Saturday, 29 March 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shaping up to be even better than Phase One. The MCU has become a deep, complex world, and The Winter Soldier makes the most of this, exploring and reacting to the status quo and then shattering it. It's a back-to-basics action film, a Bourne-like political thriller where Cap becomes an enemy of the state. It's a faster, more violent, less kid-friendly take on the character and his world than either The First Avenger or Avengers Assemble.

As wonderful as it was to see a period superhero film with The First Avenger, Captain America works best as a man out of time. The original comics brought Cap only twenty years or so into his future, the rolling present of the comics universe eventually forcing him to confront the morally questionable United States of the twenty-first century. The MCU, however, has dropped the Captain straight into the murky world of modern geopolitics and the War on Terror (TM), a world to which his straightforward and noble morality is spectacularly unsuited. This is the stark truth of the modern world. It's not that the military and governments of the past didn't compromise their morals in order to hold onto power or to fight for the greater good. It's that now, we are under no illusions that this is the truth of things. While I don't buy into the concept of a vast conspiracy steering global history, it's no secret that those in power do not always have our best interests at heart; or that, when they do, they may take some appalling actions in order to protect them.

Steve Rogers isn't a man to compromise his morals, something that is both his strength and his weakness in this story. In a world where no one can be trusted, he is the one man who can be. Chris Evans is still utterly perfect as Rogers, convincing as the unstoppable pinnacle of the human form at the same time as he portrays a vulnerable naivety. Pairing him with the Black Widow is a clever decision. She represents the exact opposite of Cap; someone morally compromised who learned how to be a better person, while Rogers is having to learn that sometimes, he needs to be worse. Some of the work is already done; from the outset, this is a more violent version of the Captain than we've previously seen.

While this is a thoroughly modern, up-to-date actioner, it wears its influences on its sleeve. Retro elements abound, from the forties flashbacks to the seventies-style vibe of the politics and espionage. Samuel L. Jackson brings his usual Shaft­-like cool to all his scenes, even when he's violently incapacitated. The Winter Soldier himself, the crucial element of the movie, may be a 21st century character but is screamingly nineties in his design. Cap himself looks better than ever, sporting a stealth version of his uniform for the initial night operation, before going plain clothes and finally reverting to his forties outfit from The First Avenger. Each look is a hell of a lot better than his Avengers outfit. (What will he wear for Age of Ultron? Will he have a new Avengers Ensemble?)

The Winter Soldier stands above all the preceding MCU films in terms of action. While it's saddening to realise that the most spectacular sequences will have been primarily created in the computer suite, the genuine live-action setpieces are still breathtaking. However, this is no Michael Bay gratuitous explosion-fest; everything pushes the story forward and allows further insights into the characters, and how each of them approaches a war situation. And, because this is a treatise on 21st century American warfare, there is plenty of collateral damage. Indeed, this is the entire point of the film. While it is revealed that SHIELD has been compromised, that revelation is almost unnecessary. It's entirely feasible that a US-based military organisation would see defending the world's freedom and using horrifying weapons of mass destruction as somehow compatible.

Sebastian Stan makes a great impression as Bucky Barnes, in spite of spending more than half his screentime silently dealing out punishment. His chemistry with Evans sells their scenes together; you can still see Bucky somewhere under the Winter Soldier mask. Stan is signed up for a nine picture contract; with Evans only signed up for six, with three down already (surely his cameo in Thor 2 can't count?) I think it's reasonable to assume that the movies will follow the comics and rehabilitate Bucky as the replacement Captain America. That, however, is in the future. For know, there's the still the battle to recover Bucky from his enslavement as the Winter Soldier.

The remaining cast all impress; there really isn't a bad performance in the film. Anthony Mackie's Falcon has a great rapport with Cap, giving the film some of the bromance that Bucky and Cap had in The First Avenger. They've even managed to make the Falcon's flying gear look feasible and not completely ridiculous, always a challenge when translating comic visuals to the screen. Robert Redford oozes old American class as the duplicitous SHIELD supremo Alexander Pierce. There's a beautiful cameo by Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and Emily VanCamp makes an impression in her debut as Sharon Carter, surely set to become a more significant character in the MCU. Cobie Smulders gets the screentime she deserves at last; Agent Hill absolutely rocks in this film. In fact, for such a boys' film, this is strong on powerful female characters. Scarlett Johansson sometimes seems a little uncomfortable as Romanov, but then again, this could be a deliberate character choice. In any case, we know she is capable of more than she shows in this film; if anything, The Winter Soldier is a great argument for a non-superpowered, Black Widow spy thriller. It's just a shame the poster designers decreed it was necessary to take such bizarre liberties with her appearance and photoshop the hell out of her.

There are other unexpected apperances. Jenny Agutter has her sexiest screen moment since her dip in Walkabout. Toby Jones reappears as Arnim Zola, in drastically altered circumstances reflecting his peculiar evolution in the comics, in a scene that adds an eighties techno-feel to the movie's retro mash-up. Frank Grillo makes the most of his role as Brock 'Crossbones' Rumlow, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

In the end, this is a film about lies, compromised morals and the problem of trust. Today's corporate, surveillance-controlled America (and by extension, Britain and much of the west) threatens to become more of a danger to freedom than the regimes it pits itself against. While this movie will do nothing to combat that (it belongs to Disney, for Christ's sake, so it's not exactly innocent in the corporate evil stakes), it reflects the populace's growing disquiet with the nature of of our civilisation. It raises the question of whether the only way forward is to tear everything down and start again. There will be, at the very least, massive repercussions for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Agents of SHIELD (with which I am lagging behind, being in the UK) will certainly be affected, and the set-up for Age of Ultron will be somewhat different than in Avengers Assemble.

Oh, and make sure you sit through the credits. Not only are they a minor masterpiece in themselves, but both the mid-credits and post-credits scenes are worth waiting for.

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