Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Fighting the Past By S.H.I.E.L.D.ing the Present
By the Banks of the Ol' Watergate

The new "Captain America" movie out of Marvel Studios and Disney, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first post-Avengers sequel that amounts to anything, or even attempts to do something of any significance beyond marking time, or being a tentpole-placeholder until the next group assemblage movie comes along.* But, instead of paying lip-service to The Avengers, or pinging off it, the new Cap movie largely ignores it and sets out on its own path, with a story that is very much associated with the first film, while not being dependent on it, for those who are just now joining the story. It's a neat little bit of story-gymnastics that would rival any of the stunt sequences of this movie, of which there are many and varied (some of which work and some of which are visual noise).

What makes Captain America (as jingoistic a character as there's been) unique, and, surprisingly, the most interesting of the Marvel film characters is his "other-ness." More so than the hipster Tony Stark, or the bland bulk of Thor, Captain America is a product of his time, which was World War II, when ideals were different. Back then, there was a palpable belief in country, in government, in sacrifice, and in "doing the right thing." Steve "Captain America" Rogers has missed a lot of history while he was frozen in time and arctic ice. The first movie (The First Avenger) ended with his first glimpse of the brave new world he'd thawed into. The Avengers made use of his post-WWII ignorance, contrasting him with Stark's cynicism and making laughs out of his pop-culture ignorance ("Flying monkeys? I understand that reference," he says at one point). He's still a stranger in a strange land, but he's learning; in this movie, he carries a notebook for jotting down things he's missed and wants to investigate (see below).

Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)
peer at something they don't like.
He needs to fill in a lot of gaps or else he'd wonder why the Triskelion—the headquarters of the National Security Agency S.H.I.E.L.D.—is located so close to the Watergate Hotel. After a brief jaunt around Washington D.C., Rogers (Chris Evans) and a clutch of SHIELD operatives (including The Black Widow—Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson) are called on a rescue mission for a hijacked ship. It becomes apparent after the pirates are taken down, that there's more to the mission than meets the one eye of SHIELD head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, given a lot to do here). This leads to a tense stand-off between Fury and Rogers over a SHIELD project called "Insight," utilizing those flying battleships from The Avengers for some very high-level surveillance and attack capabilities. Rogers is aghast at the ships' annihilative first-strike capabilities, and reminds Fury that back in his day, he fought for freedom. "This isn't freedom," he says with no fashionable mock irony. "This is fear."

The man behind the initiative is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, relaxed and as low-key as he's been in years), and when Fury is taken out of action by a coordinated attack, he goes on the offensive, suspecting that Rogers, who appears to be tight-lipped about it, may be behind it and has gone rogue. He starts his own ironic "war on America" to stop Rogers, Romanoff, and a new ally, vet Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka "The Falcon," who go their own way to get to the bottom of the attack on Fury, and find the answers go back to old enemies...and old friends.

There's something unnerving...and vaguely thrilling..about seeing
Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford playing scenes together.
Of course, they do. It's bold to see the second chapter of the Captain America trilogy go so far as to re-shape so much bedrock in the Marvel movie Universe, and move so quickly to make Cap so much culturally removed from our times, but morally apart, as well. It simultaneously makes the character more of a rebel (the way we like our superheroes in movies, it seems) and more exemplary of a hero in the traditional role of a "big blue boy-scout."

That's a big leap to make. Also, a big leap is that the movie seems to revolve around the trope that "Nobody dies in comic books...ever"...and fairly consistently. One expects a cameo from Tommy Lee Jones at any moment (which doesn't happen).

The title refers to another rogue agent—
The Winter Soldier—who crops up and is seemingly indestructible in a fight.  He's this movie's "player on the other side" sharing more with the Captain than separates them—both are super-fast, are physically enhanced and have an indestructible metal component (Cap, his shield; the soldier his left arm) that are their "go-to" secret weapons when things get dicey—the type that, if they weren't on opposing sides and trying to kill each other, in another reality they might have been friends.
Clang!  Metal shield against metal arm.
These guys have a lot in common.
But, they're not friends now and the frequent clashes pose a challenge to the new directors Anthony and Joe Russo (they're mostly known for working on the TV show "Community" and the comedy You, Me and Dupree). So far, the heroics of Captain America have been visually limited—Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon had him running over vehicles a lot—but the gymnastics are more convoluted, both in action and in the way they're portrayed. The Russo's use every trick in the book (the occasional long shot, but mostly tight compositions, sometimes with every move having its own shot and angle, and edited in different ways, sometimes employing frame-skipping). Sometimes it works, but often there's a lack of perspective, so you have no idea how the war is going, so focused as they are on individual hit-points. One wishes that Johnston, who brought a sure directorial hand to the first film, could have been coaxed back for this one.

Stay to the end of the credits and you'll see not one, but two Easter egg sequences: the first, setting up two new members of "The Avengers," the other foreshadowing the confrontation for the third Captain America movie, which will be playing "super-chicken" in a couple years time with the Superman/Batman (and Wonder Woman) movie.

Two of the little jokes in CA: TWS—Nick Fury's tombstone has a familiar Bible quote in its pulp; Steve Rogers keeps a notebook of stuff he needs to catch up on.

* As opposed to Iron Man 3, which probably shouldn't have happened, and Thor: The Dark World, which was only a bit better than its first movie.

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