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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I still have a few more of last week's releases to look at but I'm going to do something completely different and review a film days before it actually comes out. I'm just that excited by it...


If you've been waiting for Marvel Studios to take their first major stumble and break the chain of good to excellent films that they've been releasing for years now, I'm afraid you're just going to have to wait a while longer. Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn't just continue Marvel's winning streak, though - it seriously ups the ante. Never mind just being infinitely better than its predecessor, the good Captain's latest adventure may well be the most creatively satisfying Marvel movie to date.

It's best to know as little about the plot going in as possible but The Winter Soldier shifts from the war movie dynamics of its predecessor towards what is basically a spy film on steroids. While Cap continues to settle into life in the 21st century, he struggled with his allegiance with SHIELD, an organization that is thousands of miles away from the simple, black and white morality of his previous role as a soldier for the Allies during World War II. It's a theme that was first explored in the Avengers but it becomes the focus here, as Cap and his possibly loyal allies quickly become embroiled in a - well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?

Suffice it to say that this is a story filled with intrigue, shady espionage, explosive action scenes, plenty of humour and the introduction of at least three new characters that are destined to become central to Captain America's life - not least of which is the eponymous Winter Soldier, a cold war assassin who may be more than a match for the original Super Soldier. Along the way we get more Black Widow and more SHIELD than ever before as both the super spy and the shady intelligence agency she works for are every bit as integral to the film's plot as Captain America himself.

While Captain America: The Winter Soldier may not quite match The Avenger's dialogue or Thor: The Dark World's wonderfully bonkers action scenes, it is easily the most complex and most adult Marvel movie to date that balances an intriguing, densely plotted storyline with intricately detailed characterization and even some (admittedly fairly blunt) social commentary, while never losing sight of the sense of fun that is part and parcel of the Marvel movie brand.

Man of Steel this ain't, in other words, as the film never forgets that Captain America is an agent of hope and inspiration, even in the midst of a plot that plays out an awful lot like a fairly bleak, paranoid Cold War conspiracy thriller. There is a particularly wonderful scene of Captain America inspiring a geeky everyman to stand up against overwhelming odds that not only captures everything that's great about a character that is basically Marvel's version of Superman but reminds us once again how wildly off the mark the latest Superman movie was. The Winter Soldier is a spy movie first and foremost but when it turns on the superheroics, it turns them on spectacularly.

Of course, when you consider that most of the film's central characters are portrayed by actors who have already brought these characters to life on at least one separate occasion, it's not too surprising that they are so confidently played. Chris Evans has really settled into the title role as he seemingly effortlessly captures the Captain's easy going charm, intrinsic goodness and man-out-of-time existential conflict, while Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow once again screams out for a solo film. Of the new additions, Anthony Mackie is breezily likable as the Falcon and the casting of Robert Redford as the man at the heart of a conspiracy thriller is an obvious but utterly brilliant piece of casting.

What really astounds about the film though is the talent behind the camera. Not only do the writers of the first Captain America seriously up their game for this sequel, Marvel once again struck gold by going for the inspired rather than the obvious by putting a pair of TV sitcom guys in the director's chair(s). Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo have directed a number of episodes of two of the greatest American TV-comedies of all time (Community and Arrested Development for those keeping track at home) but they were anything but an obvious choice for a big budget, effects-heavy action thriller. And yet, they do a spectacular job here, as they manage to both easily navigate the film's stuffed, twisty plot and do real justice the film's many set pieces. The fight scenes are particularly brilliant as they mix the over-the-top, physics-defying nature of the superhero with the grounded brutality of a particularly exciting mixed martial arts match.    

Admittedly, it isn't quite perfect as writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are no Joss Whedon when it comes to witty dialogue and oddball comedy but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an endlessly entertaining, perfectly paced and expertly told popcorn movie whose two-and-a-quarter hours flash by in no time at all. In terms of storytelling at least, it has really set the bar for all upcoming superhero films.

Do see it in 2D though, as the 3D is clearly added as an afterthought and the light loss hurts a number of the film's best nighttime-set set pieces.

 

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