Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2014, d. Joe and Anthony Russo - in theatre

The previous Captain America film was, to me, disappointing, particularly in establishing Captain America as an intriguing and exciting superhero.  It wasn't until Joss Whedon's Avengers that Chris Evan's Cap came to life (I think the man-out-of-time aspect of the character is probably his most appealing facet and "First Avenger" seemed very much a prologue to that element).

It was Ed Brubaker's Captain America comic book run -- which took the character deep into espionage and political intrigue territory -- that I became interested in the character, roughly 30 years into my comics reading hobby.  That Brubaker's work would be inspiration for the next Captain America movie was a thrilling proposition.  Things seemed to be falling into place so very nicely leading into its production:  The Avengers finally put to screen a movie that felt like a comic book story; Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 showed that the studio knew how to follow-up on the events that preceded it without retracing steps or feeling redundant; and Marvel's talent recruiter never seems to fail them....  The hiring of the television directing tandem of Joe and Anthony Russo was perhaps an unusual (risky even) choice to helm a 160 million dollar blockbuster, but any fan of Community could attest to their action chops based on the inspired vision their paintball episodes had on an exceptionally modest budget.  With Brubaker's monumental Winter Soldier storyline being the backbone of the next picture (perhaps the best Captain America story arc in the character's history) this seemed to be a sure-fire success.

As production went along, with casting announcements (Robert Redford, Howard Mackie, Scarlett Johansson, the return of Sebastian Stan), set photos, and ultimately the teasers and trailers, anticipation was riding high, (especially given my wife's overwhelming fondness for the Winter Soldier arc and character).  In fact, expectations rode so high, that the chance of failure (or disappointment at least) grew with each passing day leading to the film's release.  The absolute best compliment that I can give this film is that it lived up to expectations without playing into them. 

The Russo brothers and Marvel Studios have put together a massive blockbuster to rival The Avengers, but without any mimicry or repetition.  This is a character-focused story (multiple characters in fact) feeling a part of the larger Marvel movie serial, yet contained into an exceptionally tight and thoroughly intriguing narrative.  They've taken the Winter Soldier story, found the useful (and essential) beats of it, but crafted a unique story out of it that builds and destroy's Steve Roger's world (his personal world and the Marvel movie universe) in equal measure.  Even having read (and loved) the comics that were this film's springboard, there were so many genuine surprises in this film, and for a film to surprise a somewhat jaded, seen-it-all viewer, that's an impressive feat.

I'm writing this review with about 10 days' distance from watching the picture, but in that time what sticks out most to me is the fight sequences, the absolutely incredible action choreography that sets a new bar for how these things can go.  Captain America's bulldozing of the terrorists aboard a captured SHIELD vessel is a beautiful display of that character's abilities that neither of his previous appearances really captured effectively.  Captain America is an elite soldier, with super strength and an indestructible vibranium shield, and he's able to use his skills, his strength and his weapons in unison in a way that nobody else could.  That's on display in this sequence, but unlike so many films which make such a point out of highlighting a superhero's specific skills and abilities, here it's all happening in fluidity, not making a point, just showing the character in his natural element.

This leads into the Batroc fight, which pits Cap against a Savate expert (played by French Canadian MMA fighter Georges St. Pierre) and they tussle in a fight that's like few seen on screen before.  It's assuredly choreographed, but it gets away from two cinematic fight sequence trends: the Paul Greengrass-style quick-cut shaky-cam fight editing, and the Martial Arts ballet that the Matrix and Crouching Tiger introduced to Hollywood.  This fighting feels more improvisational (though it naturally could not be) like the characters are in the moment of their fight, not having danced the dance countless times before.

Beyond that there's sequence after impressive sequence of Cap, Black Widow, and even Nick Fury that just stun the audience.  Fury's pinned into a no-escape situation but still finds a way through a shower of gunfire that not only never gets tedious but ratchets up in intensity with every passing minute.  There's a sequence where Widow, Falcon and Cap are targeted by the Winter Soldier and company, and Scarlett Johansson goes over the edge of a skyway.  She uses the grappling rope from her wrist gauntlet to slow her descent and swing into safety.  Like Cap's steamrolling on the SHIELD ship, this is such an innocuous yet perfect use of Black Widow's skills and accessories, not gratuitous in any way.

The story of the film builds quite nicely, but revealing the events would be spoilery and they're genuinely a lot of fun (including the brilliant return of a villain from the previous film, playing with comics canon in a wonderful way).  The character building is phenomenal, establishing the dynamic between Steve Rogers and his costars (Widow, Falcon, Fury and Winter Soldier) are continual highlights of the film, just as great as the fighting.  There's a few nitpicks that I have though, particularly how Cap and Widow travel so quickly and (somewhat) effortlessly between locations, and the final conceit of how Cap and company are to stop the bad guy's master plans is an unfortunate use of conventional cinematic end-game plotting (we have to change this thing on all three ships or it won't work...) that could have been quite easily subverted and ratcheting the stakes up even a little further in its final moments.  Alas, they're minor misgivings, but ones that hold the film back from its near perfection as a superhero/espionage romp to rival or even best the biggest of Bond films.