Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

By 2011, the world of superhero movies was undergoing a dramatic transformation. Following on the success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel Studios had finally announced its plan for a shared movie universe by then, and we were getting two installments that same year, the first Thor and the first Captain America movies, all of which were to lead in to the first ever Avengers movie the year after. 2011 also saw the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: First Class, marking a resurgence in that franchise that is resulting in X-Men: Days of Future Past this year and in X-Men: Apocalypse in a couple more years. Marvel comics characters were enjoying unprecedented popularity, largely thanks to Marvel Studios’ own attempts, and it a great thing for the industry, to see superhero movies finally get a measure of respectability and mainstream approval. All the Marvel that had come before since the first X-Men movie and all the contributions by the various DC films (and others), were finally paying off.

But, Captain America: The First Avenger wasn’t as great a success as its makers had expected. The film made just short of $400 million on the box office, although it had a budget of a mere $65 million. What it did though , was perfectly setup the follow-up movie, Avengers, and that was a major success for everyone involved. Shedding his bad boy image as Johnny Storm from Fox Studios’ Fantastic Four franchise, Chris Evans was reincarnated as the Sentinel of Liberty and he delivered one of his best performances to date.

And now, almost three years later, we have the second Captain America movie, and this one is heck of a lot better than its predecessor in all respects. It has much better acting from everyone involved, whether we talk heroes or villains. It has much better visuals (at almost three times the budget of the first movie, overall!). It has a much better story. And it does some really, really crazy things. This is pretty much the kind of movie I expected to see on the big screen, if said movie is subtitled The Winter Soldier.

Captain America 2 Poster 0002

One of the faults of the original Captain America movie was that the villain was pretty much a boring one. Red Skull is quite a fascinating character in the comics, but his translation to the big screen never resonated with me. He was too much a caricature of a villain, rather than someone three-dimensional, someone who depths to him. The new movie changes all that because we have a new villain in the form of the Winter Soldier, a Russian assassin who is little more than a ghost story. All of SHIELD’s attempts to track him down over the years have failed but now he is out in the open, making a play that is part of a much larger conspiracy in the espionage game with the end goal being world domination. While The First Avenger was pretty much a straight up war/action movie with superheroes, The Winter Soldier goes some distance further to talk politics, especially contemporary geopolitics in the digital age with respect to espionage oversight. With all the current news about Edward Snowden and NSA’s mass surveillance of US citizens and American allies, the timing couldn’t be better.

There are several new characters introduced in the movie alongside the more-familiar Nick Fury, Captain America, Maria Hill and Black Widow. We have the first on-screen debuts of the Winter Soldier, Alexander Pierce, Falcon, Brock Rumlow, Sharon Carter and a bunch of others. What this creates is a tangled web of loyalties since, first and foremost, SHIELD is a global spy agency with global outreach and with Nicky Fury and Alexander Pierce in-charge it is also one that keeps a hell of a lot of secrets, as we see in the movie. Compartmentalisation is what Nick Fury calls it. Captain America obviously disagrees. He is the boy-scout of the Marvel universe, someone who takes things as they come and firmly believes in right and wrong, someone who believes in freedom for the people that is not borne out of fear and control.

In the wake of The Avengers, the global scene has changed significantly of course. The world now widely knows about superheroes like Hulk and Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye. It knows about aliens and supervillains. The world now knows that there are threats out there that can’t be defeated conventionally. And in all of this, there is a desire for governments and shadowy global organisations to control everything, to be the global news filer, telling the people what to do, what to think, what to see and so on. Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier explores with a lot of these concepts in its subtext. There’s a big fat macguffin in the movie in that regard, three of them actually, and they are the means for SHIELD to take out threats before they can become threats. For Captain America, that’s fear talking, not freedom. And that’s where everything happens. Because there are always conspiracies within conspiracies as far as SHIELD is concerned and there is a pretty big secret at the heart of the organisation that very, very few people know about.

In terms of the characters, it was great to see the Captain in a new, more modern suit than we saw him in last. It is duller in colour and gives off a very strong special ops vibe when compared to his World War II uniform or even his uniform from The Avengers. Superhero uniforms can kind of make or break a character, and as far as Captain America is concerned, his suit here is pretty cool. And Chris Evans looks pretty damn imposing in it too, which I suppose was one of the points. Even just generally, it was great to see the movie deal with the Captain as a character in his own right. He is the man after all who fought against the Mutant Registration Act during the events of Civil War, going up against both Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic in the process and becoming an outlaw so to speak. He did that for freedom, to have the right to choose. The way he is written in the movie, he is no different. The morally grey, that’s not really his area of expertise since he can reduce everything to black and white, as it once used to be for him, before his final mission during the war. This concept goes back and forth throughout the movie and provides a great hook.

