Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, June 29, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

In our modern blockbuster landscape, where films are given release dates before they even have scripts and franchises are plotted out a full decade in advance, television has started to resemble movies and movies have started to resemble television. More than once, Disney/Marvel has plucked up a television director to make one of their superhero epics. It makes sense, as TV directors are used to delivering a consistent product on a fast time table. Joe and Anthony Russo would make the leap from directing episodes of “Community” and “Arrested Development” to blockbusters with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Unlike Phase Two's other sequels, this one would be acclaimed by critics and fans alike.

Since waking up in the modern day and fighting in the Battle of New York, Steve Rogers has struggled with fitting in with the 21st century. He continues to work with SHIELD, though he feels increasingly uncertain about his employers' motivations. Especially when Nick Fury tells him about a new project that will see the skies filled with high-tech Helicarriers able to snipe out threats before they happen. When Fury uncovers something suspicious, he becomes a target by unknown forces. A mysterious super assassin known as the Winter Soldier is pursuing him. Soon, Captain America and Black Widow go on the run, chased by evil forces within their own organization. And the truth will only grow more sinister from there.

One of the benefits of the Marvel model is that you can fit almost any type of movie into the superhero action/adventure mold. In the promotional lead-up to “The Winter Soldier's” release, much talk was made of how much seventies paranoia thrillers influenced the film. Robert Redford's casting as the head of SHIELD was a deliberate nod towards the genre's history. That distrust of the government agencies, of not knowing who to trust, certainly informs the film. Moreover, it reflects Steve Rogers' uncertain feelings about the modern world. Captain America can agree certain things are undeniably good, like rescuing hostages from mercenaries. Yet when he learns his rescue missions has a secondary purpose of grabbing information, he's aghast. Increasingly through the film, Cap learns that government agencies are less interested in protecting the innocent and more concerned with consolidating their own power, controlling the masses, and maintaining a status quo.

This should've been, essentially, a story about Captain America confronting America's role as an imperialistic force of evil that commits atrocities and subjugates whole countries in order to keep a select group of billionaires rich and powerful. Instead, “The Winter Soldier” wimps out and makes it Nazis. In a twist that blew everyone's mind at the time, SHIELD has been Hydra all along. Yet being told that America was good until secret Nazis took it over from the inside-out, instead of running with the truth that America has always been secretly evil, runs counter to the film's seventies paranoia thriller tone. (And now, in 2019, we know the Nazis didn't even have to be doing their thing in secret to gain the public's acceptance again.) The movie then lurches into some Alex Jones-esque New World Order plot about the government mass-murdering millions of people. It's a disappointing  pay-off, that sucks out most of the complexity, to the story that was more daring up to that point.

Something Marvel Studios likes to do is take catchy titles from their various comic stories and apply them to otherwise original films. “The Winter Soldier” is only a loose adaptation of the comic story arc of the same name. In fact, the Winter Solider himself is a supporting character in the film. If you know your comics, you know the Winter Soldier is Bucky, Captain America's thought-dead BFF from his World War II days. This conflict, where Cap is forced to fight his former best friend, who has no memory of their time together, is suppose to be the emotional heart of the movie. Yet, because its pushed to the margins for most of the run time, it doesn't work as well as it should. Exactly because Bucky is now a brain-washed super assassin, he doesn't get to show much emotion. The film also holds off on the reveal of the Winter Soldier's longer than perhaps it should, leaving even less time for the weight of the bromance to be felt.

Of the various different modes “The Winter Solider” functions in, by far my favorite is when it's a road trip comedy about Captain America and Black Widow going on the road together. Chris Evans and Scarlet Johannson have fantastic chemistry together. He's one of the most moral heroes around, while Black Widow is as fatale as a femme can get. Watching the two play off each other is great fun, especially the various distracting strategies that must be employed as they walk through a mall. Or the cute, reoccurring gag about Natalia trying to get Steve a date. The party improves when Sam Wilson, otherwise known as the Falcon, shows up to become Steve's new boyfriend. He acts as a likable straight man to the snarking Cap and Widow. (Anthony Mackie is a game addition to the MCU's cast, even if I seriously dislike the lack of color in his costume.)

I think the main reason so many people were in awe of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is because it features some pretty bad-ass action sequences. Even if the movie's version of Batroc the Leaper is a total lame-o, Cap's kung-fu fight with him is nicely acrobatic. (The movie does do a fun twist on Armin Zola though.) Nick Fury being pinned down various police officers, attempting to break into his high-tech spy truck, is a wonderfully tense car chase that also features a torrent built into a car console. The likely action high-light of the movie is the moment Cap realizes how compromised SHIELD is, when he's locked in an elevator with a bunch of guys who all want to kill him. It's another fight with a long build-up, this one playing nicely off the confined area.

There's a lot of cool action beats in “The Winter Soldier.” Cap taking down a Quinjet with a motorcycle and his shield is another one. The entire last act features a number of cool interactions between Captain America and random goons. Yet some of the action sequences are disappointingly unstable. A knife fight between Steve and the Winter Soldier, right before he discover he's Bucky, features far too much shaky-cam. The car crash that proceeds that sequence is similarly hard-to-follow. Moments like this make you think the Russo brothers really weren't that use yet to making big budget action movies. There's also one of those fake digital zooms when a Hellicarrier crashes into a building in the last act.

I too loved “The Winter Soldier” the first time I watched it. And, obviously, it's still a really good movie. The cast is fantastic and are clearly having a ball playing off each other. Sometimes, watching actors you like play characters you enjoy is reward enough. The action scenes are overall extremely good, with a few really rising above the pack. However, it does bug me that the movie isn't nearly as daring as it think it is. In retrospect, I also dislike the direction this installment would take the entire “Captain America” franchise. While the movie has its flaws and strengths, it would still be the best of Phase Two's sequels. [7/10]

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