Friday, April 4, 2014

Never Out of Style - Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Reviewed

My commitment to spoiler-free reviews means I can't tell you a lot about the plot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, although the trailers seem to have given away most of the shop anyways.

I can tell you that it holds up to the increasingly high standards of Marvel movies remarkably well.  Joe and Anthony Russo's first big-screen blockbuster has a gripping storyline that would not have been out of place in a lot of '70s political thrillers, and it is probably the best looking Marvel Studios release to date.

This is not an exaggeration.  The car scenes are the best I have seen in ten years, and compare favourably to Ronin, even though they tend to be less car chases and more car-fights.  The fight scenes are fast, sharp and best of all, crystal clear; no Bourne-style shaky cam here.  The Russos also do a great job of showing the difference between being hit by a soldier, by a martial arts/espionage specialist, or by a superhuman.  This movie also includes the maximum amount of shield slinging allowable by law, and it's not like I felt this element was overlooked in the first Captain America!

Familiar faces are here in the form of Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, as well as Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury.  New arrival Sam Wilson (Falcon), played with swaggerless confidence and tremendous charm by Anthony Mackie, is worthy addition to the MCU pantheon, but I hope they switch out his paramilitary duds for something more heroic in his next appearance, whether that is in Cap 3 or Avengers 2.  I doubt the actor will get the classic red spandex he is looking for, but hopefully a step or two can be taken in that direction.

Robert Redford brings his A-game as well, blending ruthlessness and charm as befits the government secretary overseeing an immensely powerful intelligence gathering and covert ops organization.  Apparently he made this film to impress his grandchildren, who are Marvel fans, and I hope they are proud of the great job he did, and the gravitas his veteran presence brings to what could feel like a silly undertaking in less-skilled hands.

Even before Joss Whedon came on as special advisor and spiritual advisor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, producer Kevin Feige and his studio had already figured out that in order to be truly successful, superhero movies could not be a genre unto themselves, and they need to blend elements of action, story, character and humor with the precision and timing of a master chef.  How they can do this so consistently is completely beyond me, but The Winter Soldier does all this, and more.

Although it is a darker and somewhat more cynical film that what has come before, they waste very little time on the Rip Van Winkle aspect of the title character, and instead focus more on how the world has changed.  How do we regard freedom?  What are we prepared to do to protect it?  How much compromise is too much?  It is easy to ask these sorts of questions and then sidestep them instead of resolving them, but The Winter Soldier follows through in a surprisingly gutsy fashion, and shakes up some of the pillars of the MCU significantly.  (If you are currently watching Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, I strongly recommend seeing this movie before the next episode.)

And the fan service?  Astonishing.  There are the obligatory nods to the current movie continuity (like Black Widow's tiny arrow necklace, suggesting a connection to Hawkeye since the Battle of New York in The Avengers), but they also do a surprisingly good job updating a couple of vintage comics characters, Batroc the Leaper and Arnim Zola.  Hearing Stephen Strange get a name drop was wonderful, but for me, the golden moment came when one character whispers to another, "Hail Hydra," and all the hairs on my arm stood up.  I can't tell you how long I have been waiting to hear those words in the current continuity, and it looks like the wait has been worth it.  What SPECTRE is to Bond, Hydra is to Marvel, but far, far, worse.  There's a few more Easter eggs as well, but I will leave them for you to discover, and maybe we can revisit them in a few weeks.
"Hail Hydra! Immortal Hydra! Cut off one limb and two more shall take its place!"

The next Marvel movie is a sidestep to the cosmic with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which is likely to not deal with present day MCU Earth at all.  That won't return to the big-screen until next May with Avengers: Age of Ultron (by the way, I don't have to tell you to stay past the credits, do I?), capping off 'Phase Two' of Marvel Studios master plan, but in the meantime we can at least content ourselves with the ever-improving Agents of SHIELD (and maybe even Agent Peggy Carter  at some point!).

You don't need to be a comics fan to enjoy The Winter Soldier; it is a tightly written spy thriller with incredible action sequences.  But those of us familiar with the source material will be impressed by how many old threads they manage to weave into the new material, and how a timeless character like Captain America can take a complex, 21st century conflict and show us how in the end, even that fight can be good against evil.

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