Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Movie Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I feel like every time I do a movie review it’s a different format. That’s not good or bad, it’s just that I have different ways to express how I feel about different movies. Sometimes I want to do a full recap, sometimes I just want to talk about stuff the movie made me think about, and sometimes I just want to make fun of it. I do know that I won’t be doing the latter today, as The Winter Soldier was no laughing matter.

As I’ve said before, Captain America: The First Avenger stands as my favorite of the Marvel movies. It was perfect - not only as a Captain America movie, but just as a movie unto itself. I won’t go on and on, but Joe Johnston gave the whole thing a special magic that makes a movie “One of Those”. As much as I’ve enjoyed all of the Marvel flicks, that first Cap movie stands out as special to me in the same way that the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies do. It captures an era and a feeling and transports you utterly away from the real world.
Obviously The Winter Soldier had a tough act to follow. 
 
I realize I’m discounting Avengers, but that was a massive spectacle that was not greater but different than the sum of its parts. It did advance Steve Rogers’ narrative, but not in the way that a new Cap movie would be able to.

I normally try not to get too excited about movies. It’s a good way to not be let down. But with eight great movies preceding it, I found it near-impossible not to have lofty expectations about The Winter Soldier. My only reservations came from the fact that Joe Johnston was not directing this one.

Before I get into the movie proper, I want to express my admiration for the level of interactivity Agents of SHIELD has ended up having with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first concrete examples were with Thor: The Dark World and the fallout from the climax of that movie; then the appearance of Sif on the show. But once you’ve seen The Winter Soldier you realize that the entire first season of the show thus far has been subtly leading up to the world-changing events of this new movie. I strongly recommend you watch (or re-watch) the 4/1 episode of AoS after you see The Winter Soldier. It’s powerful. And I can’t wait to see tonight’s episode.

Next I want to express my admiration for the sheer balls it took to do what Kevin Feige and the rest of the folks running the MCU did. We hear about “game-changing” events where “nothing will ever be the same” all the fucking time. In comics, in movies, on TV, and especially in TV shows and movies based on comic books. But those crazy sunsabtiches actually went and did it.

***SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT***

If you don’t know, it turns out Hydra took over SHIELD decades ago and has been quietly subverting the entire fucking world thanks to an algorithm that Arnim Zola - who, by the way, is now a consciousness living in a computer that takes up an entire military bunker and has a camera for a head and a TV screen for a face – developed. I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t a big robot, but at the same time he still could be at some point.

Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, Natasha Romanov, Maria Hill, and Sam Wilson determine that the only way to stop this monster is to destroy SHIELD utterly and at the end of the movie that is exactly what they do. There’s no bullshit bait-and-switch. No sly winking at the camera and saying, “Well, here’s the real SHIELD”. It’s done. Over. No more SHIELD. These people go and get new jobs. It’s definitive.

Now, obviously there’s a future gameplan because Agents of SHIELD must go on. It’s awesome now and has Deathlok and everything. But Everything Has Changed.

The second thing I truly admired about The Winter Soldier was that for the first time Black Widow felt truly fleshed-out and essential to the plot. She had a personality and was integral to the goings-on. Sure – she had her Hulk issues in Avengers (and that was a solid plot point), but Johansson was basically there to look amazing in a bodysuit. Which she is very, very good at, but if you’ve seen the lady in other movies you know she has more to give. Not only was The Winter Soldier the vehicle for Johansson to finally seem like more than a disposable pretty face, it was the one that really made me crave that Black Widow solo movie that the internet keeps speculating about.

Also, did you notice her arrow necklace? Nice touch, Marvel. Fine – I’ll take a Hawkeye/Black Widow buddy picture.

But obviously this thing wasn’t all about Black Widow. It was also about
Steve Rogers. And Steve Rogers not only adjusting to the chaos of the modern day world, but discovering that the only thing he has in that world is a lie. 
 
Chris Evans once again turns in a phenomenal performance as the pure-hearted, yet brilliant Steve Rogers. It would have been so easy to portray Cap as a doofy do-gooder. But there are levels here. Cap’s motivations are always pure, but throughout his Marvel Cinematic narrative we can see the struggles his character has. He wants to do the right thing (and always does), but sometimes it’s hard knowing what the right thing is. 
 
There’s a scene between Evans and Johansson after Nick Fury has been killed (I’ll get to that). Cap doesn’t know who he can trust. Black Widow, by her very nature, shouldn’t be trusted. By this point in the movie she has already broken his trust by omitting her role in the opening mission of the movie. You can see the emotions in both of the actors as they struggle with each side of the scene – Widow wanting to be trusted an understanding why she isn’t while Cap wants to trust her because she is one of his only friends. The scene is made all the more impactful by the preceding portions of the movie where the two had such an easy, companionable relationship.

Cap has another struggle in the form of the Winter Soldier himself. If you don’t know, the Winter Soldier is Bucky, who was recovered after his fall from the train in The First Avenger. He was able to survive due to the experimentations he was undergoing at the hands of Arnim Zola before Cap rescued him. Bucky spent decades being programmed as the perfect assassin, having his mind wiped after every mission, Dollhouse-style. He is now SHIELD/Hydra’s top weapon.

Once Cap discovers that this new enemy is his pal Bucky, there’s no doubt that he can save him. In keeping with the character that has been established so far in the MCU, Steve Rogers does not have one moment of doubt that Bucky Barnes can be saved and redeemed. It’s powerful stuff and leads to some near tear-jerking scenes.

Speaking of Bucky, Sebastian Stan had a tough role in this flick. Really all he had to pull off was unstoppable and anguished, in that order. The conclusion of The Winter Soldier made it clear that we are going to be seeing a lot more from Stan’s Barnes character, but for this one he kind of had to get by on his pretty face. He was a powerful presence, but due to the nature of the story just didn’t get to do much more than be a badass.

