Monday, 31 March 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Contrary to what you may initially think, this is not a Marvel movie. Of course I’m not saying that Marvel Studios isn’t behind this film, what I mean is that the tone used here is very different from previous Marvel films like ‘The Avengers’ or ‘Thor’, where the levity had the majority of the screen time and drama was saved only for gently shuffling the plot along. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ takes a darker approach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in placing the eponymous captain right at the heart of a spy thriller where his own veteran values come into direct conflict with the organisation he is now the poster boy for, S.H.I.E.L.D.

Two years after the battle of New York, “Captain America” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) continues to carry out missions across the globe for S.H.I.E.L.D. During an operation involving the liberation of a ship from the control of pirates, Rogers discovers that he has not been fully briefed on the true intentions of the mission. Fearing a nefarious purpose lies behind the actions of S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers seeks to find out the truth, not suspecting that the truth may be as old as the captain himself.

Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and Captain America (Chris Evans).

I found the change in tone of the film, from that of an out-and-out superhero action movie into a spy thriller, to be a very welcome addition to the Captain America story, in fact I can scarcely imagine a more fitting tone for the character’s solo films. This shift does mean however that the demographic that the film is primarily intended for changes to skew mostly for an adult audience rather than a younger one, this is especially true given the copious amounts of exposition delivered in the film’s second act which works in constructing a plot that is just as comprehensive and branching as any adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel. Nevertheless there is a multitude of high-octane action sequences that will keep the attention of those viewers who do not value plot as a necessity. This action exists on a scale akin to ‘The Avengers’; it really does get that epic. In addition to the huge set-piece moments filled with CGI there are also good old-fashioned brawls for the Captain to take part in, these were the standout action scenes of the film for me as they portray Captain America as a hero without the gadgets of Iron Man, the colossal strength of The Hulk, or the hammer of Thor; Captain America is simply human, albeit a human who is benefiting from the substantial effects of the super soldier serum, so it was nice to see that when the situation presents itself for Captain America to take down an enemy, he needs no gimmicks.

The action of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' rivals that of 'The Avengers' at times.

This wealth of action isn’t to say that ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is devoid of its character moments, far from it in fact. There is a bevy of solid character development in the story, not only for Steve Rogers, but also for Black Widow and Nick Fury who feature prominently in the film. The issue with having such strong components of the film in the action and character development is that it puts quite a bit of pressure on the connective tissue between the two, things like exposition or establishing scenes, which are necessary in bridging the narrative and the action. This is where the film kind of falls apart, mostly due to some jarringly mismanaged pacing but also as a result of a prolonged runtime, 136 minutes to be exact. The spy thriller tone proves a saving grace here as films of that genre tend to last that much longer than your average 90 to 120 minute movie, for a little perspective on how long this film is consider that ‘The Avengers’, which managed to bring a slew of standalone heroes together and tell an epic tale, exceeds this movie by only 6 minutes.

The villain of the piece, the titular Winter Soldier as played by Sebastian Stan, proves a great villain for the story which at its core is all about the past coming back to haunt Cap. Once again this aspect is a great fit for a Captain America story as the Winter Soldier is an antagonist ready to put up his dukes and take Cap on in a one-on-one brawl, these fight scenes are fantastic and surely among the best yet seen in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. My only issue with the Winter Soldier concerns the fact that he is profoundly underused in the film despite his name sharing the marque with Captain America, once again the lengthy duration of the film proves hazardous as the primary villain becomes somewhat lost in the mix. A similar fate befalls the character of Alexander Pierce, as played by the legendary Robert Redford. Pierce never really felt like a defined character to me, and although Redford made him a personable ally of Nick Fury, I just couldn’t shake the feeling of artificiality in his presence. Funnily enough if I were casting Nick Fury based off of his classic look from the comics, Redford would be my one and only choice for the role.

The Winter Soldier is a brilliant but sadly underused villain.

Chris Evans’ performance as Captain America in this film is quite clearly his best work on the character yet, while ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ excellently established Steve Rogers as a man desperate to stand up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ shows a Captain America who is unwilling to give up on the ideals his country was founded upon. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a perfect co-star for this story as she initially proves to be the antithesis of the Cap; her covert mission objectives take priority over the moral issue at hand. I found Johansson’s work in ‘The Avengers’ to be stellar, but here she takes it to another level thanks in large part to her fantastic chemistry with Chris Evans, an aspect that proves essential in the success of the character-driven portions of the film.

Is this the best Marvel movie yet? Well, no, but it’s not far off it. While ‘The Avengers’ may still lie on the horizon, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ easily blows past the likes of ‘Thor’, ‘Iron Man 2’, and even ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’, giving the original ‘Iron Man’ some serious contention for the number 2 spot on the Marvel Cinematic Universe rankings. If you like your comic book movies to be mindless then this is probably not the one for you, but if you like the idea of a superhero flick with an espionage makeover then you’d be a fool not to check out this quite brilliant take on Captain America.

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