Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A Review

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is currently showing at The FilmHouse Cinema Dugbe, Ibadan. When I saw it on Friday, the entire hall was filled suggesting that maybe we now have many movie enthusiasts in Ibadan, or many wanted to watch the last N500 movie of the week.

For a film partially about trust, the perils of not knowing who to trust and the pain of not trusting anyone, Marvel and Walt Disney doesn’t seem to trust its audience as much as it should. 
This is a film that may think it’s being topical in terms of the old “security vs. liberty” debate, yet feels the need to both spoon feed its ideas (a villain literally boasts that “the world is finally ready to give up their freedom for security!”) and undermine its own impact by (vague first-half spoiler) blaming all of the world’s problems on insidious outside forces rather than flawed humans. This is a film which has a Captain America museum that exists purely to spoon-feed exposition to audiences who haven’t  seen Captain America or The Avengers.
It lacks the faith in its audience to enjoy a Marvel film that doesn’t end with an insanely high-stakes and high-impact action finale that involves countless extras and flying warships, as well as one that doesn’t sugarcoat its harsh messaging with a comforting big bad. When the film sticks to the Alan J. Pakula meets Tom Clancy template that it obviously wants to ape, it’s a frankly terrific picture. It opens with some wonderful character beats for Steve Rogers and company, along with a dynamite action sequence set on a hijacked boat. The opening rescue, full of fluidly edited and vividly realized bone-crunching action, is probably the best fusion of superheorics and real-world action we’ve yet seen. The film uses Captain America’s inherent goodness (Chris Evans is terrific here) not as a source of fun but as a counterpart to how America should act in the best and worst of times.
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo are best known for their work on Community, and their crackerjack comic timing proves just the thing for constructing coherent and engaging action sequences.  When the action sticks to the ground, it’s superb, with chases and shoot-outs in broad daylight that create real suspense by putting innocents in harms way. The chemistry between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson (it’s amazing how easy it is to craft a compelling female character merely by not making them the love interest and/or a piece of ass) along with Evans and newbie Anthony Mackie, makes the scenes where characters just talk to each other every bit as riveting as the action. Johansson’s best moment comes during a brief glance as she realizes someone she trusted didn’t trust her. There frankly isn’t a bum performance in the bunch, and this is easily Samuel L. Jackson’s most engaged turn as Nick Fury.
But the “more is more” notion extends to its title character. The Winter Soldier pops up during an assassination attempt on Nick Fury, and for most of the film he’s just a silent killing machine who operates as an anti-deus ex machina, appearing when the heroes have an advantage. But the revelation about his origins is  unearned. In short, it’s the equivalent of telling The Killing Joke during the Joker’s first appearance. And as the third act goes bigger and bigger, the ineffective emotional fall-out from its title character takes valuable time away from what works in an already lengthy film. The film’s post-9/11 conspiracy plot was enough without dragging Ed Brubaker’s famous arc into it. From a business point-of-view, I know why they brought him in this early, but it doesn’t work from an artistic perspective.
There is still much to admire about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely craft a conspiracy plot that mostly makes sense while giving its characters strong point-of-views about a variety of subjects. Mackie is a terrific new addition to the Marvel Universe. There is clearly spin-off potential if Marvel chooses that route and his history as a traumatized veteran adds potency to his participation in the superheroics around him. Robert Redford is an interesting case; with the defining star of the kind of films they just don’t make any more lending his gravitas and credibility to a defining version of the “new” blockbuster.  The story refreshingly screws with the status quo in ways that will reverberate in the Marvel Universe.
There is terrific stuff to be found, including a first act cameo by a major character from the first film that is quietly devastating. It at the very least merits a token recommendation merely as quality popcorn entertainment. It is interesting to watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe slowly become what amounts to a defining critique of post-9/11 America with each stand-alone franchise dealing with different respective issues. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier undermines itself both in terms of over-the-top action that eventually bores, a screenplay that undermines its own relevancy, and the premature insertion of a secondary character that distracts from the core narrative and doesn’t work on an emotional level.
A Captain America 2 that stuck to its real-world conspiracy narrative and kept its action somewhat personal and smaller-scale,  that didn’t offer comfortingly zany explanations for real-world horrors and held off the whole Winter Soldier business until another day… That would have been something of beauty. What we have is a deeply problematic film with much to recommend despite itself. In the broad scheme of things, this is a clear example of how Marvel’s choice to make every film “big” can hurt a given entry, as well as limit its ability to successfully tell smaller and/or more personal stories on the big screen.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a film about trust that falters most because it doesn’t trust its audience. Obviously this is a comic book universe and thus we should expect certain comic book embellishments. But Captain America 2 works best when it’s an action thriller that happens to be based on a superhero comic book, rather than a superhero film that happens to contain elements of an action thriller.
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