Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Review:
Almost a decade ago, Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer did what many thought to be impossible. Batman, a character rooted in Gothic sensibilities, had his best film outings include: a man with literal flippers and a beak, who called himself the penguin, and a Christopher Walken playing the bride of Frankenstein. Nolan and Goyer took those Gothic sensibilities and used them to reinvent the caped crusader and in turn revolutionized the comic book genre, sometimes for the worse. Soon after that, Spider-Man donned the black suit, and superheroes stories would continue to explore the darker, angst-ridden train that ‘Batman Begins’ set them on. A train that would inevitably take a massive nosedive.And why wouldn’t it? The Dark Knight was one of the first films in the superhero genre to make over a billion dollars at the box office. Aside from that it gained the sort of legitimacy most films can only dream of when it scored the academy award for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Surely both financially and artistically it only made sense that if these movies were to evolve past the days of Bat nipples and Shrek hulk, a darker direction was essential. That’s why Spider-Man has more gloom than ever and Superman is a stone cold space killer. I repeat. Superman is a stone cold space killer. That’s a problem. As I mentioned in my Man of Steel review, the final scenes of the film feel disconnected from the character of Superman. This isn’t just the character as he exists in popular culture but in how the film itself presents him. Superman is supposed to be an ideal to strive towards, the ultimate messianic metaphor in tights, someone who upholds the values humans hold dear while maintaining the power of a god. To balance this type of boy scout character against a brooding backdrop can be trying as it either leaves the world you’ve established feeling unrealistic with black and white morality in which the hero doesn’t have to make any hard choices, or the hero himself feels unrelatably naive. Pushing superhero movies towards a darker tone in an effort to mature the genre and the stories told within it is an admirable achievement when done right, but it can only be done right through an appreciation of the character itself. It’s easy to make Batman dark because that’s where he shines brightest, but characters like Superman, and Captain America for that matter, are better off standing in the sun. So with all that said, how does the latest in the genre, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (CA: TWS) fare in this ongoing battle to achieve a balance of relatable realism? Well in my view, it does it better than any other before it. Picking up the pieces after the “Battle of New York” in ‘The Avengers’, CA: TWS, follows the star-spangled man with a plan as he makes his adjustments to 21st-century living. Right off the bat, we’re privy to this as Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers makes a mockery out of Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson in a morning jog that ends with the two sharing a meaningful conversation that will help shape their friendship throughout the film. Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson, a retired Afghan vet who spends his days volunteering at a support group for veterans struggling to acclimate with their return from the horrors of war. Naturally, Steve Rogers finds a friend in him as although the two have slightly different situations, Steve’s war was more than half a century ago while Sam’s was less than a decade, they still manage to relate to one another. After all, “War. War never changes.” After Wilson adds to Captain America’s ever-expanding list of things he just has to read/watch/listen that he missed with ‘Trouble Man’ by Marvin Gaye, an album he claims to compile everything from the last 70 years into one album, ‘CA:TWS’ takes the training wheels off and begins in one of the best opening sequences in a superhero film to date. Captain America, following returning femme fatale Black Widow, is now a full-fledged agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, as part of his attempt to embrace the familiarity of following orders and serving his country. Steve inevitably comes to the realization that the ruthlessness and disregard for the privacy of everyday people in an effort to ensure freedom, doesn’t really work for the man who just doesn’t like bullies, no matter where they come from. It’s here where the movie really hits it’s stride and solves the problem I spoke about before. ‘CA: TWS’ takes the goodness of its main character and makes it into a redeeming quality rather than a hindrance. In a world where it’s impossible to find anyone to trust, Captain America’s absolute honesty is a rare and appreciated characteristic. It not only establishes him as a hero, but as a shining beacon for the films darker characters.This is where the rest of the cast falls in. Anthony Mackie’s character more or less serves as an echo for Cap’s good old boy sensibilities, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. He provides a valuable support system for Steve in this trying time in his life. The contrast comes from Johansson’s Black Widow and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury. As Nick Fury says in the film, Black Widow is comfortable with everything. She and Fury represent a by-product of the world they live in, placing their trust in few. They base their actions on the idea that they take the world as it is and not as they would like it to be. Captain America struggles with this as a man who comes from a time when things weren’t so veiled in shades of grey. As the movie is completely in favour of Captain America’s straight edge way of thinking, it also shows the merit in a liar’s mentality. Providing pitfalls in both Cap and Black Widow’s ways of doing things paves the way for the characters to develop over the course of the film. Remarkably so, considering the film takes place in about the span of a week. When the movie isn’t pitting the ways of the past and the present against each other, it’s making sweet love to your eyes with a barrage of fantastically choreographed fight scenes. Many people wonder how Captain America can fare against more fantastically inclined supers like Thor and Iron Man, but Captain America holds his own in this movie. The fights are closely shot but it’s finally done in a way that convey’s chaos instead of confusing its viewer, which is a rarity in action movies nowadays in an attempt to procure a PG-13 rating. The punches are not pulled and it perfectly conveys the confidence that Captain America oozes as the greatest soldier in history. Close combat fight scenes provide a good amount of tension, but the film also brings that with a few tense chase scenes, either involving Nick Fury’s smart car or on the rooftops of Washington. As the action scenes are as tense as the tone of the film is dramatic, there is a good balance of comedy within the film so that you get a chance to breathe. Whereas Thor: The Dark World suffered from an inability to hold back the funny, ‘CA: TWS’ understands the value in pacing. The dread felt in one moment is not cheapened by the levity of the next. Speaking of tension and dread, the main villain in the movie is a force of horrifying nature. As Steve delves deeper into the secrets that shackle the world he lives in he encounters the second titular character the Winter Soldier. Completely clad in his own personal arsenal of what I can only assume is an endless supply of knives, grenades, and handguns, the Winter Soldier is a slow walking silent death. From the characters first scene in which he enacts his cruelty with surgical precision, the masked menace with a metal arm chews a stick of mint gum, grabs your spine and blows a gentle chill down it. More often than not, with a character like this, his formidable nature is merely told to the audience but he never actually does anything. Such is not the case with the Winter Soldier. The character does more than enough to convince you that he is to be feared, leaving you just enough to leave to your paranoid imagination. Chris Evans once again takes a character who, if not done right, could be cornier than Orville Redenbacher’s namesake. Instead, he’s played in a way that throws away all your cynicism and makes you believe in his good. Johansson has played Natasha Romanoff 3 times now and has only gotten better as time went on. She crafts a widow who is undoubtedly capable with a style that doesn’t seem attempted but just happens naturally. Sam Jackson is as Sam Jackson as ever but somehow that isn’t a bad thing. Anthony Mackie serves his role as an understanding and charismatic sidekick and makes the most out of what he’s given which while great, simply isn’t much. Robert Redford, the most surprising casting choice is genuinely an intimidating force as Secretary Alexander Pierce. Most times I’ve found with superhero movies, there always seems to be at least one actor who doesn’t seem fully committed to the role due to the genre of movie it’s in and then the film suffers because whenever that actor is on screen the immersion factor is gone. This has gotten better in recent years but still, every now and then you get someone who does the movie just so their kids can see it but doesn’t really do much acting wise. To close out I’ll say ‘CA: TWS’ is an excellently crafted movie with a strong understanding of it’s the main character, what he represents and how to translate that in a way that is relevant to today. The film presents it’s darker tones and balances it with appropriate humor and the action is unspeakably good. If there is anything bad to be said about the film it would only be the fact that Captain America’s shield is apparently capable of breaking the laws of physics in the way it bounces off of things and returns to Cap but once you just accept that then you should be just fine. Rating = Big Screen Watch P.S This movie is already the best superhero movie of all time, for the simple fact that it makes use of Captain America’s pouches in a very crucial scene. I can’t count how many characters in comics and in the films themselves are covered in pockets and pouches that are seemingly just for show. Aside from Batman and his utility belt, every other hero with a pocket covered belt can’t seem to find any use for them other than to make a fashion statement. Must be a union thing.