Monday, April 14, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Marvel Studios films, individually, are for the most part perfectly fine superhero films, telling interesting stories about diverse characters.  But looked at as a whole franchise? It's unbelievable and unprecedented.  The way the continuity weaves between each of the films is remarkable, tying characters together that ultimately teamed up in 2012's The Avengers (Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and a slew of others). The franchise is teeming with possibilities from both a marketing standpoint and a storytelling perspective, and it's simply brilliant.  That's not to say that all of these films are of the same quality, though.  Iron Man 2 has it's fair share of issues, and Thor was more of a base for The Avengers than it was its own film, but the majority of the Avengers films have been met with high praise.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was arguably one of the best in the bunch, mostly due to its old-fashioned throwbacks and likable characters.  The only period piece in the Marvel Studios canon, Captain America is a film I've re-watched several times and find myself liking more and more.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up where both the first film and The Avengers left off, with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a.k.a Captain America, still adjusting to life in the 21st century after being frozen for 70 years.  Rogers and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen) bother work for the government organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division). They have both been called in to rescue a S.H.E.I.L.D. ship from a French pirating sabotage.  Soon after, Rogers finds his loyalties between S.H.E.I.L.D. and his own sense of morality torn when he finds out that the supposedly "good" organization is building powerful weapons of mass destruction.  When the leader of S.H.E.I.L.D., Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) is attacked, and the institution's security has been breached, Captain America and Black Widow must go on the run and find out just what kind of corruption has been going on within S.H.E.I.L.D., and consequently, the U.S. Government.  Meanwhile, Rogers seems to have met his equal in battle in The Winter Soldier, a zombie-like assassin with a metal arm and lightning fast moves.

In more than a few ways, The Winter Soldier surprised me.  Not only was the story engaging and the characters three dimensional, but there was clear post 9/11 commentary beneath the surface to ground everything in a relevant reality.  While the words "terrorist" and "Al Quida" are never spoken outright, the film has much to do with our fears of powers beyond our control, and what the government might do to take advantage of our fears it gets the chance.  How much of my personal freedom am I willing to sacrifice for my safety? And is it really my safety the government cares about, or is this situation just chance to further control me?

These are the questions the film raises, and while the ultimate answer the film gives is "blow shit up," the real world parallels were much appreciated.  The reason I love the X-Men films so much is because of their ability to be entertaining while being about something, which is what the best science fiction should be. Yes, the final battle in The Avengers is a lot of fun, but what does it all mean?

Along this journey, we are introduced to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) a.k.a. The Falcon, and man did I love this character.  Mackie is excellent as the war veteran with a good sense of humor, but just a hint of sadness.  Black Widow gets a bit more development too, with plenty about her character left to be explored.  I feel that in each Marvel movie she appears in, Johansen gets better and better. This girl deserves her own focus movie for sure. And Samuel Jackson? Just as badass as ever.  You'll never guess the little Pulp Fiction reference thrown in for those paying attention at the end.

There are definitely moments of silliness littered throughout the story, but nothing took me out of it quite like a certain computer that is supposed to store a person's entire consciousness...made in the 1970s.  That really didn't make any sense, and only exists to provide a heap of exposition necessary to move the plot forward.  The scene is really effective nonetheless, but come on.  The stuff that this '70s computer can do is well beyond what any modern day computer can do.

Speaking of which, the technology in the Marvel movies seems to be ripped from the not-to-distant-future and not from the present day.  Touch screens in the air, impractical star-wars style laser/taser guns, and impractical projection screens that only seem to exist so that cooperate leaders can have a conversation from miles away?  What was wrong with the Brady Bunch-style screen conversations in the previous films?  I'm sure most of this technology is in the works, making this ahead of its time in some ways, but if a movie is going to take its characters and plot seriously, all this gimmicky gadgetry is a major distraction.

CGI is becoming one of my pet peeves, and while The Winter Soldier does have some nice practical fight scenes, the third act is a CGI shit show.  In fact, I would say that most of the action set pieces push the envelope just far enough to be unbelievable, which once again, is a bit of a distraction for me.  Captain America's mortality varies from time to time, seeming much more invincible at times (getting launched face-first into a bus and surviving just fine).  At least we do get to see him bleed a bit before the ending, making him at last seem human at the core.

If I had to nitpick one more element, it would be that the titular Winter Soldier doesn't get as much screen time as I would have liked.  I found his story very interesting and would have liked his character to have had more impact on the story early on.

Though I also would have liked a little bit more from the ending of The Winter Soldier, it's still a blast through and through, and that's what really matters when talking about these Marvel movies.  The characters are already established, so it's nice to jump right in.  The twists and turns the story takes are genuinely well done, and the pacing is breakneck without feeling rushed.  Throw in some relevant social commentary and I'm sold. If the special effects and over-the-top stunts get in the way on occasion, I suppose I can deal with that.  Bring on the next installment, Marvel.