Ever since The Avengers hit the multiplex, Marvel movies have been judged more on how much comic book spectacle they can provide than whether or not they are good films. Some of this is subconscious. In comics, we get giant crossovers pretty regularly,so taking a break after one to focus on the individual characters for a bit is both refreshing and welcome. Unfortunately, Marvel movies take longer to shoot and produce than they do to draw and print, so people fiending for their next hit of Avengers Assembling are having trouble settling for solo adventure stories. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were enjoyable and flawed in their own ways, admittedly, but this extra tension of waiting for the next “real” Marvel hit only added to these films ample criticism.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier changes that.
I’m going to use some hyperbole in this review that I may regret six weeks from now, but as I type these words, four days removed from the blistering excitement of having seen this film, I can comfortably call it the best Marvel movie to date.
This will be kept light on spoilers, so let’s get the plot basics out of the way. Super soldier Steve Rogers, having been frozen during World War II, is alive and well in 2014, doing missions for S.H.I.E.LD. and trying to find his place in the world. All is not what it seems. Stuff happens. Action ensues. The crowd goes wild.
If you have seen a trailer for this film, then stop there. That isn’t to say the movie has any wild twists or game changing third act reveals. If you understand basic dramaturgy, have read a comic, or seen a movie before, for the most part, you can extrapolate the material from the previews into a cogent plot, but it wouldn’t matter. Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds because of brilliant, consistent characterization and thematic consistency. The plot is merely what happens to the characters throughout their perfectly drawn arcs.
The other Marvel movies use this brand of storytelling as their selling point, but with Iron Man and Thor, it’s to mask other inadequacies. Iron Man’s whole “I am my own worst enemy” shtick works for the character because he has a lot of shitty villains. Thor’s “fish out of water with a wishy washy villain brother” story works because otherwise we would be watching a weird version of Lord of The Rings. Captain America as a man out of time, though? That works on its own merit. You would watch that story even if he didn’t have the costume and the shield.
In the comics, Rogers wakes up in the sixties, which was a culture shock, sure, but here he wakes up NOW. The writers here did an amazing job of tapping into the fears and paranoia of 70s spy thrillers as a sort of cinematic shorthand for the psychological and moral crossroads our hero finds himself at from the outset. Rogers doesn’t just have to deal with the Internet and organic foods and all of his friends being dead or elderly. He’s got Wikileaks and drone strikes and a war that doesn’t resemble his understanding of the word.
What I love about the writing paired with Chris Evans’ performance is that they never go the easy way with Rogers’ internal conflict. Captain America is a hard character to get right. Lean too far to the left and you get a liberal soapbox and too far to the right and you’ve got a Mark Millar comic. Here, they have captured as perfect an iteration of the Sentinel of Liberty as Christopher Reeves’ Superman. There is comedy to be had at Rogers’ expense, but none of it is mocking or blandly broad. So many Captain America stories paint Steve Rogers as being a little dumb just because disco confuses him. Here, he is the same whipsmart and resourceful soldier he was in the 40s, only he has to spend a lot more time on Wikipedia than we do.
The supporting cast here is treated with equal focus. Scarlett Johansson finally gets a real opportunity to present her interpretation of Natasha Romanov and in her unique perspective,provides a great foil for Cap. Anthony Mackie imbues Sam Wilson, The Falcon, with a quiet pathos and a winsome charisma that strongly reminded me of early Will Smith. It was nice to see The Falcon as something other than Cap’s black friend. Sam Jackson, too, plays Nick Fury well and makes the most of his screen time,further solidifying the good Colonel as an actual cast member and not just some ongoing stunt cameo.
Oh, and Robert Redford. I’ll just say that, for my money, he hasn’t looked this good in a while. Thanks for not phoning it in, Sundance.
I know my thoughts thus far must make this sound like a John Le Carre novel filled with Aaron Sorkin banter, but that would be leaving out all of the excellently depicted instances of evil getting punched in the fucking face. Anthony and Joe Russo, who you’ll know from directing episodes of Community and Arrested Development before you would from Welcome to Collinwood, totally arrive with this movie. They should be household names going forward. They’ve made a superhero movie that works well in the fun, “comic booky” lane that Marvel has carved itself, but is equally functional as a smart, mature spy thriller, challenging the Dark Knight trilogy in terms of morally gray realism.
From car chases, to elevator fights, to some of the most vicious hand to hand combat since The Raid, this movie delivers in action. Not the begrudging Christopher Nolan close-up action. Not Joss Whedon gives you fifteen minutes of fan service action. I’m talking Chris Evans as Steve McQueen as Steve Rogers punching and kicking and Krav Maga-ing bad guys in the head until freedom wins, all expertly framed and choreographed for maximum summer enjoyment. I left the theater wanting to dropkick people and throw circular disks of patriotism at inequality.
Now, there will be a backlash against this film in the coming weeks. It takes you on such a dizzying high that I imagine subsequent viewings will elucidate failings I’ve yet to acknowledge. For instance, Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13 seems like an afterthought, going against my great characterization note from earlier. You’ll notice I said little of Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier. He’s fine in the role and suitably badass, but if you’re here for that particular subplot, I will warn you to wait for the threequel. Outside of that,I don’t know what more you could want.
We really need one of these every 4th of July.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens April 4th in theaters nationwide.