April 10, 2014

Review: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' Avenges

"This isn't freedom. This is fear."

Marvel Studios' next phase of genre superhero films continues in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, loosely based around the acclaimed comic book storyline by Ed Brubaker. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (You, Me and Dupree) take over the reins from The First Avenger as our hero, Steve Rogers, navigates his way through a new world of enemies and espionage. Chris Evans proves more than ever his ability to ground the ultimate boy scout with a nuanced, interesting identity, playing him as a dynamic, thoughtful hero layered with ideals of duty and service.

Evans once again brings real gravitas as Cap, only subtly hinting at his status as a man out of time with an enduring, charismatic appeal. He's a tragic hero trying to make sense of a world beyond him. However, he's saddled with strangely out of place geopolitical allusions in a world where aliens and flying superheroes exist. This makes for easily Marvel's most complicated, convoluted, and uninteresting plot yet despite mostly being grounded in a more universal setting.

A nefarious plan to take over the silly, seemingly autonomous S.H.I.E.L.D. organization is afoot. What follows is seventy years of exposition explaining away all of the world's political unrest and turmoil. It's so ridiculous in its over-explained simplicity as it stretches the enemy from within trope to extreme lengths. The film's stakes are global yet never veers away from its intimate Washington, D.C. setting (unless you count New Jersey) where the world is supposedly run by a handful of mysterious faces. Actual government officials, (real) police, or authorities are never mentioned or involved as S.H.I.E.L.D. and its antagonists fully take over as the world's protectors.

The Russo brothers shape The Winter Soldier as a political thriller full of intrigue and doubles crosses while inserting the mysterious titular villain as a wild card in the story's plot. The action is so visceral and violent (although lacking gore) with on the street scenes of gunfire mayhem, a high body count, and up close shots of car accidents to heighten a sense of real-life terror. This discomfort is juxtaposed with Cap's war-like missions as it only heightens the pervasive feeling of dread. This sinks the film, getting less and less enjoyable, as the conspiracy reveals itself around countless explosions.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is still a caricature of himself as the know-it-all do-gooder boss while being given more to do. There are far too many add-ons as the very charming Anthony Mackie just shows up as Cap's new loyal, origin-less (flying) sidekick, the Falcon. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow is fun and physical in her humour and chemistry with Evans yet her role is still rather interchangeable as are all the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (including Cobie Smulders and the barely seen newcomer Emily VanCamp) and a plethora of other cameos.

The Winter Soldier takes the Iron Man 2 approach to storytelling by overstuffing as many non-superhero Marvel characters and competing subplots from the comics as possible alluding to the greater universe of heroes and foes to bog down the entire film and extending its running time. I kept wondering if Iron Man and Thor were taking naps to ensure Cap saves the day on his own. An energetic Robert Redford channels Three Days of the Condor as a shadowy government secretary and head of the World Security Council harkening back to 1970s paranoia films.

Most comic book films are only as good as their villains and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier is physically threatening with endless scenes of firepower and hand-to-hand combat. It's too bad he's mostly superfluous to the plot as he never quite fits the world we see. He's a ruthless, wordless killing machine without much of a background. The other threat is far too preachy and snively in its convenient megalomania. Never mind the climax of evil where, inexplicably, there are not one but three helicarriers colliding with each other for some reason.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves itself as one of the more ambitious yet flawed Marvel film entries as the Russos bring an interesting dynamic to character and action. Evans is full of the same charm and likability despite being dragged down by a muddled, overstuffed plot and clunky themes. There's so much going on action and story-wise as the fugitive Cap on the run just doesn't mesh with his usual patriotism. Despite being well cast and directed, everything feels so factory-made in its by-the-numbers approach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the film explores the strange bureaucracy they've created.

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