Movie Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier
The Star-Spangled Avenger swung back into action at the theater this weekend, foiling international intrigue and making a GDP sized amount of cash. Very different in tone and scope from the first film, how does Cap’s second outing compare to the Avenger universe Marvel Studios is building? According to audiences, cloak and dagger diplomacy suits our hero just fine.
Captain America – The Winter Soldier (2014)
Set some 70 years after Captain America nearly ended up a Stars and Stripes Popsicle while defeating Hugo Weaving’s receding hairline (and some Nazis too I think, my memory is a little fuzzy), we catch up with a Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who is having trouble fitting in to modern life. After saving New York with the Avengers, Cap has become an agent for the newly ascendent Shield, helping Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tackle modern bad guys. Adjusting to a digital war-field full of terrorists, pirates, rogue nations, and espionage has Steve questioning his role, and the intentions of those around him. I guess just punching anybody wearing a swastika was a tad easier on the old conscience…. not to mention fun!
Cap’s first on-screen mission neatly illustrates his frustration: After sneaking aboard a hijacked Shield vessel, Steve subdues the pirates, only to find out that his rescue mission was all a cover so that Black Widow can steal information for Fury…from Shield. When Widow ditches the heroic play book, Steve has to act quick in order to keep the hostages alive. Back on shore, he confronts Fury, and is led to a secret basement (nobody ever has just regular basements in these movies. Assume there is a secret basement if you ever end up in a Super Hero film, you’ll save yourself a ton of hassles looking for the doomsday weapon.) There he is shown Shield’s end-game: three hele-carriers with an advanced targeting system, capable of hitting any target preemptively in the world. These are drones on steroids, and Cap Am balks at Fury having the capability to kill anyone in the world with the push of a button.
When Cap walks out on Fury, he becomes a rogue piece on a chess board where nations and agencies are all moving pieces to control this colossal new power. Allegiances shift, new players wait in the shadows (like Robert Redford‘s world security council head, Pierce), and a new nemesis relentlessly hunts down Fury, Widow, and Cap: The Winter Soldier, a mysterious figure with ties to Captain America’s past.
The Bourne Legacy…
Marvel has done a nice job of finding appropriate genres to introduce their pantheon of heroes to a new audience. The first Thor was cast in the mold of a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with internecine scheming and Kenneth Branagh at the helm. Captain America – The First Avenger, felt like a guts and glory war movie in the John Wayne mold, complete with newsreel footage and sepia tones. This new Captain America borrows heavily from the international thriller genre, made popular most recently by the Jason Bourne films.
The washed out colors, the quick cut action sequences involving car chases and brutal hand to hand combat, and even Cap’s new grey-tone uniform all echo the sensibilities of this style of story-telling. The opening mission aboard a hijacked ship feels so similar to the opening of spy game Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty, that I expected Cap to hide in a cardboard box at any moment. Robert Redford joins the cast, and it is no coincidence that some of his most iconic work was as an agent caught up in international espionage.
While Captain America 2 borrows heavily from other movies, it feels more like an homage than a clone. At the end of the day, this is still a Marvel Avenger’s film, and the riotous action sequences and heroic motifs are still present and true to form. By adopting the contours of a spy thriller, we get a new angle on Captain America while not losing site of the original idealistic war hero (heck, they spend a good chunk of time showing you Cap’s exhibit at the Smithsonian, clearly contrasting his bright red-white-and-blue uniform and jingoistic past with the new Steve Rogers, who sneaks through the museum in a grey disguise.)
A More Perfect Union
Marvel scores big in Captain America 2. Not only does the second Cap Am move the ball down the field, setting up future success for The Avengers sequels (and doubtlessly Captain America 3), but it gives us a solid update of a beloved character. This is Captain America for the current age, a nuanced hero with personal issues that color his world-view. Yet this is not merely a new Cap, rebooted into a different time and setting. We clearly see the shadows of his past, and can see how he has grown to inhabit an ill-fitting digital age through fits and starts. Chris Evans gives his portrayal a genuine emotion, balancing resolve with doubt, idealism with war-weariness, and personal honor with patriotism.
Marvel Studios has managed a truly heroic feat: they’ve created an excellent Super Hero movie, blended with espionage trappings, which happens to also end up being just a damn good movie. The appeal of this film is wider than the sum of its parts, and its huge success at the Box Office actually reflects the merits of the piece. Good job, Cap.