[It’s up in the title, but be warned: there be HUMONGOUS SPOILERS about. But not too many so relax.]
It’s true what critics and fan boys/girls have been saying for weeks now: the MCU will not be the same after Cap 2. But the movie isn’t all MCU plot movement. The film, with its intense hand-to-hand action sequences and ubiquitous gun-play, makes an effort to develop old and new characters alike while spinning an entertaining—if predictable—yarn.
The current fashion of modern superhero cinema is to present superheroes that are more people than super, which is a generally rewarding trend for movie-goers (thanks, Chris Nolan!). Marvel’s First Avenger, though, stands resistant to human weaknesses, to moral ambiguity, to persistent doubts, and so presents a challenge to the modern filmmaker looking to tell a modern story about America’s greatest boy scout. In light of this, the Russo brothers have done the best they can with the rigid Captain America by filling this film with a host of colorful characters—and a pretty exciting “villain”—to more clearly draw the man with the shield.
Chris Evans basically lives in his Steve Rogers’ skin at this point, having played the character three times. Whether staring down Batroc and delivering a one-liner in French, or sparring with a surprisingly witty and bright Black Widow, Evans brings the Captain America we know and love to life. I’m not saying that bringing Steve Rogers to life is an incredible feat of acting, but Chris Evans does well in the action-oriented role. Evans brings his A-game though in the touching scene between Cap and a now Alzheimer’s-ridden Agent Carter. The scene is quick, subtle, and somehow both heartbreaking and satisfying in that it further cements Cap’s isolation in our strange, modern world. Plus, old people. :(
I found myself thinking TWS might actually be a Black Widow movie in disguise since, by the end of the adventure, Cap has undergone no philosophical or emotional changes whatsoever, while the superest spy in the known world is suddenly and willingly thrust into media spotlight without any explanation. What makes a spy, someone who lives on subterfuge and subtlety, jump into noisy, bright political arenas? If there’s an answer to that question, this movie isn’t telling. Perhaps the time she’s spent with Captain America between The Avengers and TWS has softened her, but it’s unclear why she’s so much more positive, emotive, and witty, than any of her previous incarnations. Still, the directors treat the only (so far) female Avenger with taste: there are no gratuitous body shots, the romantic tension between her and Cap is kept to a minimum (I argue it should have been kept to a nice round none), and her action scenes are downright thrilling. Natasha Romanoff—and Scarlett Johansson by extension—earns her place again as an Avenger in her confrontation with Alexander Pierce, and her willingness to sacrifice her own secrets in an effort to bring a bit more safety to the world at large.
(Quick detour: I have to say that I was REALLY excited when the World Council member suddenly went Iron Fist on those goons. Needless to say, I was disappointed when the old kick-ass woman revealed herself to be Black Widow. It makes sense for the narrative, but the surprise that an older woman would know incredible martial arts was brilliant, if only for a moment. End detour.)
In TWS, Nick Fury plays his largest role yet, and he does all that is required of him, no more, no less. It’s comforting to see Sam Jackson on-screen continuing to tie this insane(ly awesome) universe full of heroes and villains together with only a gun, an eye-patch, and an attitude. Fury is utterly destroyed over the course of the film, first physically in his “death” by the steely arm of The Winter Soldier, and later, after he is discovered to be (GASP!) alive afterall, and his entire organization is stripped from him initially by Hydra, but ultimately by Captain America. Without the eye-patch or the trench coat, Fury is left without any accessory we’ve come to associate him with in the closing scene of the film. But he can’t be out of resources yet, can he? Wink, wink. His early retirement, as it were, frees him up to run even more covert operations from the field, perhaps on his own. Or will he go off to form the Secret Avengers? We’ll see soon enough with his rumored appearance in the season finale of AoS.
My favorite part of TWS, besides the incredible choreography of pretty much every hand-to-hand fight, was Anthony Mackie’s turn as Sam Wilson, aka Falcon. It’s a smart and thoughtful move to shift the character away from his more fantastic comicbook origins, and into the more grounded role of a VA employee who runs group counseling sessions for soldiers returned from war. Not only does Wilson’s job link him emotionally with Captain America right from the get-go, it allows for a certain humanity and awareness of the wreckage gun violence and emotional damage can leave behind. For that very reason, I felt sad for Wilson that he would be inevitably conscripted into joining yet another war of sorts when joining Cap. It would have been nice if the movie discussed, if only briefly, the apparent contradiction in message there. Mackie and Evans have great chemistry, and their friendship feels natural, so it’s not a surprise to see Wilson take up arms against Cap’s enemies. I earnestly look forward to seeing him in his next picture, which probably won’t be until 2016 in Captain America 3, so boo on that.
Sebastian Stan plays Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, effectively, but I think pretty much any actor Marvel could find could’ve filled this role. The Winter Soldier manages to be menacing—the score helps prickle the nerves whenever he appears on screen—in his apparent indestructibility, and poses a believable threat to Captain America and his mini-team of Avengers. But when the mask comes off, Sebastian Stan is about as menacing as my grandma (she’s not menacing). Since the title of the movie is The Winter Soldier, I expected to see more of him, or for more attention to have been paid to him generally. Yes, we get that he doesn’t remember being Bucky, and is a little torn up about it. But the movie gives us nothing else to chew on, and I wanted much more. Why was he put in cryo-freeze? What’s with the arm? Was there one person the Winter Soldier was originally designed to kill? I suppose Marvel has plenty of time to answer these questions and more over the course of many sequels.
Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, the least surprising “surprise” evil-doer ever, brings weight to the proceedings as only Robert Redford can. While the twist is predictable, Redford and the script do well to convince us of this villain’s plausibility in both the Marvel universe and, frankly, ours. I don’t want to spend too much time waxing philosophical about how the film addresses topical political issues, e.g. freedom vs. safety, as many writers have already done so, but I will say that the film delivers a pretty straightforward answer to a nuanced issue in that ALL of the good guys are clearly more interested in freedom than safety. Plus, the whole vessel of this morality controversy, S.H.I.E.L.D., turns out to be run by NAZIS. “Nazi’s are the bad guys and they are always wrong,” while correct, is not a subtle take on freedom vs. safety. Even if the characters or writers don’t treat the thematic in as nuanced a way as it deserves to be treated, it’s still great to see the superhero “genre” crash into relevant political conversation simply and effectively. But what does Hydra rearing its ugly heads mean for the resident PoG TV show of choice, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? I’m waiting on the edge of my seat almost literally to find out…
In TWS, the Russo brothers have crafted an intricate plot around Cap, just so we can watch him squirm and bend—without actually bending—to a surreptitious and espionage-heavy plot that ends precisely as you expect it to. By the end of the film, with Bucky firmly in the “Who Knows?” camp of Heroes and Villains, Captain America remains unchanged, frustratingly so. Black Widow, already a different character than the person we met in The Avengers, changes even more than we want, but she and the other supporting cast really carry the film along. There are plenty of interesting implications this movie lays for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Zola’s TV face, to Dr. Strange, and the end of S.H.I.E.L.D. as we know it, but the movie isn’t going to make too many converts of people who weren’t already interested in comicbook movies to begin with. It’s undeniable that this film leads the pack of Phase 2 movies and paves the way for future Avenger ventures as far as tone, writing, and genre-busting are concerned, but the movie still leaves me wanting in the joy department.
Kurt’s verdict: 8 PoG’s