Friday, March 28, 2014

Gamechanger Or Natural Continuation? Captain America: The Winter Soldier Is Average Spy Flick.

The Good: Decent plot progression, Good acting, Good continuity
The Bad: Formulaic/predictable, Clogged with characters who fail to develop
The Basics: In the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe outing, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America and Black Widow team up to uncover a lingering H.Y.D.R.A. conspiracy within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D.

When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there were few components of the larger mythos that I cared less about than Captain America. While some might have enjoyed it, I found Captain America: The First Avenger (reviewed here!) to be a painfully average superhero film. In fact, the only movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One (reviewed here!) movies that I have watched less than Captain America are the Hulk films. However, as I have gotten into the Marvel television series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Season One is reviewed here!), I figured I had to avail myself of the opportunity to screen Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Despite the sense of disillusionment felt by Steve Rogers (Captain America) in the latter half of The Avengers, Rogers represents the only member of the team who was firmly a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. Thus, as one who is invested in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., how Captain America: The Winter Soldier might impact the television series was one of the key reasons I watched the movie.

And unless there is a severe fracture within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems impossible for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to not have significant ripples throughout Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The hype for Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been that this is the Marvel Universe film to redefine the expectations of the Marvel superhero film. But, if one is expecting a lot of action, decent banter, and impressive special effects, then Captain America: The Winter Soldier is more par for the course, as opposed to truly redefining the genre. To its credit, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier does tell a different style of story fairly well. The comparisons between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and James Bond films is not an inapt analogy, but relying on some of the conceits of the spy thriller does makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier more predictable than audacious.

Steve Rogers, out for his usual jog, passes by a man who is in the military. They meet and Samuel Wilson introduces himself to Steve as a debriefing specialist before Natasha Romanov arrives with a mission for Steve. Donning a new Captain America outfit, Steve Rogers joins Romanov on a mission to rescue S.H.I.E.L.D. hostages. While Rogers and the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are busy rescuing the hostages, Romanov downloads information from the computers to a USB drive. Learning of her alternative mission, Rogers is angered and takes his anger to Director Fury. Nick Fury reveals that S.H.I.E.L.D. has come up with an algorithm to determine threats against the world and to eliminate those threats pre-emptively, a new fleet of S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers are being built and will soon be launched for the top secret Project Insight.

But Rogers’s distrust of Nick Fury and his frustration over the way S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing business (through fear, as opposed to promoting freedom) is shortlived when Nick Fury survives one assassination attempt only to apparently be killed while delivering the USB drive to Steve Rogers. In the ensuing fight, Captain America chases down a cyborg who is as fast and strong as he is. The cyborg is revealed, by Romanov, to be The Winter Soldier, an agent she has run into before. Facing threats from the World Security Council’s Alexander Pierce and agents within S.H.I.E.L.D. who are working for H.Y.D.R.A. (whatwith H.Y.D.R.A.’s head scientist, Arnim Zola being kept alive as an artificial consciousness that Rogers and Romanov discover in a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker at Steve’s old training ground), Captain America, Black Widow and the Falcon (Samuel Wilson utilizing a top secret prototype jetpack) team up to prevent the launch of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers. But stopping Project Insight’s first big coordinated attack pits Captain America against one of his former allies and teammates as the Winter Soldier is revealed to be someone from Steve Rogers’s past who was brainwashed by H.Y.D.R.A.!

More than any of the Marvel Universe films, save The Avengers, to date, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like an ensemble piece. As if realizing that there’s not much to do with Captain America outside the temporal non-sequitors (Steve Rogers is a 1940s man living in modern times after having been frozen for decades), Captain America: The Winter Soldier seems to want to get away from focusing on the protagonist as often as possible. Instead, they fill up a cast of characters for Rogers to play off of and react to. The result is a movie that might have Steve Rogers or Captain America in virtually every scene, but the interesting stuff going on has to do with Natasha Romanov (Black Widow), Nick Fury, Sam Wilson (The Falcon), and the film’s antagonist, the Winter Soldier.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is structured in a very familiar way for anyone who has ever seen a spy thriller. Fortunately, unlike most James Bond films, the first mission actually has a big impact on the rest of the film (the teaser missions in James Bond movies seldom relate to the main plot). The MacGuffin in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the USB drive and it fuels much of the plot and the big character reversals (in addition to becoming a source of the movie’s longest exposition, which is delivered much the way a Bond villain outlines their full plan before Bond puts a wrench in their operation). But, scenes like the museum scene, where Steve Rogers visits the Captain America Museum, serve as the foreshadowing needed to play out the reveal of The Winter Soldier. The brainwashed character was utterly forgettable (at least to non-Captain America fans) in the first movie, so the trip to the Museum helps remind viewers (or inform viewers coming into Captain America: The Winter Soldier cold) who the Winter Soldier was before his brainwashing.

