“It’s called compartmentalization. No one spills the secrets because no one knows them all.”
I was lucky enough to grow up during Marvel’s wonderful rebirth of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Of all of the comics they produced during that time, I was always least impressed with Captain America. I don’t think I ever read an issue of any of his mags with the notable exception of The Avengers. So how can it be possible that after dozens of Marvel films, and I’m including the Fox and other-studio-produced stuff, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier can end up being my favorite? Could it be that I’ve warmed up to the Cap under the compelling performances of Chris Evans. Nah! Could it be I’ve grown and matured a lot since I was a teenager? Anyone who knows me is certain that can’t be the answer. Could it be that maybe, just maybe, this just happens to be their best film yet. No maybe’s or could be’s about it. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is even better than The Avengers. It’s too early to tell if it’ll be my favorite tent pole film of the summer, but it’s starting in the pole position, to be sure.
Let’s start with the story. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) has now been working for Nick Fury (Jackson) and SHIELD. since the events of The Avengers. We get to see him in action on what appears to be a routine rescue of a ship from pirates. He’s teamed up with Natasha “The Black Widow” Romanoff (Johansson) and a strike force team. The mission is a success, but Rogers is starting to have doubts about his job, Fury and SHIELD in general. That isn’t helped when Fury pretty much confirms his worst fears by revealing the top secret project Insight. We’re talking serious firepower intended to head off terrorism before it’s committed. Punishment before the crime, as Rogers sees it. Obviously, Rogers has some serious thinking to do. But there won’t be time for that.
You see, Fury is running into some suspicions of his own about SHIELD and Project Insight. He goes to the World Council Secretary Alexander Pierce (Redford), an old and trusted friend. They agree to delay the project while Fury investigates, something he won’t get a chance to do. A series of action scenes sends Fury to the only man he trusts – Captain America. That doesn’t work out so well either, and before long The Cap and Black Widow are fugitives from SHIELD and all of the firepower at their command. Adding to that armament is a mysterious super-powered bad guy who is the stuff of 50 years of legends. He’s known as the Winter Soldier, and no one even knows for sure he exists. Guess what? He exists. If you followed the comics, you know who this soldier ultimately is, and I won’t spoil it for you here if you don’t. If you thought the X-Files had conspiracies, this film makes that look like Shakespeare in the round. It’s a SHIELD civil war and the revealing of an old and very dangerous enemy.
This is a rather smart script. It brings us the best of the comic book hero action with a movie that could really operate outside of that genre. Any of these individual films also suffer from the logical question of why these guys just don’t call on the other super dudes when they’re in a jam. This film effectively isolates Cap and his small group of friends with the fugitive status. There’s also a matter of trust that will need to be addressed by the time Age Of Ultron comes around next summer.
The plot is also a game-changer for the Marvel universe. The ripples from this thing will have to spread to any of the films that follow as well as the television series. There are a ton of surprises. Many are quite predictable depending on your knowledge of these characters. For you they won’t be twists as much as waves of nostalgia. The story finds a way to incorporate what has gone before and what is to come without leaning very much on that material. It’s the best standalone story in the series. You can enjoy this movie without any past experience, be it films, cartoons or comics. And for those folks, I’m sure Marvel is hoping this will be the perfect jump-in point for them. You know what? It is. So, yes, you’ll see some of it coming, but you’ll never see all of it coming. That’s the mark of a smart script.
I also like the evolution of the Steve Rogers character. There’s a temptation to continue to play on the fish-out-of-water aspects of Rogers. And certainly some of that remains. Still, the story shows a Captain America who has come to grips with the time he’s in, and he’s found a way to be comfortable in his own skin. The early banter with Black Widow gives us a look into that adjustment, yet lets us know he’s not all there yet. He’s also not the naive person he was in The Avengers. He’s confident enough to question what he’s doing and why. He’s ready to make friends. The script pays off all of the WWII era stuff in both poignant flashbacks and a Smithsonian exhibit that serves as a clever way to fill you in on the events of the first film, in case you missed it or forgot. The exhibit also serves as one of Stan Lee’s funniest cameos.
The Winter Soldier is the biggest little movie you have ever seen. And that’s at the core of what makes this such a terrific movie. You get all of the elements of a “mainstream” political thriller and action film while still experiencing the spectacular splendor that is this huge Marvel universe of technology and largess. We’re talking amazing car chases and firefights. We also get far more character moments here than all of the other Marvel films combined. When I’m talking about character moments, I mean the small, quiet and rather intimate scenes where the actors can deliver without competing with all of the eye candy. Yeah, we came to see all of that, certainly. But it’s a grander idea to allow us to really enjoy the characters and the interactions.
