CAPTAIN AMERICA: The Winter Soldier
Marvel’s Star Spangled Super Hero Captain America has been brought to live action a few times over the last 35 years. Growing up I first saw him in the late 70s TV movies starring Reb Brown (which are very campy when you look back at ’em now). Then in 1990 Matt Salinger played him in Albert Pyun’s abysmal low budget clunker. Flash forward to 2011, the MCU (MARVEL Cinematic Universe) has begun and Ol Cap is given a brand new life thanks to Director Joe Johnston whose previous work on movies like The Rocketeer informed the style and tone of Cap’s exciting origin story. The film focuses on young Steve Rogers, a puny kid from Brooklyn (his small frame created through amazing CGI FX) whose only goal in life was to serve his country in World War II and fight evil. When he’s chosen as a subject for the U.S. Army’s experimental Super Soldier program headed by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) he’s miraculously transformed into a musclebound marvel. Star Chris Evans was someone comic book movie fans would already know as Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch from those mildly entertaining Fantastic Four movies. While Evans was fine in that role (which oddly was closer in personality to someone like Tony Stark) his turn as the uber boy scout Captain America gave him something much more substantial to work with and ultimately he became the best screen version of the character thus far. Most importantly, The First Avenger was wholly successful in making audiences care about and believe in the idea of Captain America again through Evans’ earnest, heartfelt performance and the well crafted story. Since then he has become one of the most beloved MCU characters since RDJ’s Iron Man.
BEWARE OF SPOILERS! At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap makes a life altering decision to crash the evil Red Skull’s plane into the Arctic before it can attack the US but instead of perishing the Super Solider serum keeps him alive and he is frozen in suspended animation for 70 years. When S.H.I.E.L.D. recovers Cap’s body he is brought back to life again and thrown into a new war along with his misfit compatriots The Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow and The Hulk) when the evil Loki (Thor’s evil half brother) uses the stolen Tesseract (introduced in Cap 1) to attack the Earth with his army of Chitauri soldiers, given to him by The Mad Titan himself: Thanos. After a massively destructive battle in New York City, The Avengers were able to defeat Loki, obliterate The Chitauri and return The Tesseract to its rightful owner: Thor’s dad, Odin of Asgard.
Anthony and Joe Russo’s sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up two years after The Battle of New York. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) now resides in modern day Washington D.C. where he works at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ aka The TRISKELION along with Special Agent Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Cap, Widow and the S.H.I.E.L.D. S.T.R.I.K.E. force led by Agent Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) are sent on a new mission to save hostages aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. ocean vessel that’s been hijacked by a colorful French-Algerian mercenary named George Batroc (Georges St. Pierre) and his pirates. After Cap jumps from the S.H.I.E.L.D. jet (without a parachute!), we get to witness his spectacular skills as he takes out several guards like a super powered ninja. In between his stealthy attacks he and Black Widow discuss women he could date, which brings some humor to the sequence in a cool way. Cap’s vibranium shield is highlighted from the start as he utilizes it offensively rather than just for defensive moves (something fans like myself are very happy about). While onboard the ship, Cap gets to face off with Batroc, who shows himself to be an expert in the art of savate (French kickboxing) although he’s no match for our hero. This gives us our first look at the bone crunching, sternum shaking, close quarter fight sequences that will be a major part of the film. The S.T.R.I.K.E. force’s mission is successful, the hostages are rescued and Widow gets a secret data file Fury wants but Cap learns that he hasn’t been given the full rundown of what they were doing. Upon his return to D.C., Cmdr. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows Steve the gargantuan juggernaut that is Project: Insight: a trio of newly built S.H.I.EL.D. Hellicarriers that will be equipped to take care of international threats from the skies before they can be carried out. One look at this pre-emptive Minority Report style concept and Steve becomes very concerned. He makes it clear to Fury that he considers this new approach by S.H.I.E.L.D. to be about spreading fear not freedom.
When Nick Fury tries to access the data on the USB stick that Black Widow retrieved from the Batroc mission, he is denied access several times and becomes suspicious since he should have clearance. On his way to a meeting with Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) his reinforced, hi-tech mechanized SUV is suddenly attacked in the street by a group of police officers that barrage him with all their firepower (as well as a huge battering ram!). Fury manages to escape not before our introduction to The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) a mysterious ghost like assassin that appears out of nowhere. A wounded Fury makes it to Steve’s modest apartment where he warns him that there are ears everywhere and noone is to be trusted. He is then shot through the window by The Winter Soldier who Steve tries to apprehend in a thrilling footchase but is left in the dust. Due to the shady circumstances surrounding Fury’s death, Steve is branded a fugitive by S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s Senior Official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) which sends him on the run. He must then get help from the only people close to him, Black Widow and his new friend, war vet Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to try to uncover the reason behind Fury’s assassination and the secrets Pierce and S.H.I.E.L.D. has been hiding.
The action sequences in the film are just stellar and if you’re a fan of the MCU, you’ll see it taken to new heights in all areas thanks to The Russos who are comic book and film lovers. In comparison to The First Avenger which stayed within certain limits of violence, there are some brutal fights staged that are much more visceral and hard hitting. You really feel the weight of the impact through the type of choreography and sound mix. Not only do you get furious fisticuffs in the vein of The Bourne Identity there are also adrenaline charged car chases and chaotic HEAT style shootouts. New cast member Anthony Mackie brings Cap’s longtime comic book buddy “The Falcon” to the big screen with a bravura and bombastic flair. When he takes flight, swooping and soaring through the air you’ll get a real charge. One minor gripe, Sam’s backstory isnt really explained much, he just suddenly has the cool winged suit. In the center of it all is Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier aka Bucky Barnes, who is, on one hand, a very proficient, ruthless, robotic killer and on the other a lost lonely soul with very close ties to the hero of our story.
Chris Evans gets to play another side of Cap this time. He’s still the good hearted guy but there’s a slightly darker aura brought out since Cap is conflicted about his place in the world and within S.H.I.E.L.D.. His complex relationship with Black Widow is also explored further and we get to see their friendship and admiration for each other grow under all the strain they must endure on this journey. They are still a bit too different to be a couple, but it’s clear their battle tested bond and respect for each other is there for good.
The concept for the film’s story works so well because of the subject matter which is very timely as it focuses on the gray areas surrounding Big Brother’s need and use of our information to keep us safe. Steve learns the modern world’s problems are not simply black and white as they were in World War II. The good guys and bad guys are now very tough to distinguish as most look the same and are the very people he and the public regard as their protectors in S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. government.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes all the things we loved about the first film (and even The Avengers) to even greater levels of action, excitement and intrigue. Where Cap 1 was inspired by movies like Raiders of The Lost Ark and had a lighter 40s gee whiz tone, this sequel mixes shadowy espionage/conspiracy thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View and Three Days of The Condor with modern counterparts like Mission Impossible. Those elements injected with the heightened, pulp science fiction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and some very cool easter eggs) make it a very satisfying experience for film and comics fans alike. In addition we delve even further into the ideas of the Captain America from the comics who has those astounding abilities that help him do feats normal humans cannot. Across the board, this second installment of the Cap saga is a knockout as it breaks new ground and raises the stakes for the players involved and the ongoing MCU. It is a very nicely paced story filled with emotion and humor while the proceedings never lose their daring edge as it unfolds.