In contrast, both Nick Fury and Black Widow are firmly in the morally grey and they are the good guys all the way. The movie doesn’t focus on them too much, letting the Cap have most of the screentime, but still, these two characters get a really solid outing. Marvel movies at this point in time are more ensemble movies all the way rather than being about specific heroes. You can consider Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier to be more of a Captain America-centric SHIELD movie rather than the other way around. And that’s perfectly fine for me since the shared universe is growing significantly with each movie and if characters don’t crossover then that’s a big question mark.

We even got to see Maria Hill, the deputy director of SHIELD here, and Cobie Smulders rocked it again. She was one of the highlights of The Avengers and the premiere episode of Agents of SHIELD so it is awesome to see her being featured more. And I loved that we got to see her in the epilogue scenes as well.

Black Widow is quickly becoming a heavy-hitter in the movies and I really can’t wait for her to get a movie of her own. With the way that she has been developed, she has ties to pretty much all the major characters now, except perhaps Thor. She went undercover as Pepper Potts’ secretary in Iron Man 2. She brought Bruce Banner out of hiding in The Avengers. She has shared mission history with Hawkeye and Captain America. She’s in a good place, especially at the end of Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, to star in her own movie. The timing is perfect as far as I’m concerned.

Captain America 2 Stills 0001

Of course, there’s also the question of Winter Soldier as well, played by Sebastian Stan who performed as Steve Rogers’ childhood pal Bucky Barnes back in Captain America: The First Avenger. What I loved about his arc in the movie was that things were very understated. The story didn’t go heavily into his development or his switch from bad guy to maybe-bad guy and they kept things really interesting all the way through. The story of the Winter Soldier in the comics is a very elaborate, rich storyline, and compressing all of that into a single movie that is SHIELD-oriented in the first place, isn’t something that I wanted to see, and that’s not what we get either. He is the bad guy for most of the movie and the only switch is right at the end in the climax, setting up a future appearance that I would absolutely love to see again.

To be honest, I would have liked to see more of him since the movie is partly named after him. And I think some of that focus was robbed from him, but I am content that the story still did him justice and it set up a lot of internal conflict for him. Hopefully Marvel can come back to him at some point soon.

If there is one thing that didn’t sit well with me with the movie is its ending and what Captain America’s attitude about freedom and secrecy means for SHIELD. It puts Agents of SHIELD in a very precarious position now, and I’m really not sure how that big elephant in the room is going to be addressed. Plus, the ending necessitates a LOT of rebuilding in general for the superhero and American espionage community, which will hopefully not be dealt with in the same way that things like this are dealt with in the comics. To have an understanding of this ending, think about how The Dark Knight Returns ended Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Yeah, that kind of big ending. I appreciate what the story is meant to do, but it feels too much too soon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is still in its infancy, relatively speaking since it is said that the studio has plans for its franchise mapped out by the end of 2018 and even has started discussions going on for a decade after that. Which is pretty damn crazy if you ask me.

And one thing I want to highlight in the movie is the action sequences, whether we talk the big battles with aerial gimmicks or the hand-to-hand. It all felt real, believable. Whenever Cap goes hand-to-hand against an enemy, or whenever Black Widow does the same, or Winter Soldier, you really feel that the moves are real. They don’t come across as choreographed. Might be a small detail to some, but for me it is pretty important, given how much of it there is. And it also emphasises the physical training all three of these characters have gone through and what their skillsets are. They are able to adapt with any weapons to hand and when they fight, it really feels as if there are going to be consequences for it. Again, pretty damn excellent.

Oh and a note about all the actors involved: they all delivered some of their finest performances. And newcomers Robert Redford and Anthony Mackie were pretty damn good as well. I’m really looking forward to seeing Anthony Mackie’s Falcon again.

I saw the movie in 3D as well, and it was great. I wanted to see it in 2D actually, without the encumbrance of the black-tinted 3D glasses but that was not to be since the movie was in the regular format at one of the distant theaters and the timings at my usual theater were not comfortable. Still, I enjoyed the 3D. There are a lot of big action sequences and lots of things flying around, and people, so the 3D work gets a lot of mileage all throughout. I’d recommend the 3D format.

In closing, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier is not the best Marvel movie to date but it comes pretty damn close. The honour of the best Marvel movie, I think, goes to Iron Man. It is the one that started it all and it set the bar. Thor 2: The Dark World comes a close second and I’d say Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier sits proudly at number 3. Yeah, I liked it better than The Avengers.

More Captain America: The First Avenger.

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Posted on April 6, 2014, in Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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