Like The Avengers, this is very much a team-up movie in the great tradition of the early Marvel comics days. We’re introduced to The Falcon in this film. It’s Sam Wilson as the winged hero, played quite well by Anthony Mackie. Once again, these guys have done a perfect job of casting. When Mackie enters the scene, he ends up sharing wonderful chemistry with both Evans and Johansson. The trio makes this the team-up film that it is. They fit together well, and the Falcon design is impressive. It fits well into this universe and is just another puzzle piece that allows this world to expand without collapsing upon itself. As much as I love the huge f/x scenes, some of my favorite moments involve these character scenes. We are also introduced to Agent 13, also known as Agent Carter (not the one from the upcoming series). She’s played by Emily Van Kamp. Comic fans know there is more to this story. I suspect those threads are coming in future installments.
Robert Redford wanted in on this movie, and he adds a dimension that I think grounds this film. Through Redford Fury’s humanity is explored, and Jackson finally gets to play with Nick Fury in more than hints and flashes. Like SHIELD, Fury is truly transformed in this film, and his performance along with Redford’s goes a long way toward making that happen.
Chris Evans has absolutely improved with each film. Fans were relieved to hear that his recent announcement that he was giving up acting to work behind the camera was quickly amended to exclude his future Captain America roles. You can tell he loves the role and brings much to it. Eventually all of these characters will be recast. Like James Bond, we’ll learn to accept others in their places. It works even easier with comics. You see, we’re used to it. Each time a new artist took over a book, there were often changes in their appearances. Tony Stark will likely be the first to be recast, since Downey is the oldest. But look at Tony Stark from the 1960’s and even the 1990’s, and they hardly look like the same man. The Marvel universe will survive such inevitable moments…just not quite yet.
Let’s not forget that there are some grand f/x in this movie. Disney now owns Industrial Light and Magic, so it’s gotten even easier to put the best to work on these movies. There are three heli-carriers now, and they figure very much into the carnage. We may not be talking the kind of destruction witnessed in The Avengers, but I promise you that you’ll get your fill of sweeping devastation and huge set pieces. Along with those intimate moments there are plenty of grand gestures and adrenaline-pumping superhero action.
The press screenings were not in 3D, I’m sorry to say. Not sure why that decision was made. I would love to talk to you about the 3D visuals, but…
I started by saying I was never a real Captain America fan. I was a comic fan and particularly a Marvel fan. There were a few moments when I wanted to be Spider-man. Later as I grew a little, I wanted to be Stan Lee. If you share those fond memories, this movie will play on all of them at once. It’s the most complete of the Marvel films, and it serves as an important course change going forward. If they can maintain this course, and I see no evidence to the contrary, there’s still a lot of steam left in these movies. That’s saying something when you consider there have now been eight of them. It’s a record that would make James Bond envious, not to mention Fury’s car gadgets.
Which brings me to a final point. It’s about time that the Marvel Universe was all back under one roof. There’s certainly enough money for Sony and Fox to work something out with Disney. When Marvel existed without a parent studio this farm-out system made a lot of sense. It doesn’t any more. Both Sony and Fox are forced to rush out films to retain their rights, and they just aren’t doing the kind of job Marvel is doing right now. A new Spider-Man is merely weeks away along with an exciting-sounding X-Men film. But we the fans want to see Spidey and Wolverine like they were in the comics. We want the mash-ups that we looked forward to in four-color on the big screen. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the next Avengers film can’t refer to The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as mutants. I know it’s a business. But if three entities can finally work it out to deliver us the Batman series on DVD finally this year, these studios can work out an arrangement. Like I said, there’s plenty of money to go around.
There are two end-credits scenes. The first sets up Age Of Ultron and introduces us to Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch, while the second sets up Cap 3, which is now scheduled for a showdown with Zach Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman film. They’re scheduled for the same exact date in 2016. Marvel head Kevin Feige swears he’s not going to blink. No reason he should. If I were The Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader, I’d be sweating more than a little. I have no doubt Warner/DC will back down, but it’ll be under some production pretense. Translation: we’re scared out of our pants. Of course, “It’s more complicated than that.”