Sunday, April 6, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review



I doubted whether a great Captain America movie would ever be made. I remember when the idea of super hero movies, other than Superman would ever get made.

Then there was Batman in 1989. But there was a long dry spell before anything else happened. The 1990s direct-to-video Captain America was rather painful to watch, though it made some attempt at being more comic-accurate than the 1970s TV movies.

Then came X-Men, which was okay. Not really my cup of tea, but okay. Then ... Spider-man. That was awesome. Sam Raimi and Sony translated Spidey from comic panel to silver screen seamlessly.

I waited for Captain America, sure they would be able to do the same for him. It would be another 10 years before that would happen.

I both feared and anticipated the movie, thrilled that it was being made, afraid of what they might do to make him more "relevant."

Thankfully, they kept his origin true and his morality spotless. He's like the Marvel Super-man, only a little more like Batman since he's not invincible with new powers whenever he needs them. He's unlike Batman in the way he lacks an endless supply of utilities in some magical belt.

I digress.

The first film bit off a lot for one movie. They introduced Steve Rogers, an orphan with a heart full of compassion for the downtrodden in the world and a North Star moral compass, always true. As he tells Natasha in the current movie, "I never lie." He doesn't. I like that.

They introduced him, gave him his powers, had him fight Hydra the whole of WWII and then froze him and brought him to modern times and introduced him to Nick Fury. That's a lot. More than the casual movie-goer can digest in one movie. And I think the character development suffered because of it.

But Marvel has done the same with their movies as they did with their comics--they've built critical mass (not necessarily the film critics, all the time). They have momentum and Easter eggs and after credit scenes and one-shot mini-movies ... They cross over the characters into other movies. This is all pretty exciting in a Saturday morning comic strip sort of thing. People like to connect the dots.

I do, too.

So, we come to Phase 2. Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain Americia: The Winter Soldier. IM3 was decent. Funny, fast-paced, but rather stupid in the end. As others have pointed out, it was the plot of The Incredibles. Thor: The Dark World, I thought, was excellent. Took the character to other realms, introduced ancient mythology and gave Thor time to show his self-sacrificing nature. And there was love interest, relational growth between him and his father and mother. There was pathos and swelling music during sad times as well as heroic action.

The Winter Soldier stands apart from those two movies. The plot is very timely and smart. It bites off a lot, just like the first one. But this time, it's not just the introduction of Sam Wilson--The Falcon, Sharon Carter--Agent 13, Brock Rumlow--Crossbones and a little more Nick Fury. The movie centers around the hot-topic of the day--Security vs. Freedom. This would have been relevant during the Bush years with the Patriot Act, but even more nowadays with the terror target drones from the Obama administration.

So, while The First Avenger felt more like a 1940s action-adventure serial, this one feels more like a hard-hitting political action thriller akin to The Bourne movies, only harder. The fact that there's super heroes in it is beside the point. You almost forget that amid the execution strike teams cutting off traffic on a bridge and gunning down everything in sight. The Winter Soldier is a vicious assassin unlike any other villain so far in the Marvel movies. He's ruthless and cold, without any charm (unlike Loki).

Where this movie suffers, though, is character development and pathos. While Thor had the love interest and the family ties, Steve Rogers only interacts with other spies, super heroes and extra-ordinary war veterans. In other words, we don't have clear access to his character's dramatic situation. It's hard to feel for a character that we can't truly understand. Not many of us lived through the Great Depression or fought in WWII. None of us can truly know what it's like to wake up in a world that would look like something from an H.G. Wells novel.

And, it isn't easy to get that sense from the way Steve is presented in this movie, or even in The Avengers. Aside from his comments about the new things he is discovering, we don't feel this change.

One part that almost does the job is when he goes into his apartment and some 1940s music is playing on a record player. But that scene is a bit too little to convey anything in light of the burst of action that happens right after that moment.

Overall, I think the movie is a great political action thriller and one of the best Marvel movies so far, in its own right. What it lacks in character development (like with Thor) it makes up for with story and action prowess.

But here's my wish list (and this goes for all the action/adventure/thriller movies that come out). Slow down and tell a personal story. Let us get to know the character with more than a bullet point list of history. Who IS Steve Rogers? What does he like to do? In the movie, he's asked that and he says, "I don't know."

That's not a good starting point for character development. In other words, Captain America is only a crusader for justice, nothing more.

I'd like to see him demonstrate his other interests. In the comics he loved to draw. Maybe he would enjoy old movies (he was at the movies in the first film before he got beat up). Perhaps he would be involved in an apartment social mixer. Or even a SHIELD social event.

Any one of those things would make him more human to the viewer.

I kept finding myself comparing The Winter Soldier to the TV show CHUCK. Steve would be Chuck, the asset. He's got skills in his body and mind that no one else can duplicate, though they've tried. He's got an old fashioned sense of right and wrong and a straight-arrow moral code which doesn't bend. Yet he's surrounded by gray-scale spies that are caught up in a program that is actually being run by an evil organization to which they've been blind.

Personally, they could have taken Natasha, the Black Widow, out of the movie, or lessened her role, and had more interaction with Sharon Carter, who could have been his secret "handler." Along with Nick Fury, who would be the hard-nosed, secret-wielding spy, Steve would be wondering what to believe (kind of like Chuck). They could have spent time with him making friends who don't realize he's Captain America and show him try to explain how he's feeling, while keeping his spy life secret.

That would have reduced the scale of the movie, perhaps, but would have made him more personal to the audience. Then, when events are set in motion, we would care more deeply about Steve and feel the shock of him learning about Sharon, etc.

That's my wish. A little less action, more character development.

But overall, a solid movie, albeit a rather fast-paced action-heavy one. Thankfully, it at least raises some political issues, keeping it from sticking to the floor of the movie theater with the rest of the popcorn. 

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