Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The first Captain America was the weakest entry in Phase One of Marvel’s plan for cinematic world domination. It was a perfectly well made film, with a likable leading man in Chris Evans and a fun, alternate history for WW2, but it fell flat.

It suffered from being an origin movie for a character created with a very simplistic goal. Captain America was designed to be the pinnacle of the “American man”; patriotic, brave, just and always, always defending the American take on freedom.  Those characteristics, while crucial to his initial appeal, are the reason the first film fell flat and why this second effort, and to a lesser extent The Avengers, are so much stronger.

Putting an incorruptible, borderline indestructible and, for a modern audience (particularly outside of the U.S) unsubtly patriotic hero in such a good vs. evil battle, where they’ve even tried to create a more horrifying version of the Nazis in Hydra, inevitably leaves the film feeling dull, predictable and simplistic despite the CGI pyrotechnics. It seemed particularly dull when compared to the moral greyness of Tony Stark or the Shakespearean clashes between Norse gods that made up the rest of the first phase.

However put him in a modern setting, in a world where the good guys are a lot less clearly distinguished from the villains and his clear cut heroism becomes much more interesting.

The Winter Soldier picks up where The Avengers left the Captain, fighting under SHEILD’s banner but increasingly uncomfortable with the motives and methods that many of the missions involve. Early on it is revealed by Nick Fury that SHEILD has expanded since the last film, both in its surveillance abilities and its ability to act on what they find.

Specifically this involves a targeted death from above for people deemed a threat, an approach that deliberately draws parallels to the real world use of Drones and mass surveillance. The political commentary in the film isn’t subtle or overly complex, this is a Disney/Marvel film after all, but to make the Star Spangled Captain arguably Marvel’s most subversive hero tickled me and makes him infinitely more interesting as a key figure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Side note, if anyone reading this has read a lot of the comics, is this a theme that runs through the comics? The Captain in opposition to the moral relativism of organisations like SHEILD?

Chris Evans also seems to be growing into the role, possibly enjoying the greater complexity he has to work with. In the first film he is a caricature, in The Avengers he’s comic relief as the fish out of water, but here he’s a much more rounded character.

He’s more relatable than before, for large parts of the film he is Steve Rogers rather than Captain America, someone struggling to figure out where he fits in the world and what kind of person he wants to be. That uncertainty is obviously much more engaging than his dilemma in the first film which largely boiled down to, “should I use my super strength to stop the evil Nazi plan to destroy America?” Spoilers, he decided he should.

The supporting cast is impressively strong with Robert Redford adding gravitas as a senior politician within SHEILD, while Samuel L Jackson and Cobie Smulders continue to revel in their roles as resident badass bureaucrats Nick Fury and Maria Hill respectively.

Two performances outside Evans’ stand out, one from a returning character in the universe, one from a new addition.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow gets to add a good amount of humanity to being a badass spy how spends a lot of time assuming poses that seem impractical in a combat situation. Her scenes with Steve show an entertaining chemistry that refreshingly isn’t primarily romantic in nature. One of the biggest criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, partly due to them not having access to the X-Men, is the lack of strong female characters and any development of Natasha as a rounded human being are very welcome. Joss Whedon started it in The Avengers with her reaction to the Hulk and her manipulation of Loki, but The Winter Soldier goes further by exploring Natasha outside of being Black Widow.

Similarly, Anthony Mackie’s character is a strong addition to the cast, because he adds humanity as well as action potential. I’ve liked the actor since watching him in The Adjustment Bureau, and it’s good to see him seizing the opportunity offered him with the character of Sam Wilson. Sam offers a subtly comic touch as well as helping to make the Captain more relatable by bringing home the idea that they are both combat veterans, haunted by the mental scars that that entails. As the trailer shows, he’s also a valuable sidekick for the Captain when things get rough in the form of the Falcon and I’m glad they chose such a likeable, relatable character to stand beside him.

The tone of the film is that of a 70s thriller, set in Washington D.C and full of suspicious boardroom meetings and everyone other than the Captain holding onto secrets. It moves along at an impressive pace, tension and scale escalating constantly.

The Winter Soldier of the title, as the trailer showed, looks like Cap’s old friend Bucky Barnes, who we last saw falling from a train into a valley so deep we couldn’t see the bottom. He’s an interesting foe for the captain, posing an emotional as well as physical challenge. He’s powerful, calculating and somewhat unpredictable, accompanied by an excellent theme whenever he arrives on screen. I won’t say anymore about him outside of the spoiler specific section below, but he definitely works as an engaging villain.

