Based upon the Marvel comics series created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
**** (four stars)
Last fall, when I saw the bland and bloated sequel "Thor: The Dark World" (2013), I began to worry that perhaps the assembly line tactic of rapidly releasing new films set within the Marvel comics universe was beginning to show some slight strain--a quality that was not helping to alleviate my comic book movie fatigue. This is not to be unexpected, of course because when the bottom line dictates the frequency of the product, quality control is indeed bound to suffer tremendously. Even so, I have been holding out some hope for the Marvel films to return to their high quality and man, did my hopes pay off!
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the second installment of the adventures of our red, white and blue clad and mighty shield carrying hero, but now in the present day of 2014, is a triumph for the Marvel films as Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have not only made the best Marvel film since Joss Whedon"s "The Avengers" (2012), they have fashioned one of the best Marvel films to date. It is a film that not only broadens and deepens its canvas from Joe Johnston's terrific "Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the Russo brothers have created a dizzyingly paranoid cinematic vision that makes this new film transcend its popcorn movie aesthetics and becomes a much smarter and more insightful film than it has any right to be. After witnessing the greatness of Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and now this film so very early in 2014, I am hoping that these films are significant signs that we are in for a stellar year at the movies.
As with the aforementioned "Thor: The Dark World" and Shane Black's defiantly risk taking "Iron Man 3" (2013) "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" takes place after the events of "The Avengers" and finds Steve Rogers (perfectly played with a steadfast earnestness and physicality by Chris Evans) still attempting to assimilate into the 21st century after being literally thawed out from his frozen suspended animation in the 1940's. Now living in Washington D.C., Rogers continues to work for the secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. as run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), although with a building skepticism as to Fury's true motives behind their operations, most especially after Fury introduces Rogers to Project Insight: a trio of Helicarriers designed to spy and preemptively eliminate potential threats to the nation.
When Fury is attacked by a mysterious group of assailants led by the even more mysterious and silent leader known as The Winter Solider, it is up to Captain America, along with super-spy Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new ally and war veteran Sam Wilson, soon to be known as The Falcon (a great Anthony Mackie) to uncover the mystery. Yet, what Steve Rogers begins to uncover is an unprecedented web of painfully treacherous deception and duplicity that brings the past of the 1940's crashing dangerously into the present day, potentially creating a most terrifying future...unless Captain America is able to stop it.
While that is indeed the basic plot line of "Captain America: The Winter Solider, I have to give tremendous credit to the Russo brothers and their screenwriters for skillfully conceiving of an adventure that is decidedly quite complex and labyrinthine in its structure as well as its concepts.
Like Francis Lawrence's outstanding "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" from last year, and even Steven Spielberg's brilliantly grim future vision "Minority Report" (2002), I deeply appreciated how the Russo brothers did not craft their sequel to exist as yet another bit of soulless CGI bombast but as a very perceptive Kafka-esque thriller. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a much darker, tougher film than its predecessor as it is actually challenging audiences to truly think about our relationship and increased reliance upon technology, and how that over-reliance affects the status of our country at this point of our collective history, as the film holds a stark mirror up to our very real world relationships with the Patriot Act, the NSA, drone strikes and definitely the actions of Edward Snowden. With that in mind, the Russo brothers have helmed a film that can exist just down the street from films like Christopher Nolan's game changing "The Dark Knight" (2008) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) as the real world has certainly encroached itself upon the fantasy world to truly disturbing and often exhilarating effect.
Furthermore, with the character of Steve Rogers at the center, and having him be a character that is essentially a man out of his time forced to exist in a world he doesn't fully understand and only really has his 1940's level tools to draw from, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" also exists as a morality play as it explores how our sense of morality can shift, change or even remain rock steady as the world's sense of morality has his the re-set button. With all of the political uncertainty, shifting alliances and secret allegiances contained within the film, the character of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), former comrade of Nick Fury's high ranking leader within S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as a member of the World Security Council truly represents the concept of political treason and eventually the state of totalitarianism. This conceit then provides the patriotic Steve Rogers with a deeply frightening dilemma: How can I fight with honor for my country when my country has completely turned against me? As a battered Nick Fury instructs him early in the film, "trust no one." Words that leave Steve Rogers trapped in a world he never made but still feels compelled to save regardless.
Even with of those socio/political concepts to mentally chew upon, the Russo brothers certainly remembered that they do have a comic book movie to make and they have handled their duties with creativity, imagination, high energy and a mountain of fun. I loved how the Russo brothers and their screenwriters ensured that while delivering the comic book goods, they also gave their film a terrifically witty screenplay that allowed Chris Evans and Scarlet Johansson to engage in a healthy amount of frisky, sexually tinged banter that actually did provide some healthy sparks. And then, the Russo's injected that trademark Marvel comics melancholy as the sadly interrupted love story from the first film reaches its conclusion with tender tragedy that was indeed heartfelt and served beautifully to augment Steve Rogers' existential trauma living in the 21st century.
Additionally, I loved how Samuel L. Jackson was given decidedly more substantial material to delve into than his pre-requisite walk-on cameo appearances within the Marvel films. Anthony Mackie made for a perfect addition to the team as he brought The Falcon to life with a vibrancy and strength that spoke volumes to me, much in the same way that seeing an African-American superhero in the comic books as a child felt for me. I am already looking forward to seeing him in action again.
Speaking of action, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is not all political intrigue as it is indeed wall to wall with one truly impressive action sequence after another. Now I have to say that I love a good hand-to-hand fight sequence, something that is indeed lacking in the movies, and the Russo brothers have outdone themselves by presenting several beautifully choreographed fist fight battles that truly get your adrenaline racing. And then, there is the fantastic and story driven extended climax which is heroically staged and executed with the high flying Falcon dodging bullets and bombs, and Captain America confronting The Winter Soldier for what may be the final time as our heroes all attempt to thwart the potential apocalypse that lies at the heart of those three hovering Helicarriers. It was all so sensational but if I could toss the Russo brothers one word of advice as they are reportedly committed to helming "Captain America 3," please tone down that "dreaded shaky cam" just a little bit and your action sequences will be even that much stronger!!
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has got it all. Thrills, excitement, energy and escapism. But it is also a handsome production that is exceedingly well written, acted and directed that is profound, insightful, darkly perceptive and therefore, extremely purposeful and not disposable in the least, which is something films designed to be entertaining never have to be.
Marvel, you're back on track. Now, let's just keep it that way.