Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

(dir. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

Walt Disney Pictures

“Captain, in order to build a better world, sometimes means tearing the old one down… and that makes enemies.”  

              Captain America: The Winter Soldier is all about strings—who’s pulling them and what happens when they’re cut. The film is a sharply plotted political-thriller that successfully merges real-world issues with the action-adventure from Ed Brubaker’s run on the comics. Picking up nearly two years after the events of The Avengers (2012), Captain America, Steve Rogers, is working for S.H.E.I.L.D. under the direction of superspy Nick Fury. Returning to fight alongside him is the Black Widow, whose secrets and ulterior motives cause Steve to question S.H.E.I.D.’s peacekeeping methods. His crisis of conscience is complicated by the arrival of the mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier. Hunted by former allies and old enemies, Captain America is made an enemy of the very country he’s trying to protect.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far more allegorical than Marvel’s usual output and it is evident that the studio is becoming more comfortable with challenging the conventions of the superhero genre. Captain America lends itself well to this challenge. The most successful writers of the character’s 73 year history have understood that the character works best when facing real world political issues whether the threat is Hitler or Nixon. The Russos and screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have a strong understanding of this, and their use of recent NSA surveillance dilemmas provide a complex conflict. Captain America is yesterday’s hero, but as he discovers in the film, yesterday isn’t quite so different from today. While the technology may make things murkier, and the villains may not have red skulls, at the end of the day there are still those in power playing at being gods.

But the film is not all politics and allegory. The Russos balance tension and levity well, refraining from leaning too heavily on the later as Marvel is known to do in some of their more recent ventures. The fight scenes and hand-to-hand combat are some of the best in any superhero film. But the heart of the film is the relationship between Captain America and The Winter Soldier, two sides of the idea of a good soldier. The Winter Soldier isn’t given much to say (this stays true to his initial appearance in the comics), but he is a convincingly menacing and sympathetic foil to Captain America. It is the relationship between these two soldiers that prevents the climax from becoming just a sequence of well-executed explosions.  If you’ve yet to see the movie and haven’t read the comic storyline on which the movie is based, avoid spoilers (which may be nearly impossible given the film’s marketing) on the exact nature of that relationship.

Like all the Marvel Studios films it is the well cast performances that really bring the film together. Chris Evans once again captures the earnest patriotism of Steve Rogers and gives the character a real sense of personality beyond being a good-natured boy scout. Scarlett Johannson plays the Black Widow with a bit more of an edge than we’ve seen her have in previous films, though there is still something a bit too American about her performance to be fully convincing as an ex-Russian spy who spent years traveling the world. Samuel L. Jackson is even more comfortable in his role as Nick Fury and it’s evident he’s having fun with the character as he adds more layers to the man. Robert Redford has some great scenes as S.H.E.I.L.D. official, Alexander Pierce. His casting and the role he plays is made even greater by the fact he would have made a perfect 70s era Captain America. The stand-out performance though really belongs to Anthony Mackie’s instantly likable portrayal as comics’ first African-American superhero, The Falcon.  It’s certain that we’ll be seeing more of him in future Marvel films. While Captain America is never overshadowed and it is his actions that drive the plot, the film works well as an ensemble piece.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of Marvel’s best. The consequences from the film’s climax really will change the shape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And as the mid-credits scene shows, things are only going to get more interesting going forward.

Grade: A+

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