As most of the reviews have pointed out, the film suffers from the same “let’s blow everything in sight up”, CGI battering final showdown that Iron Man 3 did, but the action is well done and unlike Stark’s latest effort, felt earned by the context.

I’ve thought about it a fair amount since seeing this film almost a month ago and my initial reaction hasn’t changed. The Winter Soldier is my favourite of the Phase Two films. It takes more risks and develops both the character and the wider universe much more effectively. Thor 2 and Iron Man 3, for all their many and various merits, felt like more of the same for me, repeating what had worked previously. Perhaps it was to Captain America 2’s advantage that the first film’s underwhelming critical and audience response meant they felt they had to take risks rather than relying on what had proven to work previously.

If I’m going to keep being entertained by Marvel’s cinematic output well into the 2030’s or whenever it’s president Kevin Feige has it planned out until, I’ll definitely need more films like The Winter Soldier.

Now, onto the spoiler section. You should know the drill by now, don’t read past this point if you don’t want to know major plot points from this film and possibly other Marvel films.

This is your final warning.

So this section is going to explore four aspects that it would have been tough to discuss in any detail without risking spoiling the plot.

Firstly, the film did make use of one of my current pet peeves with summer blockbusters, an annoyance that I wrote about in my Star Trek Into Darkness review. Yes, The Winter Soldier sees the return of the “I’m not really dead” trope, in relation to a central character. Around a third of the way through Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury appears to have been killed by the Winter Soldier and his death is the trigger for the escalation of the plot. I was actually beginning to think he had been killed, he’d certainly been shot enough times that it seemed possible. It was a suitably dramatic death and upped the emotional stakes as well as suggesting vulnerability for named cast members. But then he pops up, slightly battered but certainly alive.

I can’t claim I was surprised he wasn’t dead, both because he’s a super spy (fooling your enemies into believing you’re dead is a handy trick) and because Marvel have shown a reluctance to kill off anyone important (Loki in Thor 2 springs to mind).

As I’ve said in earlier blogs I entirely understand the reluctance to kill these characters off, but the frequency with which this trope is being used in big budget blockbusters means that I neither feel the emotional hit of the death or the surprise of their return.

Secondly I found it an interesting move for them to name the film ‘The Winter Soldier’ then have him on screen relatively little, arguably more of a henchman than a mastermind. His story was well done, the relationship between Captain America and him was interesting as the Captain tried to reach out to his old friend, believing he was still in there beneath the anger and cyber tech, but it never really felt like his film.

It feels somewhat like they were setting him up as a character with future films in mind, particularly considering his visit to a museum about Captain America and the Howling Commando’s exploits in WW2. It will be interesting to see whether he plays any part in the Avengers: Age of Ultron, or if he’s going to be kept on one side for the already confirmed third outing for Steve Rogers. That possibility is also made more interesting by the fact that Chris Evans seems to be somewhat disinterested in continuing to act in big projects. I’m sure people familiar with the comics have theories on where those two characters could go, but with all the alternate universes and reboots I suspect even they can’t be certain.

Thirdly, in relation to the final act’s explosion heavy action, I felt that while the action itself wasn’t particularly ground breaking, it felt like the natural conclusion to the story rather than explosions for the sake of it (I’m looking at you Iron Man 3). The attempted coup by HYDRA, with SHIELD agents and HYDRA battling it out aboard three airborne Helicarriers, justified the action and made good use of small scale battles as well as the big picture, Imax extravagance. It was big rather than clever perhaps, but it was entertaining and worked within the larger film.

Finally, I wanted to mention that I’m intrigued by the way the film and Marvel’s TV show Agents Of Shield are tying in with each other. The past few episodes of Shield have dealt with the attempted HYDRA coup and the fall out with previously trusted allies suddenly enemies and it’s buzzed along with a lot of momentum, especially compared to the slower, sometimes clunky establishing episodes at the start of the season.  You didn’t need to have seen Captain America to enjoy Agents of Shield, and vice versa, but they added to the overall experience and make for a wider sense of the universe the films and show exist within. It’ll be interesting to see how the TV show continues, its ratings haven’t been spectacular and the quality has been inconsistent, but there is certainly potential there both for the show and for the way in which studios can look to combine film and TV projects.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review Arthur. Rarely ever lost my interest, even when it got a bit too crazy by the end.