Friday, April 11, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Review

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is very entertaining with really great action and a nice tonal change of pace from most superhero adventure films. The film is about Steve Rogers (Captain America) still coming to terms with his place in the modern world, working for S.H.I.E.D. There is a conflict between his idealism and the manner by which S.H.I.E.D. wants to police the world (preemptively eliminating targets with huge flying gunships). Working with Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) on a recent op, Rogers uncovers a secret conspiracy within S.H.I.E.D., one that changes everything and makes Rogers and Romanoff fugitives from S.H.I.E.D.

There are two things that stand out about The Winter Soldier right away. It is very violent and plays much more like a serious political thriller (with a lot of action) than a superhero adventure film, especially for the first two acts before it bows to the obligatory massive action set piece in the third act. There are great twists and a plot that is actually interesting. This film does not have to merely make due on the strength of its good characters and visual splendors (though, it also has both of those too).

Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have completely changed the tone of the Captain America solo franchise, taking full advantage of Ed Brubaker’s great story (he also makes a cameo in the film). Captain America: The First Avenger is sort of hokey and is steeped in nostalgic charm, but that worked for that film (as it takes place during a different time with different values and realities). It succeeds not on its action beats (which are mostly boring) but on its character moments. The Winter Soldier has great action (maybe the best of any film so far in the MCU) and character moments. It is a superior, but different film. Paralleling the NSA, S.H.I.E.L.D. seemingly wants to monitor and control the people it is charged with protecting. The world is no longer about stopping evil in terms of a known entity like the Nazis or Hydra; good and evil being black and white. The world has digressed into a scary place in which evil is now potentially everywhere, hidden in plain sight, waiting to strike. Our modern world is one of fear and terror, and thus the Russo Brothers have adapted Captain America to be a beacon of hope and moral good in this world of grey.

Phase II of Marvel’s films has been so much better so far than Phase I. Each of the solo superhero films is better than any of the solo films in Phase I (personally, I rank them: Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier, The Dark World, Iron Man, Thor, The First Avenger, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk). I also really like that each of the solo franchises has a different tone and style: Iron Man 3 feels like a classic 1980s/90s action film, The Dark World like a sci-fi/adventure fantasy, and now The Winter Soldier like a political thriller (similar to the Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne films, but with much bigger action sequences).

The Russo Brothers have a difficult narrative to manage with The Winter Soldier. There are many characters and the story has a lot going on. Like the best blockbuster directors, who need to balance the spectacle with the characters and story, the Russo Brothers create great character moments that fluidly exist within the bigger action sequences, which allows the film’s pacing to be rather tight and the narrative keeps moving forward; however, I am not sure younger viewers will quite find this to be the case. There are portions of the film that revolve around Rogers and Romanoff trying to uncover the truth behind the conspiracy, and these might play slower for young viewers (although, I am not sure this film is appropriate for those young viewers anyway, as again it is very violent, as Captain America certainly is not messing around). All the good action aside, the film really succeeds on the story work the Russo Brothers do with their characters. Maybe more so than any other MCU film to date (along with Iron Man 3, which is in some ways also a Tony Stark character piece), the narrative really digs deeply into its characters. The audience really gets to see behind the veil, especially with Rogers (and also to some extent Romanoff and Nick Fury).

MCU films still do not have great villains, however, outside of Loki (particularly when compared to The Dark Knight Trilogy). In The Winter Soldier, there is a hidden villain behind the conspiracy and then his henchmen, the most notable of which is the Winter Soldier (whose identity should not be a spoiler as it is obvious from any trailer, promo or merely looking at the cast list, but I will still treat it as one). The Winter Soldier as a character is fairly bland as he is basically a cold-hearted killing machine (he is essentially a Terminator), but that level of conviction is also kind of exciting, because the audience knows that this man will not hold up or stop coming, which in turn creates actual suspense when he engages Roger, Romanoff, et al. That said, I am hoping Joss Whedon can finally deliver another great villain into the MCU with Ultron.

The Winter Soldier is another example of Marvel’s dominance of superhero films in the present moment (as it has been ten years since Sam Raimi’s brilliant Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight Trilogy is at an end). Like each of the other Phase II films, The Winter Soldier is extremely entertaining, providing its solo character (or two characters, as it does feature two Avengers heavily) with his own great adventure, allowing the audience to become all the more invested in the MCU as a whole. And yet, it also works completely as a standalone political thriller that draws parallels to our own political climate.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: I was very surprised that Marvel hired the Russo Brothers to direct a big budget action film, as their CV was mostly made up of TV comedy like Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings (all good, but not big action things); and, their only feature film was You, Me and Dupree (which certainly does not inspire faith). Let me say: they did a fantastic job with The Winter Soldier. Their camera is always active in the scene, often creating interesting and exciting shots. I am very much looking forward to their work on Captain America 3 in 2016.

Composer Henry Jackman is no stranger to the superhero genre, having also scored Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. With The Winter Soldier, he again delivers a score that works well with the tone of the film while also giving it an epic superheroy feel. It is good work, as usual. Trent Opalock (who shot District 9) brings a great grittiness to the cinematography, almost completely contradicting with the gleam of The First Avenger, which nicely juxtaposes the differences in the world Rogers knew and the one he now finds himself in. I think the look of the film is tonally right on. Production designer Peter Wenham (who designed The Bourne Ultimatum) also grounds the film very much in the real world (as much as it can be) with a very real feeling and looking world for Rogers and company to inhabit.

There are a lot of characters in the film, and yet they are all served well by the narrative and give good performances. I really enjoyed the cameos/small roles from Gary Sinise’s voice, Steven Culp, Branka Katic, Danny Pudi (yes, Abed got in there), Aaron Himelstein, Jenny Agutter, Garry Shandling, Callan Mulvey, Toby Jones, Maximiliano Hernandez, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Cobie Smulders (hoping these two women might show up in future episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and especially Hayley Atwell (who might be getting her own Marvel TV miniseries Agent Carter). Anthony Mackie, playing Sam Wilson/Falcon, brings a good foil for Steve Rogers to bounce off. Sam too is a good man returning from war a bit shaken, not really knowing what to make of life back in the world. Mackie plays Sam with a great sincerity that works very well in the developing of Sam’s friendship with Rogers. Sebastian Stan, playing the Winter Soldier, does a good job of looking heartless and cold, essential to the character. Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a man who is at the top of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s hierarchy with Nick Fury. Redford brings the right balance of politician and war veteran to the character, making him very believable. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury, but he has never been better as the character nor had more to do (in terms of dramatic moments). Jackson is quite good in the film. Scarlett Johansson is also great as Natasha Romanoff. Her flirty work relationship with Rogers is so much fun and gives the film needed lighter moments amidst all the action and suspense. She is possibly the star of the film – that is except for the fact that Chris Evans is also wonderful as Steve Rogers. Evans has been good in other films and as other characters, but he is perfect as Rogers, a man who seems as wholesome as they come, but who is also not hesitant to carry out his mission (if he believes in it – which is what creates the tension in the film; he is a soldier, but more so a good man).

Summary & score: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is yet another great and entertaining film from Phase II of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. The action is strong and big and the characters moments are very satisfying, but mostly the film is just a good political action/thriller. 8/10 

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