Tuesday, 15 April 2014

I'm With You Till The End of The Line: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

I think 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (henceforth known as TFA) is one of the most underrated recent superhero films- and one of Marvel Studios’ unsung gems. It’s an earnest throwback to the hero’s time during WWII. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny kid who wants to join the army but can’t. However, due to his pure heart, Rogers is selected to receive a super soldier serum that turns him in to Captain America. And after a noble sacrifice Rogers is frozen for nearly 70 years. The film is lighthearted and good natured, featuring a protagonist who’s not snarky, arrogant or angst-ridden. Rogers is just a good guy from beginning to end. And while that may sound boring to some the film makes this lack of a traditional character arc work.

It was a wise choice for Marvel to set TFA almost entirely in the 1940s. It would’ve been easy to have Rogers frozen in the opening minutes of the film and then wake up in modern times. Either that or not even do the “man out of time” angle and just have Rogers be a modern soldier. The 40s settings is what gives that film its charm and unique tone. It also allows the next chapter in this franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (henceforth known as TWS), to be in stark contrast to its predecessor.   

TFA was a throwback to the classic Captain America stories from the 40s and TWS is akin to the more modern and spy thriller style of Ed Brubaker. And if TFA is Star Wars then TWS is The Empire Strikes Back. Like that film, TWS is a much darker, grittier and morally ambiguous film than its predecessor. Moreover, like ESB TWS changes the landscape of its universe. Nothing is going to be the same after the events in this film. This makes TWS an exciting and satisfying chapter in the Marvel Universe. This is a rock solid and thrilling adventure that arguably eclipses the original.

After the events of The Avengers Rogers is still adapting to life in the modern world and working for the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.  While he has allies in the Avengers, nearly all the people he knew are dead. There’s a touching scene between Steve and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British officer who Rogers worked alongside and fell in love with during the war. Seeing the two together, Rogers still a young man and Peggy an elderly woman, reminds us of what they could’ve had and highlights the tragedy of Rogers as a character.

Rogers becomes suspicious of S.H.I.E.L.D and its director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) when he learns of something called Project Insight, a plan by S.H.I.E.L.D. to pre-emptively neutralize threats. This plan is largely in response to the events of The Avengers and the Battle of New York.  Rogers tells Fury “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” This moment between the two men shows us Rogers’ philosophy and how his views don’t match up to this modern world’s morally ambiguous politics. Evans and Jackson are convincing as two men that have known each other for quite some time now. Rogers calling Fury “Nick” is a nice character beat.

The film quickly becomes a conspiracy thriller as Fury is targeted by a group led by the mythic Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), an assassin for Russians. This attack is in regards to Fury attempting to discover more information about Project Insight and it soon becomes clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised. But just how compromised and by whom is one of the film’s most interesting examples of storytelling and world-expanding.  Rogers can only trust a select few, including Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff and a new ally- Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) - a war veteran who comic fans will recognize as Falcon.

What TWS tells us about S.H.I.E.L.D. makes Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World feel like casual strolls through the park. What we learn both deepens TFA and the whole Marvel Universe. In fact, this film is often more about the Marvel Universe than it is Captain America. But they couldn’t have done this film without Captain America. He represents optimism and old fashioned heroism in its purest form. He comes from a time when one could distinguish between good and evil. To put him in the middle of a dark spy thriller where the line between good and evil becomes blurry is thematically interesting. The situation become even more personal for Rogers as the Winter Soldier has ties to Rogers’ past. The Winter Soldier is a strong presence and is a formidable foe for Rogers. I also like that the film’s true villain isn’t a super villain at all, which keeps things relatively grounded.

I think what’s most impressive about this film is how it’s able to go down a darker route than the other Marvel movies while not becoming excessively serious like The Dark Knight Rises or Man of Steel and I say that as an admirer of both films). Despite its dark overtones TWS still embraces its comic book origins and keeps its sense of humour intact. I also admire that this film’s action sequences are dirtier and more brutal than in the other Marvel films. Instead of magic hammers we have bullets, knives and hand to hand combat. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a fine job of crafting kinetic and mostly comprehensible action.

The climax of this film, while being predictably large scale, works spectacularly due to the stakes feeling huge. This is nowhere near the final film in the Marvel Universe but the climax brings with it a weight that tells us this is a major turning point.  The climax juggles several characters at once and while it can get a little messy it clicks together well and provides a high amount of tension.

Captain America is hard part for an actor to pull off.  Like Superman, I feel many people view Captain America as “boring” or out of date. But Evans makes Rogers a likable and believable hero for the modern age while still representing a man from a different era.  He’s so good in the role that he’s arguably to Captain America what Christopher Reeve was to Superman.  

Johansson has the most fun in the role of Romanoff yet and I like she’s gotten more personality over the course of the three films in which she’s appeared. Romanoff was largely a cipher in Iron Man 2 but in The Avengers and now this film she’s become one of the more complex and interesting characters in this universe. Mackie is charismatic as hell as deserves to be a bigger star. Fury has his most significant role to date and Jackson nails the dramatic beats of Fury’s story.  Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top brass. You would think Redford’s role would just be a glorified cameo but Pierce plays a crucial part in this film’s story and Redford balances the different side of this character. What I love about Redford being in this film is that he’s always been the all-American male movie star and could’ve played Captain America in the 70s.

I do have some minor issues with the film.  One is that I wish Emily VanCamp had a larger role as Agent 13, who comic readers will know to be Sharon Carter, niece of Peggy. Though to be fair, she’s mostly here to set up the character for a third film. I also would’ve liked a little more of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). She’s an important part of Rogers’ team in the climax but I don’t feel I know the character well enough.  The film also takes too long to make clear what its plot and themes exactly are.     

I’ve become skeptical and cynical towards the superhero genre but TWS is a superior entry in both the Marvel Universe, maybe even their best film to date. It’s ambitious in attempting to make a political statement and how it reshapes the universe. TWS is one piece of a larger canvass but its robust, smart and thrilling blockbuster entertainment.

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