Captain America: The Winter Soldier presents the tipping point for Marvel Studios’ labyrinth of interconnected media franchises in the best way possible. This is the first film they’ve produced that is the closest in not being a good superhero film, but a flat out good film PERIOD. Alongside Superman, Captain America is one of the most unfashionable and archaic of all the spandex-clad superheroes that have made their way out of the comics and into movie theaters. In 2014, there’s something bitterly ironic about a living symbol of idealized American might & valor, draped in the stars and stripes of a simpler era. Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger sidestepped such concerns by setting his feature back to his WWII-era pulp-adventure roots in an escapist adventure reminiscent of the Indiana Jones features. However the Marvel Cinematic Universe is continuously growing and changing and a certain superhero team is in need of its old-fashioned veteran patriarch. Now that The Avengers had the genetically-enhanced soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) defrosted on the present side of history, how do creators and filmmakers to confront his dated 20th-century sensibilities to the 21st-century world?
The answer, as provided by Captain America: The Winter Soldier is to take that culture clash of old and new ideologies head-on as a subject. Super Soldier Rogers is still fighting the good fight and throwing his mighty shield like the sentinel of war he always has been. The conflict comes with an increasing weariness and distrust of historical hindsight after being brought up to speed on a changed world and new battlefields. The Captain is a disillusioned company man, unafraid to question the government bigwigs handing him his marching orders. The trenches and battlegrounds of his era have been replaced by spies, shadow warfare, political deception, homeland security and information technology. It’s been said that Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight films and the Jason Bourne franchise were blockbuster genre flicks evocative of the post-9/11 “War on Terror” world; The Winter Soldier may be the first evocative of our world post-WikiLeaks and Ed Snowden. This makes this the first Marvel film since the original Iron Man to be willing to use a superhero property and mythology to touch on topical real-world issues. Although due to the simple “good vs evil” morality of the superhero genre casting a shadow over the film’s conspiracy thriller trappings: The Winter Soldier never quite pays off the complex moral ambiguity of the world it sets up and forces our straight shooting hero to face.
Where the film truly succeeds above its ever-growing list of genre peers is in pure cinematic CRAFT. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, are sitcom veterans (Arrested Development, Community) and this is their first foray into the action genre and much more serious drama territory: they succeed in spades. In comedy, a couple of the most important components are control of tone and timing. In terms of tone, although this is easily the most “serious” and emotionally weighted of the Avengers-related films, it never veers into the draining moody über-serious “mad real world” mode that nearly every other genre blockbuster seems to aim for these days. The script, actors and directors use casual wit/humor and compelling human drama in all the appropriate moments of the film. A back & forth between Cap and super-agent Black Widow (played by a playfully sultry Scarlett Johansson) can veer between light office-like banter about their dating lives and movies they’ve seen all the way to their respective worldviews. Conversations all flow naturally with each character having their own individual speaking style lending itself a well-balanced mix comical banter in with more serious talks: all service not only dramatizing character but also to add/relieve tension pertaining to the narrative. Good character work goes a long way in keeping audiences invested even as all hell breaks loose and our cast is put through increasing spectacles of action and violence.
In terms of “action” this is where the Russo’s background in comedy becomes an invaluable asset with a mastery of timing coming into play. The film is littered with a myriad of action sequences ranging from on-foot & car chases, air battles, gunfights and fistfights. NONE of the action sequences ever overstay their welcome. They are paced with expertise, played for suspense when the action slows down, and all out visceral adrenaline when it ramps up. It should also be noted that every action scene is not only in service of the narrative/story but also serves to show character through physicality. For example, Chris Evans’ Captain is a level-headed and easy going military man but his fight sequences hint at a hidden aggression and ferocity within himself. Every action beat is not only appropriate; they are memorable and take full advantage of how far film has come in terms of visual spectacle and choreography. That the filmmakers somehow figured out how to reconcile the quick-cut hand-held camera style of modern action films and a more traditional widescreen and focused/precise cinematography all at once is no easy feat. The “Black-Ops” stylized boat/hostage rescue sequence that opens the film and the chaotic sky battle that closes it are examples of “perfect” action filmmaking.
Superhero films live and die by their cast and The Winter Soldier definitely lives. Chris Evans has settled comfortably in to the role of Marvel’s de-facto poster-boy hero and has hit that right balance of boyish vulnerability, earnestness and herculean aptitude. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow makes a fun foil for the more straight-laced Captain with equal parts sardonic irreverence, cynicism and a playful coquette attitude. They are joined in the film by Anthony Mackie from Hurt Locker. His take on the Falcon, a war veteran plays out as Cap’s modern-day kindred spirit as well as sort of comic relief to the film’s proceedings. Then we have the enigmatic war machine, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Although the film carries his name as sub- title, the Winter Soldier’s actual appearance is limited, as is his dialogue but the character is arguably Marvel’s most fascinating cinematic character yet: a super soldier engineered in service of an ideology but unlike Rogers, he’s been stripped of his identity, memories, free will and reduced to nothing more than the twisted puppet of the military industrial complex. Stan wisely draws inspiration for his performance as this tragic monster from equal parts Frankenstein’s Monster, Terminator and Manchurian Candidate.
The supporting cast includes Samuel L. Jackson as SHIELD commanding officer Nick Fury, as himself with eye-patch and suited in black leather. Cobie Smulders continues as Agent Maria Hill, Nick Fury’s buddy-cop and Robert Redford as seasoned politician Alexander Pierce round out the cast in fully realized roles. Do look forward to Easter eggs and casting cameos as befitting a Marvel Studios production (especially during the mid-credits teaser).
No, Captain America: The Winter Soldier never reaches the level of poignant nuanced and morally complex relevance of genre peers like The Dark Knight or The Bourne Ultimatum did but the fact that it even briefly yet tastefully touched on topical subjects such as modern warfare, homeland security and the military industrial complex is something to applaud nevertheless. Ultimately what elevates this film above the level of most of its genre peers is clarity and confidence in its filmmaking craft. On a technical level from script, direction, design, acting—every front in the production of this film is polished and comes together cohesively. This is a film that is completely effective and successful in what it sets out to do and much like the multiple twists that drives the film and the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” it all just comes together.
– In an effective piece of symbolism: Captain America is given 2 uniforms in the film. His primary one (the one seen in all the marketing) is less a star-spangled superhero getup than a stylish militarized uniform that makes the Captain look more like a 21st century Gestapo or Storm Trooper. He abandons that uniform towards the end of the film in favor of his original WWII suit. This symbolizes Rogers’ rejection of the modern-day’s morally murky status quo in favor of his older, traditional (if not outright “conservative”) values and ideology.
– Is it just me or are the mid & post-credits teasers in each of these Marvel movies becoming increasingly ambiguous and/or impenetrable to anyone but knowledgeable and/or hardcore Marvel comic readers and fans?