Sunday 30 March 2014

Captain America - The Winter Soldier

Signed, Shield & Delivered

Captain America - The Winter Soldier
2014 USA
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Joss Whedon
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Yeah, this one’s going to have some pretty big spoilers because of the things I want to discuss, I’m afraid. If you want to be in the dark when you see this movie... don’t read this.

So here we are back in the Marvel Universe produced version of, um, the Marvel Universe (as opposed to non-Marvel Marvel Universe franchises like Spider-Man and the X-Men). I have to say, this second outing for Captain America is a pretty good movie in the sequence. Probably my fourth favourite of the collected series which dovetails into the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and The Avengers arc.

The film does the usual thing of not keeping closely to some of the things in the Marvel series of comics on which these stories are, well, let’s call it “inspired by” shall we? However, this one doesn’t really stretch things too far (apart form maybe with a certain aspect of The Falcon... but I’ll get to that soon) and while it’s not nearly as bleak and pessimistic as some people have seemed to have made out, this is not the gung-ho burst of US patriotic bomb blast you might have been expecting from a super soldier named after his country. Overall, I liked the consistent tone of cold war betrayal going on with the plot line (something which began in The Avengers aka Marvel Avengers Assemble) and felt it a more interesting movie than, say, Captain America: The First Avenger (reviewed here)... although I still wish they hadn’t rushed Cap out of the 1940s and kept him in that time period for a few more movies (yes, I do want a 1940s set film version of The Invaders please!).

Now I’m not all that familiar with the storyline of the original comic book version of The Winter Soldier but I remember a friend filling me in on the basic plot line about 8 years or so ago. Marvel haven’t exactly been keeping the identity of The Winter Soldier a secret, with even the IMDB revealing who the character actually is, and it’s fair enough actually... after all, the comics were published a long time ago now. So, this movie sees the return of Sebastian Stan as the brainwashed and “returned to life” Bucky Barnes, reprising his role from the first Captain America movie ( although I still wish they’d have put Bucky in his original costume for that first outing). He plays the role of The Winter Soldier much better than he did the 1940s version of Bucky, in my opinion, but that’s because he didn’t play Bucky as the Marvel Universe equivalent of Robin, The Boy Wonder, as he was obviously modelled after. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of the character, however, the combat scene where his identity is revealed to the audience in Captain America: The Winter Soldier probably made a nice surprise.

The film ditches and rewrites parts of his history of course, as it does with all the characters in the movies to fit them into a strong, unifying Marvel brand (which is about to be shot to pieces with the new X-Men movie, actually, but I’ll get to that later). So, when a scene where Steve Rogers is revisiting his past at an exhibit at the Smithsonian, this film compounds the lack of Nick Fury during World War 2 and so... much more officially in this version... Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos becomes Captain America And His Howling Commandos. Similarly, the character of The Falcon, who started out life in a 1969 issue of Captain America, is not wearing his traditional spandex red and white costume with accompanying mask, which infuriates me a little... but, at least, it’s replaced with a practical piece of technology which doesn’t look as out of place within the overall tone of this movie. Plus, well done to actor Anthony Mackie (who I really liked in The Adjustment Bureau, as I pointed out here), for turning in a really solid and likeable performance as one of the beloved heros of 1970s comics.

Chris Evans just gets better and better every time I see him in something and his portrayal of Captain America, is actually pretty competently delivered, considering the character is so righteous and star spangly that he could easily dip into boredom at any second. Evans manages to make him both believable as an actual person and to also deliver a no nonsense confidence within the prison of the character... so that’s pretty good. The film even includes the scenes deleted from The Avengers movie, with Steve Rogers visiting the aged Peggy Carter, his love interest from the first movie, and we see the pain of responsibility in Captain America’s life as his former flame slips into dementia. It was a shame they didn’t feel they could bring this character back, frozen in time like her star spangled boyfriend, but the whole thing works dramatically much better as an anchor in the title character’s life, I guess... so that was pretty good.

And then we have Scarlet Johansson’s take on Black Widow, who is finally beginning to look more and more like the comic book character she is based on. Granted, she doesn’t seem as troubled and tortured by her past as much as she needs to be just yet, and her former love affair with The Winter Soldier seems to have been completely bypassed for the sake of brevity in this movie, but she’s always good to watch and I feel that, if the writers and directors of these movies don’t cop out on us, they’re definitely moving the character in the right direction now.