Like Black Widow, Nick Fury was also blessed with the chance to develop more as a character. Sam Jackson got to be so much more than the typical Sam Jackson character. He had depth, feeling, and pathos. As disappointed as I was by his one-note performance in RoboCop is as elated as I was by the opportunity Jackson was allowed in The Winter Soldier. He betrayed. He was betrayed. He was thrown away by the only thing in his life, and dammit, you saw every bit of that pain in Jackson’s performance. One of the most powerful performances in the whole movie is before the climax when Cap tells Fury that SHIELD has to be utterly destroyed. Fury’s pain is palpable. He doesn’t want that, but he knows it has to happen.

Seriously, you guys – this might be Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance in the last two decades.

And that brings me to the fact that The Winter Soldier is much heavier than any of the other Marvel movies. It isn’t a drag – far from it – but it represents the definitive end of an era. Very bad things happen and the pure of heart have to step up and… not make things right. It’s too late for that. But they have to step up and destroy all that they know so that justice can have a chance. There are jokes and one-liners and fun moments, but this is essentially 115 minutes of The Empire Strikes Back with 5 minutes of Jedi tacked on at the end. And I mean that in the best way possible.

My favorite scene in the movie was one of the new guy. If you don’t know, the new guy is Sam Wilson, played by Anthony Mackie. He’s Steve Rogers’ new non-SHIELD-affiliated buddy. He’s smart, charming, and honorable and is also Falcon. He spends the climax of the movie swooping around Helicarriers while dodging bullets. It’s breathtaking. In a movie full of outstanding action and fighting, this scene was the one that really wowed me.
Other odds and ends:
  • Robert Redford was an inspired bit of stunt casting. This movie was chock-full of story with little time to spare for the introduction of Alexander Pierce – a role that had to be believable as Nick Fury’s superior and as the main villain. Obviously when you need something like that you call Robert Redford.
  • The fight scenes in The Winter Soldier were fantastic. Cap and Black Widow’s hand-to-hand sequences were thrilling.
  • The scale of the movie managed to be epic while sharing a universe with Avengers and Thor: The Dark World. Not only were the visuals top-notch and awe-inspiring, but the scope of the plot involved the demise of what is essentially the cornerstone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • Cap stealing his old costume from the museum reminded me of The Three Amigos. Anything that reminds me of The Three Amigos is good. I just wish we could have had a scene of Scarlett Johansson on top of a wall going, “Lookuphere, lookuphere; HEY YOU GUYS!
  • There is a point in the movie where the action is so intense and the heroes’ desperation is so tangible that I genuinely believed Black Widow might die. I never believed for one second that Nick Fury was dead, but when Widow went up against the Winter Soldier I really thought that might be it for her. Well done.
  • Oh yeah – Nick Fury “dies”. You know he’s not dead and the people making the movie know that you know he’s not dead. But the plot does not need you to believe he’s dead. It needs you to believe that the people in the movie believe he’s dead. You’re reacting to their feelings, not your own. So when Natasha and Steve think Fury is gone you’re sad. When they find out he’s alive you’re happy. It totally works.
  • I really hope we get an Arnim Zola robot at some point.
  • I want a Falcon figure really badly. And no – the Marvel Select one won’t get the job done. I need a Marvel Legends scale version.
  • While I’m on the subject, I want a Black Widow, too. Fortunately they made one. Unfortunately I haven’t seen it for less than sixty bucks.
  • This movie felt very much like the precursor to a grand quest. The end made it quite clear that we have a lot more ground to cover with Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Black Widow, and of course Sam, Cap, and Bucky. Cap has vowed to find Bucky and rehabilitate him. I can only imagine how epic that search will be.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier wildly exceeded my expectations. I don’t know exactly what I thought it would be, but it was so much more. The first Cap movie is still my favorite, but this one is a more than worthy successor.

5 out of 5 Mighty Shields (not SHIELDS)

Of course, this means I am very excited to see the third installment, which will be directed by the same team that did this one. I’m looking ahead to 2017 already.

6 comments:

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my new favorite Marvel movie. Love it.

    Bobby

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    1. I can't wait to see it again. I don't think it will replace The First Avenger as my favorite, but it was great.

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  2. Just saw it and loved it! The action sequences were phenomenal, great emotional acting, great script, and a solid spy/thriller plot with a fitting social message. I was floored that they actually tore down SHIELD for real – that's rips a mile-wide hole in the cinematic Marvel Universe, considering how much they have relied on using SHIELD to tie everyone together. It will be exciting to watch The Avengers lead themselves in their second movie, instead of following Fury's orders. And by "lead themselves", I mean "watching Ironman and Captain America argue while The Hulk flips the conference table and storms out" :)

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    1. Yeah, I'm very curious to see how the infrastructure of the Avengers is going to be handled.

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  3. Great review, I couldn't have said it better.
    I did not have high hopes for this movie, just based on the commercials, but I really loved it. Captain America is also my favorite Marvel movie, followed by Iron Man, but this is now right up there with those two.
    Honestly, Avengers is a lot of fun, but you never have a sense of dread, and despite an alien invasion are never afraid that someone is going to die (even Coulson's death didn't convince me, since we didn't see his body I didn't think he was dead).
    This movie was different, as the threat of an overreaching government agency with way too much power and info at their discretion was credible. Also the scenes with the winter soldier attacking were actually suspenseful, because that maniac obviously was willing to kill anyone he could, and a lot of innocent bystanders suffered.
    Ultimately I am very happy with this movie and can't wait to see Captain in action again, and want to see how Bucky can adjust to the info he has received.

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    1. That last scene with Bucky was heavy. I'm gonna go crazy waiting for the next one.

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