Monday, April 7, 2014

The Cinema File #331: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" Review

Out of all the individual franchises within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America has always seemed like a bit of an odd fit. With all the hand-wringing over whether a character like Thor could relate to a mainstream audience, his fanciful adventures feel right at home in a pop culture landscape raised on Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in equal doses but a period piece about a corn-fed all American Nazi hunter? Obviously, in retrospect it paid off, but it had to seem like a pretty big risk so soon into this grand plan of theirs. If the success of these movies weren't so much of a sure thing, Captain America: The Winter Soldier might have represented an even bigger risk, moving the character to a whole new time, setting, and genre with a pair of director's mostly known for television sitcoms at the helm. And yet, on pretty much all counts, the film delivers, managing to be just slightly better than its predecessor, itself one of the better Marvel movies to date.

The Winter Soldier finds Cap still struggling to settle into his new life as a modern day American superhero, keeping a list of all the things he's missed and trying to make new friends to replace all the ones who've died or aged considerably in the years since he froze over. Working as a one man Seal Team Six for S.H.I.E.L.D., the upcoming launch of a new weapons platform thrusts him into a conspiracy almost as old as he is, on the run from his former allies and up against a mysterious figure from his past who seems to share his unnatural abilities. Anyone whose read the comics would know instantly who and what The Winter Soldier is, here altered just enough to fit into the movie universe's established canon, and even if you didn't know from the beginning, its not a very big surprise, but enough that I won't spoil it anyway. What I can't refrain from spoiling is the identity of the larger villain at work in the film, not only because its so obvious, but because the reveal is to central too the story to dance around. Even so, consider yourself warned.

The Winter Soldier is the MCU's first and probably only foray into the conspiracy genre, which sounds strange on paper but proves to be the perfect direction to take this character, carefully avoiding all the ways they could have made him and his series incredibly boring. Let's face it, Captain America isn't the most engaging of superheroes, with a considerably slight rogues gallery even compared to his colleagues in the Avengers and a bit of a drab boy scout flair that could easily leave one begging for Tony Stark to show up with a drink in hand and a few quips to add some levity. Luckily, he and his femme fatale foil Black Widow conveniently have their association with S.H.I.E.L.D., a quasi-governmental Leviathan that's been just itching to come out from the background for seven movie now. If you haven't guessed yet, the antagonist of the film is a corrupting force within the counter terrorism organization itself, here represented by the obviously evil Robert Redford and a few assorted goons. Its a twist that is all at once the best and worst thing about the film.

On the one hand, any comment on the corruption of absolute power in the age of NSA wiretapping and drone warfare is a welcome one, and especially since S.H.I.E.L.D. has up until now represented the friendly face of American military fascism, actually seeing their omnipotence and good will seriously questioned is unequivocally a good thing. That being said, and here's the real spoiler, we quickly discover that the evil that S.H.I.E.L.D. does is ultimately due to the influence of H.Y.D.R.A. secretly acting within its ranks. Its not that this kind of power will invariably be misused even with the best intentions, but rather, only if the bad guys who are always evil for the sake of being evil happen to get their hands on the reins without telling anybody. And yes, I know its a comic book movie and the kind of moral and ethical complexity I'm looking for is not typically expected, but this is a film that goes so far out of its way to eschew goofy comic book logic to establish a more realistic world, so leaving in the silly foreign bogeyman comes off as a bit of a cop out.

Then again, if you can get past that little hiccup, The Winter Soldier is pretty much otherwise solidly entertaining from beginning to end. As always, I want the silly comic book logic, but the appeal to realism at the expense of crazy fun isn't nearly as blatant or distracting as it was in the abysmal Thor 2, and I'm willing to accept it in exchange for even a half assed version of the computerized Arnim Zola, and the best depiction of Falcon we're probably ever going to get. The action is as good or better than the original, mostly better in fact, especially a scene in an elevator that still manages to be enjoyable despite being largely spoiled in the trailers. I could have used a bit more development of the sub titular villain, whose mostly a bad ass zombie through most of the movie with the majority of his evolution occurring in the post credits sequence (which isn't even the most interesting of the two provided). Then again, clearly their setting him up for the next movie, and possibly even further if Chris Evans' talk of retiring from the character after his contract ends has any merit.

Even for this fairly strict comic book nerd, there's really very little to rage about, and more than enough to love about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At this point, you probably don't need me or anyone else to tell you if you want to go see this movie or not, if you ever did, but if you are somehow still on the fence, and frankly even if you've missed out on these movies out of an aversion of comic book adaptations in general, this one may be the one to bring you into the fold. Its only a little more high concept than your average Bourne movie, but with a light and breezy tone that won't make you depressed even as it tries to deal with some weighty issues in its own shallow, face punching way. Considering its current box office, it will probably be hanging around theaters for a while, so its not necessarily imperative, but do yourself a favor and catch it before its gone. You can't really go wrong.

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