Film Review- ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (****1/2)

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Well that's something you don't see every day.
Well that’s something you don’t see every day.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”   ****1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders with Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson

Written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

**CAUTION: POSSIBLE MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD**

Until now, Marvel’s high-water mark had been 2012’s “The Avengers”, a slick, brilliant achievement in movie-making that actually lived up to the hype.  Since then, this universe (groundbreaking as it may be) has been uninspiring.  The mild amusement of “Iron Man 3” coupled with the sub par “Thor: The Dark World” led me to wonder if the franchise had lost its’ mojo.  Considering the lackluster ratings for the tie-in TV show ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, it wasn’t hard for me to suspect that the best this group had to offer might be behind us.

Fortunately, the reports of Marvel’s death are premature.  Not only is “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Marvel’s best offering, it deserves praise as an excellent film as well, reinvigorating the entire ‘Avengers’ universe.  To paraphrase the Captain himself, take away the suits from this film, and what do we have?  A fantastical surprise- a spy thriller, a political potboiler of a story (in the vein of a ’70s paranoia film), and a topical, dark, cautionary tale. Oh yeah, and a glorious action spectacle.  Sure, audiences may not leave this film pondering existence like they might with a Malick film, but I dare you to find a more entertaining, tense action movie the rest of this year.

When we left Steve Rogers (Evans), he had just finished leading a motley crew of heroes to victory in New York over an army of aliens, then closing a portal to another dimension.  One can imagine that any subsequent mission might seem mundane, but the mundane is what the Captain prefers- he just happens to be inundated with super soldier serum.  The Captain has settled into his role as Nick Fury’s (Jackson) lead dog, but he has grown weary of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s increase in power, and weary of Fury’s excuses for having said power.  The two have mutual respect for each other as soldiers, but sit on different ends of the ideological spectrum.  Fury’s distrust of people has brought him success; Captain America’s distrust in those who distrust people has brought him a modicum of the same.  Fury believes people might just need to be protected from themselves, whereas the Captain stands firm on the idea that any sacrifice of freedom is not right.

The film allows their conflict to spill out on-screen, as the two career soldiers are forced to test their beliefs when a mysterious assassin targets S.H.I.E.L.D. and its’ agents.  As Black Widow (Johansson) explains, this ghost of a bad guy is the stuff of legend.  This legend is responsible for many of the world’s top ‘hits’ over the past 50 years, and she should know- Natasha did, after all, tell us ad nauseam that she has red on her ledger.  The question, of course, is who this emo-cyborg is that keeps showing up to bring the pain, and how much this ‘Winter Soldier’ might mean to Captain America.  While not a groundbreaking comic film antagonist, the Winter Soldier is given a fine arc, bolstered with an effective flashback scene, further enriching our understanding of their special bond.  He’s a righteous opponent for Captain America- both a physical equal and an emotional test.

The assassin’s appearance actually sparks the arrival of a greater evil, the onus for the film’s ever-present tension.  Nick Fury sensed this through his prescient understanding of the world’s rhythms; well, as Gloria Estefan warned us, the rhythm is gonna get you.  Fury is pursued in a scene that rivals the greatest street fights and car chases in film history, and sparks the plot.  The resulting chaos forces our heroes to become fugitives, hunted from every angle by those they worked alongside and trusted until they learn of the real plan.  Without revealing anything crucial, I can say that the script provides appropriate reasons for the treachery, and when viewed as an entire story, brings the ‘Avengers’ arc to a precipitous and revelatory head.  It’s a risky, game-changing decision, bold enough to earn my highest marks, in that it 1) makes sense, and 2) provides real danger to all our heroes- even the ones not in this film.

I imagine it’s also apropos to mention that the good Captain (and Chris Evans) finally gets a chance to stretch his legs as a character here.  His ‘power’ seems more tangible here, and he gets the chance to actually portray some depth, and (gasp) maybe even find a date.  He does end up finding a trusted friend and worthy peer in Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former paratrooper who now spends his time counseling vets dealing with post-war stress.  Sure, the plot needs him, but it was easy to buy Wilson as a peer, for he appears to be much like the Captain- just short of superhero abilities, in which the film finds comedy.  Wilson is an important character in comics- not simply because of his abilities, but because his alter ego ‘Falcon’ (adapted well here to fit a modern context) turned out to be the first African-American superhero in major comics.  The script gives this character a sensible role in this universe, one that is likely to expand.  The film even allows for Black Widow to aspire for more than simply a super-spy; she’s vulnerable, clearly shaken by the film’s events, and we discover the odd understanding from opposite ends of the spectrum between herself and the Captain.

When comic books are at their best, the story reflects our society in a specific way, channeling the zeitgeist.  Sure, the artwork is wonderful and occasionally iconic, but it is the topical, relevant, and reflective nature of the stories that people remember most.  This film resembles the best of those comics, in that it brings some rather obvious real-world issues to the forefront.  Think about it- do we expect comic films to touch on the idea of sacrificing freedom for protection, and then have characters figure out that morality on-screen (with respects to “The Dark Knight”)?  What about the manipulation of our personal data into future projections of ability?  The brainwashing and torture of POWs?  See what I mean?  This is no Saturday morning cartoon.

Sure, we do wonder where Hawkeye is during all of this, being a trusted advisor to Fury and all, and where in the world is Thor when you need him?  I must forgive this film those small logistical omissions, for there is an inescapable earnestness that must be acknowledged.  This is a film that rises above the source material, creating a cohesive, smart experience.  These unproven filmmakers, Anthony and Joe Russo, made the heck out of this movie, and I applaud them.  Fans should be salivating that these two directors have been asked back for the third film, and delighted that the Marvel universe seems to have righted itself (for the time being).

*Note- Stay through the end credits, for there are not one, but two additional scenes.  Are they great?  No.  Are they essential?  No.  Will you stay and watch them anyways?  Yes.

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3 thoughts on “Film Review- ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (****1/2)

    […] unbelievably successful, but I’ve been pining for them to have some fun.  Even the latest Captain America film, despite how well-done it is, still operates at a spy thriller-level of seriousness.  In […]

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