Tuesday, April 8, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Makes Cap The Coolest Hero In the Marvel Movie Universe


- Here's what's cool to me about CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: the trust that Marvel Studios had in the source material. Let me give some context. Captain America is, obviously, a product of the 1940's and World War II. Created by a young Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the iconic comic book image of Cap from that period was of him delivering a knockout punch to Adolf Hitler. Later, in the 1960's, Stan Lee revitalized the character when he revealed that Cap had been frozen in ice since the 40's, and was now thawed out - still preserved in the body of a young man - and made a charter member of The Avengers. The first Captain America film (not the abhorrent 1990 version - the one from a few years back) paid loving homage to those early comic book adventures. It gave the character a modern sheen, but it was still 100% done in the pulpy, bombastic, colorful spirit of the golden and silver age comics. And for that reason - and for the fact that it took pains to portray Steve Rogers as not just a powerful hero, but as a good and decent person - the first Captain America movie quickly became my favorite of all the modern Marvel films. As much as I dug the way that that movie captured the spirit of Simon, Kirby, and Stan Lee, I was equally jazzed that, for the sequel, Marvel chose to mine one of the best stories from their recent history. Honestly, until Ed Brubaker took over writing duties on Captain America in the 00's, I liked the *idea* of the character, but never cared to actually read of his adventures. However, I had become a huge fan of Ed Brubaker from his work on the Batman comics, and was curious to see this darker-edged writer take on a traditionally bright and more lighthearted hero in Captain America. What Brubaker did during his comics run was nothing short of game-changing, embroiling Steve Rogers and his cohorts in political intrigue and conspiracy. Steve Rogers himself didn't become darker, but the world around him did. Most notably, Brubaker introduced The Winter Soldier,a dark mirror of Cap that proved to be a fantastic adversary and antihero.

To me, it's pretty cool to see Marvel, the movie studio, put faith in Marvel comics. Not mining stories from fifty years ago, and not simply reinventing everything needlessly for the movies. Instead, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is an actual adaptation of a great modern comic book story - something we've rarely if ever seen from Marvel or DC films. Yes, the movie works within the framework of The Avengers films and fits into the larger Marvel movie universe. But what most excited me about it is that it actually treats the source material with respect, to the point that it adapts a specific story in a way that's very faithful to that story's characters and tone. As a comic guy, this is awesome. I mean, fans are almost invited to pour over details of YA novel film adaptations and see how accurate the movies are. But comic fans? We've been trained to get excited over the mere mention of some obscure reference to one of our favorite stories. It's not that I need to see a literal adaptation of every great comic book story. It's just that it's cool to see one of the great modern comic book story-arcs finally get the respect it deserves from Hollywood. I like that it allows fans to go and buy a compendium of stories that the movie they just saw was adapted from. I like that it paves the way for other modern classics to be adapted, so that we can stop going back to the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's for inspiration. And I like that this takes us to a point where a premium is placed on story and characters, and not just fanboy-pleasing references to said stories and characters. To me, this approach says "we are going to tell you a great story," and not just "we are going to throw a bunch of characters together and fill in the gaps later."

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is pretty awesome. It drops some major plot bombs on the broader Marvel movie universe, but more than that, it's just a really compelling thriller, and it works very well as a self-contained film, and as a darker follow-up to the previous Captain America movie. The intent on this one was to pay some stylistic homage to the conspiracy thrillers of the 70's - Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, etc. And getting into that shady corner of this universe - looking at what happens when a darker element invades the typically altruistic structure of S.H.I.E.L.D, makes for a pretty compelling path for the movie to follow. Like the comics it's based on, the movie gets a lot of traction from taking the straight-arrow Steve Rogers - a relic of a simpler, more black-and-white era - a placing him into a much more complex world, where it's harder to tell the good guys from the bad.

And man, it's crazy how good Chris Evans now is as Rogers. He stunned me in the first film with how much he knocked it out of the park. And he's as good, if not better, here. He portrays Rogers as a man still clinging to his morals and sense of right-and-wrong, even as he realizes he's going to have to have a healthy suspicion about others in order to survive. He is, also, a man out of time. And this film does a nice job of addressing that, in ways both humorous (Cap keeps a running list of pop-culture he needs to catch up on), and poignant (as when he visits his old flame, Peggy Carter, in a nursing home).

What's really surprising about this sequel though is how much of a team movie it really is. No, the Avengers don't fully assemble, but Cap does form his own mini squad here, and seeing this particular team in action is a lot of fun. Black Widow is very prominent in the story, as is Nick Fury. With Black Widow, we get some of the best character development we've yet seen for the former KGB agent. Scarlett Johansson does a great job of giving her a flirtatious yet tense relationship with Steve Rogers, even as we see the influence of the morally unshakable Cap start to rub off on her. We see her transition from mere Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to hero. Similarly, we start to see what it is about this version of Nick Fury that makes him stand out from the pack. Samuel L. Jackson gets to shine here more so than in any Marvel movie to date. Fury gets to play a pivotal role in the plot, and, finally, he gets to kick some ass. I was honestly beginning to tire of the character a bit before now, because he just seemed to always show up without actually getting to do anything all that interesting. No more ... now, I'm primed for a Nick Fury solo movie. So Marvel, make it happen ... you dig?

