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Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review: Last Action Superhero
Marvel loves to take risks. Back at the beginning, with Jon Favreau directing Iron Man, to Joss Whedon directing The Avengers, and all the risky choices in between, they’ve loved going in unexpected directions with unconventional choices. So, I suppose that it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that their “phase 2” movies have continued that tradition. Iron Man 3 did so by picking yet another off-kilter director in Shane Black. But with both Thor: The Dark World and now Captain America: Winter Soldier, they’ve gone one step further. Now they’re not only playing with directing choices, they’re playing with genre. With Thor, it was putting the mythical characters in a genre that made a lot of sense given their nature; straight fantasy. With Captain America, the choice seems equally obvious in hindsight; action spy thriller. Think the Mission: Impossible series, and you’re on the right track.
That’s not to say the directors weren’t still a bold choice on their own. Joe & Anthony Russo have their roots firmly in television, and comedy sitcom television at that, which makes it hard to gauge how they even got in the door, though fans of Community will recognize at least their love of action in the paintball episodes they directed (those folks should also keep their eyes open for a fun cameo). With no history in the action, thriller, or superhero genres, it’s all the more impressive that The Winter Soldier ends up being a thrilling, competently crafted film featuring all of those.The Winter Soldier picks up sometime after the events of The Avengers (it does not mention the events either Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World) with Captain America now an operative of SHIELD, going on dangerous missions for Nick Fury, and not liking it very much. Turns out that the clandestine nature of modern military and intelligence agencies doesn’t suit Cap, who is looking for a more straightforward way of fighting the good fight. It’s during this introductory section that we see Cap really struggle with the modern world, which is surprisingly something we haven’t dealt with too much so far (I suppose he was too busy fighting aliens in The Avengers). He finds himself walking through museums and visiting old friends, more interested in hanging on to the past than integrating into the present.
After one mission brings to light secrets that start a violent series of events, Cap finds himself on the run with The Black Widow. Scarlett Johansson returns in the role, and has a much, much larger part to play than she’s had in any of her previous outings as the character. I still don’t like Johansson as an actress (I find her particularly one-note) and I’m still not quite invested in the character, but she serves the role she’s meant to play well, being a seasoned, jaded contrast to Cap’s determined principles as they unravel the conspiracy that’s put them in danger.It’s here that we get some of themes of the film explored. These mostly amount to the “Security Vs. Freedom” concepts that aren’t particularly new, and aren’t handled in terribly interesting ways here. No, the strength of this movie doesn’t lie in it’s deeper themes; where it finds its stride is the construction of the plot and the action. The story is slowly unfolded through the middle portion of the film and is engaging throughout. The action is simply fantastic, and there are numerous action sequences through the film, of a variety of types.
The final section of the film returns to more superhero roots, with a number of bombastic sequences featuring lots of explosions and plenty of cg. There’s a lot going on in this section, as the film sets up a lot of elements throughout that can come into play here. It only occurred to me during this section though, that while the climactic scenes featured many superhero genre elements, this film was overall less a superhero movie with lots of action, and instead was an action movie that happened to star superheroes.
It’s An Action Movie – By a large margin, the action sequences in The Winter Soldier are some of the best I’ve seen recently, and even more so for superhero films as a whole. It’s intense, kinetic, grounded, and visceral in a way that most of these films don’t seem to manage. When Cap and The Winter Soldier are engaged in combat (as they are a number of times) the fight choreography is incredibly tight and has a real feeling of danger to it. There is plenty of variety as well; there are a number of impressive hand-to-hand fights, shootouts, a brilliant car chase starring Nick Fury, and an exhilarating aerial chase. Even better, the film gives each of its characters their own styles in these scenes, and watching them clash is incredibly fun. This is, simply put, one of the best action movies I’ve seen in recent years.
It’s A Spy Movie – The narrative of the film, dealing largely with government corruption and massive conspiracies, is straight out of old fashioned espionage thrillers. That’s very intentional, as the directors have cited films like Three Days Of the Condor as inspirations, which is appropriate comparison, as both star Robert Redford, though unlike Condor, where he was the plucky young protagonist, here he is the very embodiment of military bureaucracy and establishment. It’s a solid role, and though it tends to bleed into monologuing occasionally, if anyone could pull it off it would be Redford, and he does.
It’s A Superhero Movie – Of course, no Marvel movie would be complete without some big, colorful super-powered battles. For the most part, the action here is fairly realistically grounded, but the film does an excellent job of establishing Cap as utterly superhuman, capable of feats no one else can accomplish. The Winter Soldier as well, with his metal, bionic arm that can flex and strengthen itself, is a very super powered character. The best hero addition this time around, though, is definitely Sam Wilson, The Falcon. Sam rolls in as an immediately likeable, charismatic character, and his burgeoning partnership with Cap is believable and well done. He also gets one of the more dynamic action scenes (though, sadly, about 90% of it had been featured in one trailer or another prior to release).
BFFs – The Winter Soldier was great; menacing and brutal. Bucky Barnes, however, not so much. I’ve said before elsewhere that I didn’t believe Sebastian Stan was a good actor, and I stand by that. Most of the time he just stares with a confused look on his face, and I’m fairly sure that between the mask and long hair, that was almost always a stunt double and never Stan in the action scenes. Unfortunately, because of his not so great acting skills, I didn’t buy the relationship between him and Cap from the first Captain America, and here the problem is only accentuated, as we’re called to invest fully in them as lifelong friends. Especially during the climactic sequence of the film, not believing in him as Cap’s best friend leached away a bit of the emotional intent.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t ask a lot of it’s audience. It’s not a movie you’ll be thinking about seriously days after, despite it’s attempts at thematic depth. But you will remember it; for it’s well constructed, thrilling plot, for it’s myriad of “F Yeah!” moments, and first and foremost for it’s fantastic action set pieces, the best in the Marvel films yet. And unlike the recent Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, The Winter Soldier has consequences that cannot be ignored. The ripples from this movie will extend out into the rest of Marvel universe. Personally, I can’t wait.