Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo || Produced by: Kevin Feige
Screenplay by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley || Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Cobie Smulders
Music by: Henry Jackman || Cinematography: Trent Opaloch || Editing by: Jeffrey Ford || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 136 minutes
In all honesty, I didn’t have the highest hopes for Steve Rogers’ second outing. I had walked into the original Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) excited for an old-school, World War II period-piece treatment of one of my favorite superheroes, but left the theatre disappointed with the results. The original’s first hour and ten minutes or so were surprisingly smart, on-point nostalgia imagery infused with a snarky comic book-style of retro action. However, the film’s second half suffered from a severe case of what I like to call “origin-story syndrome,” a problem common to superhero movies attempting to tell the origins of their protagonists, but end up combining two plots into one movie because the origin story only takes an hour to tell. The First Avenger’s problems extended beyond this: The pacing in its final act was rushed and hectic, the action was generic and boring, blue-screen antics abounded, and Cap’s story ended on a sour note.
Fortunately, all that has changed. In this new sequel directed by former sitcom directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the winds have shifted for the better for America’s most patriotic superhero.
The main reason why The Winter Soldier (TWS) is so much better than Cap’s first outing, as well as most Marvel movies in general, is that the filmmakers took risks with the source material. While the screenplay is smart, the key new ingredient in this sequel compared to the first film is the change in direction. Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo have decided to make TWS more of an espionage war-thriller than a superhero blockbuster, trading an emphasis on bombastic CGI and absurd spectacle for intense action grounded in realism, practical stunts, and close-quarters-combat (CQC). The result is a film that is every bit as good as the reigning king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012), although for entirely different reasons. Where as Whedon’s superhero team-up flick was the ultimate in terms of comic book-movie excess, CGI spectacle, and epic scope, TWS barely feels like it’s based on a comic book at all and instead feels more like a 1970’s spy-thriller.
You can tell the difference in direction between these two Captain America films right away in how the action is shot. The story’s opening mission sees Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Co. take on an Algerian pirate ship led by, among other people, former UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre; the violence is grounded, more realistic, and thus more intense. The focus of the action in this film are set-pieces that takes place on the ground. There is a huge emphasis on car chase-sequences, heist-style shootouts, and hand-to-hand combat. This intuitively makes sense because Cap is, by his very nature, a more realistic superhero than most. He doesn’t fly, shoot rockets from his arm, or control the weather — he’s just a hyper-athletic supersoldier. His skills and legacy make him by far the most grounded of the Marvel superheroes, and the Russo brothers have realized and capitalized on this far more than Joe Johnston ever did. Although the first Captain America film took place in the ’40’s and this new one takes place in present day, TWS feels far more grounded in realism and far less cartoony. The sequel as a result begs to be taken much more seriously.
The Russo brothers mentioned they were directly inspired by Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011), and it shows. Although their handheld camerawork is more frantic than I’d prefer, for the most part, the action is intense and coherent. Most of the fights are fought with fists and handheld weapons, and Chris Evans demonstrates impressive athleticism through judo throws, spinning sidekicks, and a toe-to-toe faceoff with St. Pierre. The movie almost feels like it’s a martial arts showcase at times! The Russo brothers don’t stop there, though. The shootouts and car-chase sequences are excellent, and in conjunction with Sebastian Stan’s titular antagonist, give TWS undertones of a Terminator (1984, 1991) action flick. The battle sequence on a freeway about halfway through the film is a great highlight.
As for the story itself, it too has been honed and improved from the original. Writers of the first film, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, have upped their game and crafted a fascinating espionage-thriller. The story’s twists, creepy conspiracy plot-devices, plus the added presence of Robert Redford, make obvious homages to 1970’s spy-thrillers of old, as well as drawing connections to modern features like the Bourne (2002, 2004, 2007) trilogy and the Mission Impossible series (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011). There are also fun campy moments that channel the comic book-source material effectively, like having an evil
German Swiss scientist (Toby Jones) explain the plot’s twist through his transplanted brain stored in ’70’s supercomputers, and the introduction of the Falcon character (Anthony Mackie).
Weaknesses of the film are few, but I would critique the usual divergence into super-mega-epic CGI spectacle in the film’s climax. Still, the film’s concluding battle feels somewhat scaled back from a Marvel-movie perspective, and the Russos keep the focus on CQC even when the action from three (3!) giant helicarriers threatens to overwhelm the otherwise taught, refreshingly non-cartoony narrative.
The best performance in the movie by far is Evans’ lead, which is a big reason why the movie’s narrative remains interesting. He’s the catalyst behind all the espionage thrills. Evans has more than enough talent to handle a relatively simple yet likable character like Cap, and his arc is sufficient as his character’s 1940’s morals suffer culture shock within the murkier world of the 2010’s.
To sum it up, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superior Marvel film that dares (at least to a degree no previous Marvel movie has attempted) to go beyond the boundaries of its subgenre. It’s great blockbuster entertainment that’s sure to please both casual fans and comic book-diehards, striking a difficult balance between the cartoonish simplicity of its Marvel brethren and the exhausting grimness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman (2005, 2008, 2012) franchise. It’s not a terribly intelligent or subversive film, nor is it accomplished in nuanced subtly, yet the story and the way it’s directed live up to the lofty ideals of its protagonist.
The Russo brothers deserve credit for taking a previously uninteresting plot thread from The First Avenger and dropping its main character in a story far more worth our time. At the end of the day, the film remains limited by some chains of the Marvel lore that stick despite the Russos’ best attentions, but with all that in mind, The Winter Soldier manages to be a damned fun blockbuster at the cineplex. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Russos own this movie and show they’re TV sitcom-directors to be reckoned with. They instill The Winter Solider with a mature sense of action that’s leagues beyond the cartoony farces of most Marvel films, with their use of street shootouts, hand-to-hand-combat, chase-sequences, and good ole practical FX embracing a gritty flavor for this Captain America adventure. Markus and McFeeley’s screenplay pays homage to both ’70’s political-thrillers of the past and modern espionage tales to great effect. The story is engaging and keeps you guessing, even throwing in some old-school camp as well.
— However… Evans is by far the best actor in the movie, and it’s not like he’s giving an Oscar-winning performance. The climactic battle scene devolves somewhat into the standard, cliched Marvel CGI-overload the series is known for.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? How many people remembered who Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) character was when he was revealed? I’m betting not many…