the movie turns away from that to paint us much clearer bad guys for our heroes to fight.

But the biggest problem with the film, for me, is the Winter Soldier.  This story-line from the comics by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting is one of the best Captain America stories I’ve ever read, and I was THRILLED when it was announced that this would be adapted for the second Cap film.  And, for the most part, the film gets the Winter Soldier right.  Physically the character looks perfect, just ripped right out of the comics, and he has some great fights with Cap.  The moment when he catches Cap’s shield, and then hurls it right back at him?  Perfection.  It’s not that the film messes up the Winter Soldier, it’s just that there’s nowhere near enough of the character in the film.  This character — and the emotional repercussions for Cap when he learns this villain’s true identity — should have been the focus of the film.  But instead, it’s basically a subplot to the film’s main story about the enemies within S.H.I.E.L.D.  The Winter Soldier doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with the main story of the film, and we don’t spend nearly enough time exploring what happened to him since the forties and how he came to be this cybernetically-enhanced super-villain, nor do we get to dig too deeply into the affects this discovery would have on Cap.  We pretty go right from Cap’s discovery of his identity to the big final fight.  The end of the film hints that perhaps all of this will be explored more deeply in the next Cap film, but, after all, this film was the one sub-titled The Winter Soldier, so I don’t think I was wrong to have expected the character to be far more central.

Also — SPOILERS in this paragraph so feel free to skip — I thought the film bungled the moment in which Steve gets through to the Winter Soldier.  The Soldier is whaling away on Cap, and I was all set for a reprise of Cap’s line from the first film: “I could do this all day.”  Wouldn’t that have had much more resonance than the line they used in the film, which was just a call-back to the flash-back we’d only just seen about fifteen minutes earlier?

I also have to say that, once again, this movie has a disappointing, underwhelming score.  I have been complaining about this for pretty much every single Marvel movie.  Why can’t we get a great score, with strong, hummable themes for the heroes and villains, for one of these movies?  Think about the great heroic/adventure movies/series: Indiana Jones, James Bond, Harry Potter, Batman, Superman, the Star Wars films, the various Star Trek films, and on and on.  EVERY ONE of those films has a main theme I bet you could hum right now.  Every one of these Marvel heroes should have their own theme that we should know, but instead NONE of them do.  Cap actually did have a little bit of a theme in the first Captain America film, but it’s only heard for about two seconds in this sequel, a mystifying decision.  One of these days a Marvel film is actually going to have a great score, and then these films will truly be unstoppable.

Other thoughts:

I LOVED the action sequence on the boat that opened the film.  Vicious and intense, this was a great sequence, and the way Cap used his shield was magnificent.  Also, Batroc the Leaper!!  So great!!  Also, the name of the boat was fantastic.

I loved that we got to see the Triskelion on-screen!!  Wow!!

It was nice seeing Agent 13 in the film, though I wish she’d had more to do.  I wasn’t impressed by the actress who played her — not bad, just not that memorable.  Though it’s hard to blame the actress as the character really didn’t have much to do in the film.  I can imagine a draft of this film in which Agent 13 played the Black Widow role.  That might have been cool, but the Widow was so great in this film that I’m happy this is the version we got.  (Also, why did they call her Kate in the film, and not Sharon?  Come on, Agent 13 is Sharon Carter!!)  (UPDATE: Several readers have reminded me that, though the role is identified as Kate in the credits, Black Widow DID tell Cap her name was Sharon at the end of the film.)

I thought the darker, more muted version of Cap’s costume was phenomenal.  I also enjoyed seeing him back in his more colorful duds from the first film for the action climax.  (Glad that didn’t use his more cartoony look from The Avengers.)

The Nick Fury car chase was fantastic.

I loved getting to see more of the mysterious council from The Avengers.  This movie makes more clear who these people are and how they operate.  Frankly, I didn’t care for the tiresome council in The Avengers, but they were a little more interesting here.

Guess the Black Widow is a fan of Mission: Impossible, huh?

The mid-credits scene is phenomenal, giving us a glimpse of an awesome villain from the comics as well as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.  Unfortunately, the post-credits sequence was lame in the extreme, the biggest let-down of any post-credits sequence so far.  If they had to use that scene, then I feel the filmmakers made the same mistake that I said they made in Thor: The Dark World, in that they got the order of the post-credits scenes wrong.  That end-of-the-credits scene would have been less of a let-down had it been placed at the mid-point, whereas the much more awesome mid-credits sequence would have been much better at the end, where it would have left comic book fans super-jazzed for The Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Oh well.

Another mis-step?  The scene between Steve Rogers and an elderly Peggy Carter.  I loved that they addressed her existence in the present-day, and that was actually a really great scene.  But man, I feel like we missed the moment in which old Peggy learns Cap is still alive.  I am very bummed that happened “off-camera.”  We should have gotten to see that scene, an important emotional pay-off from their cur-off love-story from Captain America: The First Avenger.

I loved the mention of Stephen Strange!  How many years away do you think a Dr. Strange movie is…??  I hope it happens.

I loved the elevator fight.

I didn’t care for the whole macguffin-ish shenanigans of Cap having to put a magic computer-card into each of the three super-Helicarriers at the end so they could be destroyed.  Super-lame.  I was a little underwhelmed by the whole final action climax, actually, the whole thing felt a little under-cooked and the super-Helicarriers a little too easily destroyed.  The visual effects were phenomenal but I could see the plot straining at the seams a little.  Actually, many of the Marvel movies have had a bit of a problem with their big action finishes winding up a little underwhelming.  Just taking the recent films, I felt the same way about Iron Man Three and Thor: The Dark World.  One of the things that made The Avengers great was how phenomenal the whole third act was, how extraordinarily epic the alien invasion wound up being.  It was head-and-shoulders above anything we’d seen before.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s action finale looked cool but plot-wise and emotionally I found it a little hollow.

I loved the computerized return of a villain from the first Captain America.  That was a big surprise, and a delight as we’re inching closer and closer to this character’s depiction in the comics.  (But how stupid was the character then manipulating things so that his bunker gets blown up, destroying himself??  That didn’t make any sense.  Obviously there are a million ways this computerized entity could have survived so they could still use him in future films, but the film wants you to think he’s dead — even having Robert Redford’s character have a line of dialogue soon after, confirming it — and that just seems like a super-dumb plan for this supposedly super-smart character.)  (Also, is this character who is described as being able to “see the future” actually the villainous “Clairvoyant” from the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.??  I doubt it, but that would be super-cool.)

I loved the inscription on the tombstone at the end.  A little obvious, but so perfect and so funny.

I was surprised by how dramatically the end of the film over-turned the apple-cart of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Marvel movie’s status quo.  Is S.H.I.E.L.D. really gone?  That seems a little overly dramatic, and also a little bit dumb on the characters’ part (like Tony Stark blowing up all his Iron Man suits at the end of Iron Man Three — hey buddy, I’m glad you’re in a good emotional place, but you might NEED those again some-day!) but it does leave me curious to see where things go from here.  Will S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury be a factor in The Avengers: Age of Ultron?  (I do they both will be, in some form.)  And what does this mean for the TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.??  (That one I expect to have answered in just a few weeks…)

Can’t wait for Guardians of the Galaxy in August!!

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