A Film Review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier
By Lawrence Napoli
As we approach the end of the Phase 2 Marvel Studio films, we see an upward trend in the quality of these individual blockbusters which continue to prime an already rabid (and ever expanding) fan base for Avengers: The Age of Ultron. Captain America’s second installment is a very well balanced action/adventure that ups the intensity in hand-to-hand combat, gunplay and vehicle stunts without its plot degenerating into a half baked Die Hard sequel that should never have seen the light of day. If Hollywood sees fit to add the month of April as the new starting point for the parade of summer blockbusters, then I couldn’t pick a better film in The Winter Soldier to thaw us all out of this chilly “Spring” as quickly as humanly (or in this case, superhumanly) possible.
The story, by itself, is one that several war, action and science-fiction films have addressed a multitude of times in the past: How much security does the world need at the expense of liberty? This will forever be a hot button issue for humanity as the military industrial complex continues to proliferate and specialize into increased automation which dehumanizes the task of enacting security, allowing those in power to make drastic choices efficiently without the burden of diplomacy, ethics or morality. Obviously, the difference is we’re seeing this dilemma unfold in the Marvel Universe with its most iconic soldier thrust into the epicenter, but let’s be frank, we’ve seen this before. It becomes quite clear that an organization as powerful as S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t content with simply cleaning up any messes The Avengers leave behind, let alone sitting on the bench when it comes to “protecting the planet.”
I like how the script continued to touch upon Cap’s “man out of time” theme while the character entered this personal conflict between following orders and simply doing the right thing, but then we all saw how upset Steve Rogers got at Nick Fury in The Avengers when that whole Tesseract WMD project was revealed. Personal connection, trust and a moral compass are the things that drive Captain America to have a mission in the first place. Without them, even regular men would begin to find difficulty in being soldiers, police or any security personal with the power of using lethal force to maintain order. As a result, the audience is taken on a journey that sees Steve Rogers develop as a leader not just as a combatant, but as a tactician and an inspiration. I only wish the story had time to shed this kind of light on Black Widow, Falcon and Nick Fury, but alas, Cap had some serious character maturation going on here, and it demanded just about every minute.
If all you really care about these individual Avenger films is checking out some kick-ass action, The Winter Soldier absolutely has your back with high quality special and visual effects, explosions, but most importantly fight choreography. Captain America doesn’t fly, shoot lightning or steps on his opposition, but he does punch and kick and throw his shield with improbable accuracy, and it is the speed at which the camera captures it that makes it impressive. Every close quarter combat sequence masterfully blends ballet-like strikes and counter-strikes with gut wrenching brutality. There are several moments during fight sequences when the camera gets in a little too close and stays there for the duration of each conflict that it might get too blurry for some in the audience to maintain who’s who and what exactly just happened, but I didn’t find this too problematic. There are enough moments when the camera pulls back to let you catch a breath in order to appreciate the impact of the action, but close-ups and quick cuts will forever be the director’s best friends when it comes to capturing stunt actors doing what they do best as opposed to faking it with lead actors hooked up to wire rigs yanking them all over the place. I also really enjoyed how weapons were incorporated into every fight. Pistols, machine guns, knives and of course, the shield, are in constant use and showcased at every conceivable range from far out to in your face.
The performance of the cast as a whole is without any glaring deficiency, but also without an absolute standout akin to the signature eccentricity of a Robert Downey Jr. or the charisma of a Chris Hemsworth or Tom Hiddleston. For instance, all of the supporting characters that return from previous Avenger appearances retain their previously established reliability. Samuel L. Jackson is still a bad-ass Nick Fury; Scarlett Johansson is still a sexy, innuendo-dropping Black Widow, and Cobie Smulders is a no-nonsense and businesslike Maria Hill. In their defense, none of these actors are really given huge opportunities to give the audience something new, but the plot puts a noticeable dent in the mythos of this fictional world that I would have appreciated a more significant shift in character status from all these actors. Anthony Mackie provides a successful integration into the world of the Avengers as a solid sidekick in Falcon, but his scenes as regular guy Sam Wilson are much more compelling and provide some golden nuggets of dramatic chemistry with Chris Evans.
The villains are not much to write home about because the real “villain” happens to be the flawed system/philosophy behind contemporary global security/control. But Cap needs to punch someone in the face, and Sebastian Stan gets ripped to go toe-to-toe with the Star Spangled Man. He also gets very proficient with a consistent death glare he sends everyone he shares any screen time with because his character has precious little dialogue to speak of. Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce was more than I was expecting when compared to Ben Kingsley’s hilarious, yet ultimately irrelevant portrayal of “The Mandarin.” Redford is icy cool and matter-of-fact, but never deviates from that level of emotional tenor.
The plain reality is that The Winter Soldier is all about the growth of Steve Rogers/Captain America and the actor that plays him: Chris Evans. Once again, Evans successfully channels the boy next door who gets abs and arms and buns of steel, but there’s just something missing in his Captain America that simply playing him as “just another guy from the block” doesn’t quite cut it in this film and will most certainly not fly for the remainder of his Avenger appearances. I’ve seen enough of the plainest superhero alive. Evans shows moments of Cap’s signature heroic assertiveness towards the end of this film, but the fact is he’s been Captain America for a while now, and Steve Rogers has had a handle on his personal sense of right and wrong well before his mannish head never grew into his formerly boyish body. Don’t get me wrong. Evans absolutely nails his down-to-earth Steve Rogers with Peggy and Steve Rogers with Sam moments. It’s nice to see heroes with their capes off just trying to be people, but eventually the capes go back on and I’m still waiting for that moment where I see Evans own it onscreen as Captain America: the iconic hero that every Marvel superhuman acknowledges in some way. He’s more than capable, and I hope he gets there before his character is killed off or cast aside or dealt with according to Kevin Feige.
This is the first must-see of the Spring/Summer run of blockbusters and the number one reason to do so is for the action. Effects and eye candy would be reason number two. The story and characters are all well and good, but I see a whole lot of place holders for even more significant things set to happen in future films involving Captain America. I happened to see this film in IMAX 3D which wasn’t distracting at all, but I wouldn’t qualify this film as an absolute necessity to experience it in that format. Obviously, you have to wait for all the credits to roll to get those teases for where Ultron might be heading, but I was more enthralled with the Easter Eggs throughout Cap 2, particularly the nod to Dr. Stephen Strange.