The problem is, bending the formula does not make the formula better. Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes on the heels of Thor: The Dark World (reviewed here!) where giant alien ships cut a swath of destruction through a city and The Avengers where the menace of a single helicarrier crash was treated as a big deal. So, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a city menaced and three helicarriers that have to be brought down, it feels a bit familiar. Near the film’s climax, one almost expects the James Bond theme to be playing the way the final step in foiling the plot comes down to Steve Rogers and a tight situation. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely might have written something different from other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, but they pretty much hit all the obvious notes for a modern spy thriller.

What separates spy thrillers these days, then, are the quality of the effects, the quality of the characters and the investment the viewer has in the level of the conspiracy detailed/uncovered by the protagonist. Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses minimal computer generated effects and that does help make the film feel grounded in the real world, instead of in the fantastic. It is clear, while watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier that viewers are watching the same universe as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The effects keep the movie grounded and most of the fight sequences move along well to be entertaining, at the very least.

But the characters in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are not extraordinary in any real way. Steve Rogers has had two years to wrestle with the events of The Avengers, so his sense of normalcy makes sense . . . but it is not particularly psychically satisfying to watch. Steve Rogers is portrayed more as a veteran drawn back into the military life than a superhero who was flung decades into the future where he encountered aliens, wormholes, and discovered that the good guys weren’t as good as he remembered. In fact, Rogers’s big arc in The Avengers is virtually identical to his arc in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so it’s hard to say that he grew or developed. Moreover, his tie to The Winter Soldier seems more forced because the character who is resurrected for the role was not at all a major one in the first film. Hayley Atwell suffers the worst special effects disaster of the film; her make-up makes her arguably the hottest 90 year-old character to ever grace the big screen and Peggy Carter’s age is a tough sell.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has the biggest role for Nick Fury to date, but it’s a tough sell for how he relates to Steve Rogers. When last we saw Rogers and Fury, Captain America was disillusioned by learning that S.H.I.E.L.D. had continued H.Y.D.R.A.’s research. Now, Rogers learns of a similarly sinister plot and he chooses to continue to trust Nick Fury . . . for no particular reason. The return of Natasha Romanov and her increased screentime would be wonderful and refreshing if the character was given something new to do as well. But here, Scarlett Johansson once again flips around, kicks ass and provides some decent banter. She is, as Romanov, pretty much the archetypal Bond Girl (or, to be fair, a deuteragonist like Octopussy). Alexander Pierce would be a compelling adversary if the Mission: Impossible franchise had not already done a top-down villain or we had met the character before and actually had any trust for him to begin with.

Anthony Mackie is decent as Wilson, but the role is treated very much like a convenient sidekick (though his role is largely in the last act, he is well-seeded early in the movie). Mackie has the screen presence to sell Wilson as a credible analyst and member of the military, but the role of Sam Wilson and the Falcon is hardly given enough depth to make a Falcon-based film a realistic spin-off at this point (though it could be cool). In fact, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the use of the Falcon feels like a cheap way to get around Steve Rogers calling Iron Man. The Falcon is the second string hero who is available on hand, so why call up the guy who has pretty-much-the-same-but-better tech who you’ve worked with before? Captain America: The Winter Soldier does not really answer that question in a satisfying way, but it is impossible to blame Mackie for any of the issues with Falcon or his place in the story.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not the gamechanger that viewers were promised. For sure, things happen and unless there is no real coordination between the parts of the brand, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be forced to deal with the consequences of the film in a way that they did not actually have to after Thor: The Dark World. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been primarily about S.H.I.E.L.D. or the organizations like H.Y.D.R.A.; the movies are about the heroes and villains, individuals first and foremost. Will the Marvel spy community ever be the same after Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Possibly not; but most people don’t tune in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the espionage and inter-office politics: they want to see compelling battles performed by larger-than-life heroes. Captain America: The Winter Soldier does not deliver that. It is so packed with secondary characters who are working to set up the reversal and explain the plot machinations (like how H.Y.D.R.A. survived after the 1940s and remains active now and how The Winter Soldier looks pretty much like he does in the museum display images), that Captain America is more along for the ride than motivating the plot.

Ultimately, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not likely to kick off Summer Blockbuster Season early; instead, it will entertain and hold over fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe until they inevitably risk their dollars on Guardians Of The Galaxy. Masterpiece? No. Bad? Not by a long shot. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is marginally better than Captain America: The First Avenger, but it dresses up its averageness well.

For other works with Anthony Mackie, please check out my reviews of:
Runner Runner
Pain & Gain
Man On A Ledge
The Adjustment Bureau
The Hurt Locker
Half Nelson
Million Dollar Baby


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. It's a movie that Marvel seems to really be working well with now. Even if there are some missteps along the way. Good review.

    1. Just because Marvel is pushing it so heavily doesn't make it a great film. It's still a pretty average flick.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!

      -W.L. Swarts