The film is a heady blend of action and “spy hard” theatrics and the brilliant action sequences, when Captain America throws his mighty shield, are not edited too badly (only gets a little confusing in a few places) and, without a doubt, it has to be said, all those who choose to oppose his shield, must yield.  Samuel L. Jackson’s usual turn as Nick Fury is pretty cool too, although it’s really strange that the writers of this movie really expected us to think that they had killed the character off. Frankly, we know a faked death when we see it and there’s a lot of reasons why it just makes no sense to eliminate this character, just yet, from the franchise. So, yeah, I did feel like my intelligence was being way too insulted by that point.

The return of Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola was expected, to be sure, but not in the way they’ve brought him back (which kind of pre-empts a Johnny Depp movie coming out soon, it seems) and I’m glad he returned for this one, if just for Natasha Romanoff’s throwaway reference to the computer hacker movie War Games. Would’ve been nicer to see him in the flesh, maybe, but at least he got a look in.

Emily VanCamp, as Agent 13, is also absolutely brilliant in this, and held my attention for all the scenes she’s in. I’m assuming/hoping that she’ll be a regular in the film series as it develops but, well, let’s see where they go with that. Which leads me to the next big question...

How can we have an Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D TV show when S.H.I.E.L.D has been historically infiltrated by Hydra and all but destroyed, now, by the main protagonists of this movie? Why am I even watching that show, to be honest? It needs to get better really soon now... I’m the only one in my house still bothering to watch it. Maybe this is the way they kill off the show before, hopefully, moving some of the TV characters back into the main movie franchise?

Like all the Marvel Universe Phase One and Phase Two movies, the film has a post end credits scene and also, like Thor: The Dark World, a mid end credits scene and, this sequence, throws up the little rant I was going to get around to having when the new X-Men movie came out... but now I can do it here too. The original comic book characters of the brother and sister twins who were Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver started off, if my hazy memory serves me correctly, as villains... part of Magneto’s mutant army in the early 1960s X-Men comics, before they switched sides and became part of the superhero team known as The Avengers. So it makes sense for them to appear in continuity here... with an origin which seems to be involving some new villainous society. However, and here’s the problem, 20th Century Fox also have rights to the characters and they are using them in their upcoming movie X-Men: Days Of Future Past... played by different actors and, presumably, with a different movie origin story which doesn’t dovetail into this franchise. This is a bad idea all around, people. It’s surely going to confuse the heck out of audiences who a) don’t know the origin of the characters and b) who don’t realise the Marvel Universe has been strangely split between multiple studios. It’s basically like having two different Spider-Man movies out there starring different actors at the same time. It makes no sense but, lets reserve judgement until we’ve seen both X-Men: Days Of Future Past and The Avengers: Age Of Ultron first, I guess. Maybe the X-Men timeline will wipe them out of existence by the end of that movie.

And that’s about it, for this review, I guess. I used to have a Captain America action figure as a kid with a special toggle on the back which used to make his arms punch if you pulled the joint out of his socket (yeah, that was a deliberate thing you were supposed to do, people... I didn’t usually used to pull my action figures’ limbs out for fun) and it’s nice to see the character now knocking around on film in a credible manner (as opposed to the theatrical serial Captain America from 1944 and the various TV movie incarnations of the character over the years). And the film does have one last special trick up it’s sleeve if you really want to get pulled into your local cinema to see this movie... and it’s this...

 Jenny Agutter reprises her brief role from The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble and reviewed here) and takes out a roomful of bad guys with her kung fu kickassery (plus some extra help from those quick action edits). There’s a little extra twist to this sequence, shown moments later, but... seriously... go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and you will get to see Jenny Agutter stand up to Robert Redford’s goons and kick some Hydra butt. Which is as good a proposition as I’ll ever need to get me into cinemas, to be honest.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fun movie in a franchise which knows how to keep a serious level of gravitas and credibility to characters who are, by definition, the very antithesis of credible, while still remembering to keep the writing dialled up to “full on fun”... not the best entry in the Marvel franchise... but certainly a very good one.

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