Sunday, April 13, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, 2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Poster

Of the Phase One movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was not my favorite (truth be told, it was my least favorite), but it may have been the most fully realized and successfully self-contained. More than any of the other Phase One directors, Joe Johnston managed to put his own personal stamp on the work. Whereas Thor (2011) felt awkwardly split between the lofty Asgard segments and the half-baked Earth episode, Captain America: The First Avenger had a very definite identity as an old-fashioned period action film in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or The Rocketeer (1991). With the sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony and Joe Russo do a similarly good job crafting a film that possesses a distinct personality within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while still feeling of a piece with the other movies.

Removed from the World War II setting, this latest story draws inspiration from the more recent Ed Brubaker run of the comics, whence came the character of the Winter Soldier, and which recast the title as more of a spy thriller. Up until the final massive action sequence, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels more akin to something like The Bourne Identity than to any of Marvel's other superhero movies. And, as a more grounded action thriller, it's extremely well-executed. Despite being a Marvel movie, it rarely feels like a kiddie take on the genre, but rather stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best spy films.

What I especially love about Captain America: The Winter Soldier are the urban action sequences. Broad-daylight city streets have always been my favorite setting for action scenes. Not that I'd ever want to see warfare break out in my neighborhood in real life, but, in a movie or video game, I just think it's more exciting when the stage for explosive action sequences more closely resembles the stage on which day-to-day life transpires. It makes the action feel more real and consequential.

The car chase involving Nick Fury is superb, as is the cat-and-mouse sequence where Winter Soldier is stalking Black Widow through the streets. What makes these sequences stand out is that there's a palpable sense of danger to them—something that, one can imagine, is extremely difficult to pull off in a PG-13 superhero movie, when we already know the characters are slated to appear in future films. I will say that one of the things that holds Captain America: The Winter Soldier back slightly is that, unlike in typical R-rated spy films or even a PG-13 James Bond movie, no significant noncombatant ever just gets suddenly and unambiguously blown away, so the bad guys maybe don't always seem legitimately threatening. But, for a few great sequences at least, the villains in this movie, Winter Soldier in particular, are played up to be very menacing and ruthless, and Nick Fury and Black Widow, for all their skill and experience, seem actually vulnerable and in fear for their lives—something none of the previous Marvel movies have ever managed to convincingly convey.

Captain America himself, meanwhile, never feels vulnerable in this movie. Out of all the headline Avengers, Chris Evans's Captain America is, I think, the most likely to be killed off eventually. But we've known it wouldn't be happening in this movie, so the action scenes involving him tend to be among the film's more predictable and less engaging. The exceptions, of course, are Cap's fights with the Winter Soldier. Every time these two mix it up, the results are spectacular, even when the outcome is unsurprising.

Part of what makes Captain America less compelling to me than his fellow Avengers Iron Man and Thor is that he's just more limited in the things he can do. Thus, in The Avengers (2012), he mostly got stuck doing the tasks that the other heroes were simply too busy to take on, and director Joss Whedon evidently couldn't think up any better ways to show off Captain America's abilities than to have him doing some gratuitous gymnastics. Heck, that even happens a few times in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At the same time, he's almost too pure for spy films, since he's never going to pick up a gun and start shooting people in the face a la James Bond.

But, in Winter Soldier, Cap finds his perfect match—basically just a dirtier version of himself. The speed of their hand-to-hand combat is mesmerizing. And credit must be given not only to the choreography but also the sound editing—the little mechanical whirring noises always keeping us mindful of the Winter Soldier's ever-threatening bionic arm.

Compared to Iron Man and Thor, I also find that Captain America has kind of a blander personality. A wartime invention, the character has transitioned uneasily into the modern era of relative peace, a man always in desperate need of something to stand for. Since Captain America's reintroduction into comics in the 1960s, it has been precisely the anachronistic Rip Van Winkle-esque angle to the story that has been the most compellingly tragic aspect of the character—something that, in the previous movies, was sadly glossed over via a perfunctory post-credits scene in Captain America: The First Avenger, before it was back to business in The Avengers because aliens were invading.

Truly, that was an unfortunate consequence of having Captain America: The First Avenger be the last Phase One film leading into the "event" that was The Avengers, but at last Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes some time to explore more thoughtfully Cap's tragicomic struggles adapting to life in a new century and trying to come to terms with the fact that the world he knew is gone forever, literally all the guys in his old barbershop quartet now dead.

Even as we live in times of relative peace for the U.S., cynicism about the American state is also much higher than it was in Captain America's day, the leaks about the government spying on its own citizens being the latest breach of our trust. The film tackles this issue of privacy vs. security, ultimately falling rather squarely on one side of it. I did think it a bit far-fetched that supposedly the most effective espionage and law-enforcement agency in the Marvel universe could be so thoroughly infiltrated by its criminal counterpart for decades without anyone noticing. But then I considered that, nine times out of ten, S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA's goals were probably in complete harmony—before HYDRA turned his own plans against him, Nick Fury himself was the one who tried to sell Captain America on spy satellites and preemptive strikes on his enemies—and I was ready to say, "To Hell with the both of them!" But, really, the debate is not explored that deeply, and the plot of this movie is more so just the unholy union of the convolutions of a conspiracy-laden spy film and a continuity-heavy superhero movie.

Maybe as good as any of the action sequences are a few quieter moments that Captain America spends with Black Widow, as these two fringe operatives, now on the run from the very spy organization that formerly commanded them, pause to have unusually honest conversations about each one's suitability for this line of work that is, at once, directed with cynicism yet inspired by idealism. These scenes help us to better understand Captain America's perspective, but they're even more essential to developing the character of the Black Widow, who had been little more than eye candy in Iron Man 2 (2010), then just the token female member of the team in Avengers. Despite Joss Whedon's reputation for being a feminist storyteller, his Black Widow was a pretty painfully one-dimensional "strong woman" type. What Captain America: The Winter Soldier manages to pull off is to develop her into an actual human being—someone with coherent opinions, personality, a worldview and a life beyond just the immediate mission. For the first time ever in one of these Marvel movies, I found myself unexpectedly thinking, Man, I guess these superheroes are actually people. And the movie is better for it.


Robert Fung said...

"I did think it a bit far-fetched that supposedly the most effective espionage and law-enforcement agency in the Marvel universe could be so thoroughly infiltrated by its criminal counterpart for decades without anyone noticing."

To quote Nick Fury, "I noticed!"

Henry Fung said...

Did he notice before or after they killed him?

Robert Fung said...

Good question. Maybe he began to notice when his car started blowing up from guys shooting at it.

Henry Fung said...

Even then, that's probably something he has to put up with just every time he drives alone through the shopping district.

Robert Fung said...

"I will say that one of the things that holds Captain America: The Winter Soldier back slightly is that, unlike in typical R-rated spy films or even a PG-13 James Bond movie, no significant noncombatant ever just gets suddenly and unambiguously blown away."

You would have preferred the Winter Soldier to have challenged Captain Rogers to shoot a shot of whiskey off of his lover's head. Then when Cap misses, the Winter Soldier blows the girl away, and asks, "What do you say to that?" And Rogers says, "What a waste of good Scotch!"

Yeah, you would have liked that.

Henry Fung said...

Haha, just for the public record (since I never got around to blogging about it), I hated Skyfall, I hated that scene, and I think I now just hate everything James Bond because of it.

Robert Fung said...

Hated everything except the theme song sung by Adele?

Robert Fung said...

The Avengers is flawed in many ways, but to me, the portrayal of Captain America was one of its strengths. In fact, his role was probably the most distinctive in that movie. The other three biggies kind of did the same thing – bash baddies, with the exception of Iron Man’s entertaining advantage of continual flight. And by the end, the lowly two – Black Widow and Hawkeye – were basically Cap’s lieutenants, doing his bidding.

Captain America stands out because he’s out there rescuing people in immediate danger, while the stronger Avengers are fighting the overpowered showcase villains. My favorite scene in that movie is when Cap actually takes on a hopeless face-to-face against such a villain, Loki, giving an inspiring speech while he’s at it. Granted, he knows that backup is on the way, so he’s not exactly sacrificing himself, but his role has always been more symbolic than those of the other Avengers, mostly for us viewers, but sometimes in the in-movie reality as well. He is the very symbol of a shield for the helpless. And what he can do that the other Avengers can’t is speak from a place of genuine moral authority. Robert Downey, Jr., as an actor, sounds tired of himself when he has to deliver a line sincerely, rather than ironically or comically. Thor is lofty but not deep. Hulk by design speaks as little as possible; likewise, Bruce Banner mumbles like a mouse. Thor and Hulk are strictly men of action.

It perhaps mirrors real life, where the job of the “everyday hero” is not glamorous. As such, I think Cap is the most relatable of the Avengers, especially when set against the backdrop of Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor. He’s making the most of what he has, little though it is in context. And I think the point is that it’s not so much his abilities that are on display in his three movies, but his character.

Because he is defined by gadgets and mayhem and cool, Iron Man is the hero that 10-year-old boys root for, both in real life, and in the movies (Iron Man 3). I’m not sure who roots for Thor and Hulk, and they've clearly taken a back seat, both in the narratives, and at the box office (Hulk doesn't even have his own movies anymore!). Captain America is the hero for people like that woman he saves in The Avengers, who appreciates first-hand the immediacy of the person who pulls you from the jaws of death, as opposed to the soldiers going out to the battlefield to give the enemy hell.

For me, it’s a welcome antidote to the generally mindless spectacle of The Avengers, or even worse, the characterization of Superman in Man of Steel. Such is the level of the filmmakers’ obliviousness that they take the ultimate “good guy” and turn him into a "hero" for whom killing the galaxy's most dangerous criminal is an existential crisis, but who apparently doesn't even notice that his midair grudge match has resulted in the demise of untold thousands (millions?) of innocents in his wake of collapsing towers and exploding glass.

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