Comic books are a medium, not a genre, but unfortunately “superhero movies” have become the latter. These adaptations are typically filled with bloated action sequences sandwiched between origin stories and three to five separate climaxes. I was delighted to find out that Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is an engaging thriller that raises the bar for the rest of the franchise.
The Winter Soldier picks up where The Avengers left off: Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) have relocated to Washington D.C. and are working for S.H.I.E.L.D. under Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). The missions given to the pair seem to be standard espionage fare, but when Cap begins to dig deeper, he finds himself questioning exactly what (and who) he’s fighting for.
The film owes a lot of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning: heavily colored by debates surrounding the N.S.A. and drone strikes, it revolves around the question of whether or not we can trust those who are supposed to protect us. S.H.I.E.L.D. is an ostensibly good organization that employs heroes, but how much power have they been given? And how much freedom has been surrendered in that process?
The first Captain America film, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, was a throwback to grand World War II movies. It was filled with newsreel montages, a song and dance number, and a score of faceless Nazis armed with flamethrowers. The Winter Soldier is darker, but not in a Christopher Nolan “darker and grittier” sense. You get the feeling that Cap has finally adjusted to the world he was thrust into in The Avengers, and has found himself entirely at odds with it. Early in the film, he takes a trip to the Smithsonian to look at an exhibit devoted to his work during World War II. It’s a sweet moment, but there’s a sadness behind it: it’s clear the missions Cap is currently going on might not be viewed in the same way.
The Winter Soldier isn’t afraid to lean into that moral grey area, blurring the line between good guys and bad guys. The Black Widow, a.k.a Natasha Romanova, is utilized perfectly to this end. An ex-KGB assassin who defected to S.H.I.E.L.D., she’s continually referenced as an officer who is “up for anything,” but it’s obvious that working in the shadows of morality has begun taking a toll on her.
Johansson’s performance as Natasha is the highlight of the film: dry and flippant, you’re never quite sure what she’s going to do next. Unfortunately for the talented Evans, Cap is easy to predict: a holdover from the greatest generation, he will always choose to fight on the side of morality. Natasha is more flexible, and inordinately more dangerous because of it. She’s also a hell of a lot more interesting, so it must be getting harder and harder for Marvel to justify not giving her a stand-alone film.
The film is capably directed by the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe. The pair is a surprising choice: their last feature film was the 2006 romcom You, Me and Dupree, and their only other credits are from sitcoms (Community, Happy Endings, Arrested Development). They falter slightly on the larger action sequences and fights – there is a cut every second or so, and it’s occasionally hard to focus on what is happening, but they otherwise handle the material very well.
The Winter Soldier is at its best when not relying on CGI (though I’m sure Marvel would have been happy to pay for more explosions). There is an amazing car chase following Nick Fury that is well-paced and thrilling because you can trace exactly what is happening and where. A later scene where Cap and Natasha try and elude hostile agents in a shopping mall seems simple but speaks volumes about the way each character adapts to attacks.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier manages to strike a balance between pleasing hardcore Marvel fans and entertaining the uninitiated. I’m more than a little familiar with Captain America, and I was surprised that the film made some unexpected choices. For those who are less devoted to Marvel comics, the film offers a fairly comprehensive recap. Of course, if you’re someone who can’t stand costumed heroes, this film probably won’t change your mind. But if endless summers of similar action movies have given you spandex fatigue, this film might be the perfect antidote.
Featured image courtesy of http://movies.cosmicbooknews.com