Also joining Team Stars n' Stripes (that's what I'm calling it), is new (to the movies) character Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon. I wasn't sure how cool The Falcon would be going in, but I'm happy to report that he's pretty flipping cool. Anthony Mackie has been a favorite since he wowed me in The Hurt Locker, and he is great here. He's got a great buddy-cop chemistry with Chris Evans, and there's something oddly endearing about having these two characters meet, become fast friends, and just plain like each other without any big fight or dust-up. Very un-Marvel, if you think about it, but hey, I thought that the Cap/Falcon relationship in the film was really well-handled. And the icing on the cake is that the Falcon's suit, wings, and weapons are all pretty great-looking, despite often coming across as lame in the comics. In short, The Falcon is a very solid addition to the film, and I'd be eager to see him pop up in future Marvel movies.

I'll also add that, man, it's great to see Robert Redford pop up here as a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. director. Redford was, of course, a staple of the 70's conspiracy thrillers that this movie pays tribute to, and he lends an undeniable air of gravitas to the film. I thought he might just be popping up for more of a cameo sort of role, but was pleasantly surprised at just how crucial of a part he plays in the story.

Meanwhile, there's a nice lineup of villains to counter all of these badass heroes. It's hard to say too much without spoiling things, but I will say this: The Winter Soldier is just a super cool, well-handled adversary for Captain America and co. Sebastian Stan does a nice job in the role, but I also give a ton of credit to the film's visual design team. Not only does The Winter Soldier look like he walked straight out of the comics, but he looks cool as hell. The character is visually imposing, but he's also got an ultra-compelling origin that ties back into the first film and makes things very, very personal for Steve Rogers. Just as he did in the comics, I think the Winter Soldier will become a huge favorite with film fans. I know that when the film ended, I was even more excited about the potential to see more of the character's journey than I was for just about anything else in the Marvel cinematic universe - Avengers 2 included.

The Winter Soldier is a great, memorable villain, and another reason why is that he's involved in some absolutely kick-ass action scenes. In fact, the movie as a whole - while spending plenty of time on quieter, tension-building scenes - is packed with big, exciting action. There are rapid-fire shout-outs, bone-crunching fights, and some truly visceral vehicular mayhem. In keeping with the darker tone of the film, the action feels much grittier and more violent than the first movie's two-fisted, Indiana Jones-style set pieces.

I definitely came away from the movie impressed with directors Anthony and Joe Russo. Especially given that their background is in TV comedy, the fact that they transitioned so seamlessly to big-budget action is kudos-worthy. They do a very nice job overall, and excel at both action and smaller character moments. I guess my one complaint - which has been true of many of the Marvel movies outside of The Avengers - is that the movie does, ultimately, have a slightly generic, house-style feel to it. It's funny to think about, because Marvel comics, back in the day (namely the 70's and early 80's), was known for all of its books having a very uniform art style (hence the popular book "How to Draw the Marvel Way"). In recent years, however, Marvel has really been a leader in publishing books with a wide variety of unique, and often experimental, looks. I hope that the films begin to follow suit (and I think with Guardians of the Galaxy, we may start to see that branching out, to an extent). In this movie, there's a strange dichotomy, because the film, as mentioned, is clearly emulating 70's conspiracy thrillers - to a degree. But that stylistic tendency also feels reigned in, and forced to work within what is now a very familiar Marvel movie house style. I get that there is a need to not deviate *too* far from fan expectations, but you also don't want movies that feel stifled, or held back from being all they could be. So yes, the film has some interesting visual motifs and a unique feel vs. other Marvel movies, but it never quite goes all the way. For every scene that feels like something we've never seen in a Marvel movie before, there's another that seems like it could be totally interchangeable with the latest Iron Man or Thor flick.

Even so, it's pretty remarkable just how well this film came together. It nails the character dynamics. It tells a great story (and is a great adaptation of the comics), with one of the best villains yet seen in a superhero movie. It gives us the best Black Widow and Nick Fury we've yet seen on-screen. And it further convinces us that Captain America - that dusty old relic from the 1940's - just might be the coolest (not to mention the most relevant and vital) superhero in the whole Marvel Universe. In that respect, Marvel: mission accomplished.

My grade: A-

1 comment:

  1. Just like the actual story itself, everyone will have a different interpretation of it and I definitely think that's one of its strongest-suits. Good review Danny.