Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Yet again, anybody following my reviews (or my most anticipated of 2014 list) could tell you I was really excited for the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Though I really enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, Phase Two of Marvel's movie universe has been fairly anti-climactic. It seems like they've been coasting on so much good will from The Avengers that they haven't really concerned themselves with raising the bar yet again like they did with the original Iron Man. From the second I saw the trailer for this film, however, I knew we had a chance to finally get another game-changing installment of the MCU. Thankfully I only had to wait until April to find out whether my suspicions were true.

After the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers/Captain America is once again a revered hero with his own historical attraction at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. As he continues working with a covert team of S.H.I.E.L.D., he begins to grow leary of what he deems to be unethical behavior (I'll leave it at that to avoid spoilers). Nick Fury, the organization's director, assures Steve that what they're doing is necessary, pointing out how things have changed since the transparent days of Captain America's native time. After an assassination attempt, however, Fury's words become prophetic as Steve must find out who the mysterious killer is and how to stop him.

This is a much different film than any other in the MCU, as it somehow manages to tackle contemporary issues while providing a perfect context to tell a story about Captain America. Who would have thought that a character created in the 1940's would have such relevance to our time? Cap's straight forward perspective of right and wrong not only mirrors his comic book incarnation, but also provides some much-needed morality for the shadowy leaders depicted in this film. His scathing indictment of their fear-based, militaristic and secretive governing choices earns him quite a few enemies throughout this story, which provides a perfect backdrop for some of the most amazing action scenes I've ever seen.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo aren't necessarily the obvious choice for a mega-budget action film (they're better known for directing TV comedies like Arrested Development), but they do a fantastic job of portraying Captain America's abilities in a practical, but incredibly stylish manner. The fight choreography is top notch (most of the hand-to-hand combat gave me chills) and creates innovative ways for Cap to use his trademark shield in combat. So much of this movie is done with practical effects - real car chases, real explosions and stunt men - which adds a heightened sense of reality to this hyper-realistic comic book adaptation. Combine that with the layered and complex script, and it's no wonder this movie comes across like a political thriller that just happens to star Captain America.

But every superhero must have his villain. Marvel has done an okay job with the villains in their films thus far, the strongest being Loki and Red Skull, in my opinion. However, not only is the latest film in the series a step up in the screenwriting and the action, but it also boasts the best villain Marvel has ever produced (including the Spider-Man and X-Men films). The titular Winter Soldier is the ultimate foe for a character like Captain America, matching his strength but polar-opposite in his nature. Where Cap would go to any lengths to protect the innocent, Winter Soldier will go to any lengths to complete his mission, regardless of who gets in his way. Sebastian Stan absolutely kills it in this role, making him not only a terrifying nemesis (to the point where you feel nobody on screen is safe when he's around) but also a complex character in his own right. The Russo brothers absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one.

The performances across the board are great, with standouts Robert Redford bringing a legitimacy as well as Anthony Mackie giving some much needed levity to the otherwise intense film. Scarlett Johansson continues her pitch-perfect portrayal of the Black Widow, providing some subtle insight into her character's emotions with nothing but facial expressions. Chris Evans himself absolutely owns the role of Captain America at this point, and easily gives his best performance yet in The Winter Soldier.

This movie is so layered and complex that I can't wait to see it again and notice all the details I couldn't possibly absorb the first time around. Every knot is tied and every plot thread pays off with a near perfect balance of intensity, excitement and humor. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not only the best film of Marvel's Phase Two slate (and much better than Captain America: The First Avenger), but it may be the best Marvel film to date. It's certainly a game-changer, and one that accomplishes the feat of reigniting my enthusiasm for the upcoming Avengers sequel. Once again, PLEASE stay through the entire credits as Marvel has taken to inserting two post-credit scenes in their films. I'm still shocked that anybody leaves during the credits of a Marvel movie. In case you couldn't tell, I loved this film and I give it a very strong four stars.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout