CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Alchemy. That’s what this is.
In the days of yore, men in darkened rooms sought to make gold through a complex combination of elements. Flash forward to 2014: Marvel Studios may not have discovered the exact formula for all that glitters, but in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” they’ve assembled a whole slew of elements that somehow work so well together, the results are nothing short of magical. Doctor Strange would be proud.
For not only is this sequel far better than its predecessor, it is easily Marvel’s best film to date and dare I say it, the best superhero film ever made. Fighting words I know, especially for the DC fanboy set, for whom “The Dark Knight” is the epitome of all things caped & cowled. Heck, even the Marvel faithful would raise an eyebrow, as “The Avengers” is widely seen as the rightful owner of that title. Sure, if the yardstick is solely based on fun, then Earth’s Mightiest Heroes wins. However, on an overall level, the quality of “Winter Soldier” is simply superior, from the story, acting, action, down to getting the core characters right.
And to think they’ve pulled it off with THIS character. Captain America isn’t exactly the most complex of superheroes, unlike say Batman. He isn’t even the most super of superheroes. He is on the other hand, the most jingoistic of them all. Which may work fine for Americans but to the rest of the world it isn’t the most appealing or wholesome association. At least not with the demonised America of today. A fact that the filmmakers were aware of, and which they cleverly turned to the film’s — and the hero’s — advantage. Cap represents the ideal of America, not the reality of it. Where in the first film he was fighting to preserve those traditional values that his country stood for, that era is now long gone. He has woken up 70 years later to a nation he barely recognises anymore. Although he works for the peace-keeping organisation S.H.I.E.L.D., he finds himself at odds with their motivations and the methods of their leader Nick Fury, even as a new threat emerges in the form of a mysterious assassin called the Winter Soldier. By now, you’ve probably heard a lot about how this film evokes the 1970s political thrillers steeped in paranoia and distrust of the authorities. It’s apt, and used very well here.
This time, Cap is fighting America itself, or rather a representation of what it has become. His enemy here is really the dark side of the US government’s Big Brother policy and the military-industrial complex. Now does this make Cap or the filmmakers anti-America? Not at all. The great thing about what they’ve done here is to make Captain America an aspirational figure to both Americans and the rest of us as well. True goodness is universal and while they sort of allude to the unpopular doings of the US, it’s smartly externalised in the form of an independent (and fictional) entity.
And that leads me to the biggest deal for me as to why this film is brilliant. I’ve gotta hand it to Marvel Studios. These guys have got BALLS. I almost couldn’t believe what they did here but I’m pretty damn glad anyway. This is a studio that is unafraid to spend an entire string of films building something larger that ties their universe together, only to rip it apart completely. Not for shock value but for the sake of the story. To say anymore would be a massive spoiler and I fear I’ve said too much already. I’m very curious to see how the events here impact the rest of Marvel’s output moving forward, although there’s no doubt in my mind that these guys have it all figured out in their master plan. Kevin Feige, you crazy, beautiful bastard.
As a geek, what’s made me happiest is that FINALLY they give us a Super Soldier who is actually super. This Cap is the embodiment of human physical potential at its peak: his strength, speed, reflexes, combat prowess, the numerous and incredibly precise ways he uses his shield like its an extension of his being, and his razor-sharp tactical mind in dire situations that puts him way ahead of anybody else in the room. Except the Winter Soldier. Because we’re shown how formidable Cap is in action, when the cybernetically-enhanced Winter Soldier more than matches him in their numerous one-to-ones, it really sells just how powerful the antagonist is. There were times when I genuinely worried for our hero’s safety.
That’s the other thing I like about this portrayal of Steve Rogers. While he appears to be near-invulnerable in some scenes, it’s nicely evened out in others where they show him taking a lot of punishment, and it comes off like he can get hurt, even die. You’re much more invested in the hero when you’re not quite sure whether he is going to come out unscathed. Chris Evans does a very good job balancing out the earnestness of the character with charm, grit and a sense that he is a good man to the core. He is largely what gives this film a lot of its emotional power, be it in scenes with old flames or lost friends. Sebastian Stan also makes a top-notch villain who is surprisingly not one-dimensional, as would be expected of a Terminator-like figure such as his. Instead, I found him poignant. Definitely Marvel’s best baddie, right up there with Loki.
Actually, I don’t think there’s a performer in this film who doesn’t bring their A-game. They all get to shine in their respective ways. Samuel L. Jackson has a much more significant role and he does a lot with it, even making us care about Fury whereas in previous appearances he was mostly just an exposition device. Hilarious nod to “Pulp Fiction” in one scene, btw! Scarlett Johansson has a lot more nuance to her character this time round, and they play the contrasts between Rogers’ and Black Widow’s world-views quite nicely. It helps that she has strong chemistry with Evans. As does Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka The Falcon. What I like about his performance is that while he has some of the best lines, you never get the feeling he’s trying to steal the limelight from Evans. He’s the best kind of supporting player: makes the lead look good while holding his own on screen. And then there’s Robert Redford. The guy reminds us why he’s a Hollywood legend, and he carries so much weight in his performance with so little showboating that it’s like every word he says is filled with deeper meaning. And as casting against type goes, this is a sneaky nod to Redford’s 1975 conspiracy drama “Three Days Of The Condor”.
Although a lot of what makes this film zing can be credited to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, I think its success is really due to the directing duo of Joe & Anthony Russo. The script affords the characters quiet little moments of interaction, but in the hands of the directors they play out effortlessly, compellingly, and most crucially, as essential components of the film rather than fillers in between the huge action set-pieces. Some of the best moments don’t even feature a single explosion, gunshot, or punch thrown, except of the verbal kind. It’s just interesting people saying very interesting things. This is where the Russos’ background in TV (“Community”) becomes a major plus, since serialised shows focus on long-form characterisation.
They’ve also utterly silenced early criticism over their hiring. Despite having no prior experience in the blockbuster department, the Russo brothers show a flair for visuals (superb design and CG work here) and have managed to deliver some of the best fight and car chase scenes I’ve seen in any Hollywood movie in a long time. I have a bit of a problem with their use of shaky-cam in the fight scenes, as it only serves to obstruct, not aid, our enjoyment of the excellent choreography and performance. Thankfully they don’t overuse it. The car chases are for the most part lucidly staged… and quite intense. A vehicular ambush featuring Fury is one of the standout sequences in a movie filled with sequences that will have viewers finding it tough to choose their favourites. Again, they’re all effective because they all feel like seriously dangerous situations for characters we care about.
It’s not a perfect film though. It does tend to get a tad heavy on the plot exposition, and there’s an entire scene where it’s just one character explaining stuff for minutes on end. The only reason why I don’t mind as much as I normally would is because it is delivered in such a retro B-Movie way that I can’t help but smile just thinking about it. And for all the keep-you-guessing efforts, at the end of the day it’s really not that hard to figure out who’s who and what’s what. By the 3rd act, they sort of decide to slide back into conventional blockbuster format: daft comicbooky bad guy plans, explosions, shootouts, personal showdowns and all, with a fairly straightforward — and expected — outcome.
But honestly, these are just minor flaws and in no way detract from the overall enjoyment. “The Winter Soldier” is one of those fortunate and extremely rare confluences of studio vision, filmmakers, cast and script. The chemistry was simply right. I am not suggesting this is a fluke, as that would be disrespectful. Looking at past projects however, Marvel has gotten equally promising talents before but the end result still didn’t quite click. Whatever the case, the bar has now been set very high. Not just for superhero flicks, but for action films in general.
Let’s hope we see this kind of golden touch once again.