Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
by Steve Habrat
Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.
Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.
Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.
As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.
The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.
With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.
The Avengers (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Since May of 2008, Marvel has begun to hype their heavily anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers with little Easter egg hints in the origin stories for Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. It has been a torturous journey for Marvel fans but we finally have the crown jewel of Marvel superhero offerings and I’m just going to be frank when I say that it kicks a whole bunch of ass. Clocking in at just shy of two and a half hours, The Avengers is one gigantic nerd money shot, not bogged down by any longwinded origin tale or story set-up. With The Avengers, director Joss Whedon, allows his superhero titans to let loose and show off what they are capable of. There is a whole bunch of flying, jumping, punching, shooting, smashing, destroying, hammer throwing, shield throwing, missile launching fun that will keep a smile plastered across your face and drool splattering onto your Thor t-shirt. Yet The Avengers is even more of a triumph because it is actually a really good movie. This isn’t a big empty excuse that stretched things to get all these do-gooders into the same movie, which is what I feared when I first heard about The Avengers.
The Avengers begins in a remote research facility where a powerful energy source and portal known as the Tesseract is currently being held. The Tesseract suddenly activates, allowing the exiled Norse god Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) to step through the portal and attack the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that are guarding it. Loki finds himself confronted by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who attempts to stop Loki from making off with the Tesseract. In the process, Loki declares war on planet earth and announces that he is in control of a powerful alien army that is capable of wiping earth out. Running out of options, Fury and Russian agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Played by Scarlett Johansson) begin rounding up the exiled Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Played by Mark Ruffalo), weapons defense expert Tony Stark/Iron Man (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Loki’s brother and fellow Norse god Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth), the recently rediscovered super-soldier Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Played by Chris Evans), and kidnapped assassin Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Played by Jeremy Renner). The group forms a rickety alliance and begins trying to find a way to stop Loki and convince him not to attack earth but it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. may be hiding a few secrets about the Tesseract of their own.
Every hero that makes up The Avengers team gets a classic moment that sent the audience members of the midnight showing I attended into a frenzy of cheering, whistling, hooting, and hollering. It helped when the sequences that were filmed in Cleveland blasted their way onto the screen, which really drove my audience wild. Every hero gets the opportunity to fight the other or team up to take on Loki’s relentless army of hideous aliens. A sequence where Iron Man and Captain America gang up on Thor is an earthshaking encounter as well as an aerial battle between Black Widow, The Hulk, and Thor. The Thor/Hulk brawl exceeded awesome when Hulk tries to lob Thor’s hammer at him but is unable to lift it. It is just as glorious as you might expect. The final battle almost exceeds words, each character getting a “HOLY SHIT!” moment that you will have to see to believe. Much has been made over the 3D in The Avengers, which was added in post production, many saying that it leaves a lot to be desired but I was actually impressed with it. Arrows fly out of the screen along with ruble, sparks, and more. Next to Avatar and Hugo, this is one of the movies that if you can see it in IMAX 3D, you should.
While the special effects will blow your mind, it’s Joss Whedon’s script that really sends The Avengers to the forefront of superhero movies. He catches us up on all four of the main heroes; so if you’re worrying about seeing the other films that have led up to this, don’t worry too much. You’ll be able to figure out what is going on with no problem at all. Whedon measures out every hero and gives him or her an equal amount of screen time so they can do their superhero thing. Mark Ruffalo is the newest member to this tights party and he smoothly settles in. He ends up being the best Bruce Banner/The Hulk of all the actors who have tried to tackle the role. Ruffalo is a poor soul who adds the grittiest emotion to the role (a scene where he discusses a suicide attempt will really stick with you), oozing with loneliness and longing for acceptance. Thor, Stark, and Rodgers are not far behind, as the three of them all have to come to terms with their outsider status. Rodgers tries to settle in at a time when the world may not even need him, Thor continues to act like a strutting brute, and Stark continues to act like a self-center brat. Hiddleston’s Loki proves to be a formidable foe for the dream team, a smirking baddie who can do quite a bit of damage on his own. I feared his character would be unable to carry the weight of the villain considering he wasn’t front and center in last summer’s Thor but he rises to the challenge and knocks it out of the park. The two characters that I would have liked to have seen more of and developed a bit further was Black Widow and Hawkeye, who only get fleeting hints at their past. You’ll forgive because Whedon is clearly trying to juggle a lot and pulling it off exceedingly well.
The Avengers does become its own worst enemy in a way. I found myself getting so caught up in the idea of the film (Four legendary superhero in ONE movie!) that some of the sci-fi chatter and story development ends up being overshadowed. When the heroes would sit down with Fury and discuss all the science behind the Tesseract, my mind would wander a bit from the story and I would become antsy for the next action sequence. It was clear that the entire theater was getting restless during these scenes and craving more explosions, rescues, brawls, and more. There is a flipside to this and it works in the film’s favor. Since I have seen the film, I have been itching to get back to the theater to see it again and invest myself more into the story. This isn’t to say that The Avengers is a difficult film to follow (it certainly isn’t) but the gimmick of spectacle outweighs the story every step of the way. But hey, what do you expect from a summer blockbuster?
Despite a few minor hiccups, The Avengers is still a must-see action extravaganza that will be one of the biggest films of the summer. It has everything you could want in a superhero movie and then even more that you didn’t even know that you wanted. The Avengers is Marvel’s best film to date and I fear almost every film they do in the wake of it will pale (unless of course it is another Avengers movie). The film has a strong script with applause worthy one-liners, pristine CGI (get a load of Hulk!!), devoted performances, and a strong patriotic spirit that leaves American soil and infects everyone around the world. Kicking the summer movie season off with a nuclear explosion, The Avengers will awaken the inner fanboy or girl in each and every one of us, even if you think there isn’t one to be found in you. A top-notch crowd pleaser of the highest order.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
If every single employee at Marvel Studios isn’t celebrating the massively successful summer that they have had at the movies, they should be. Captain America: The First Avenger is the third quality picture from the comic book factory that sparkles with vision, zippy action, gung-ho characters, and an innocent simplicity that all come together to provide an exhilarating summer escapist romp that will leave you hounding for more from this star spangled hero. Still, the WWII superhero is just a notch below the more socially relevant X-Men: First Class but out eye-candies the cosmic Thor. Bustling with an art deco aesthetic, you will find yourself falling head over heels with this nostalgic ode Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It truly is a relief that Marvel, who appeared at first to be forcing themselves too strongly onto audiences this year, pull off a triple threat of terrific with their three towering releases. I was worried that too many do-gooders trying to save planet earth in 3D would weigh down this summer. Yet Thor exceeded my extremely low expectations and the X-Men series received a much-needed shot of inspiration into a franchise of films that were becoming increasingly cheap and extremely frivolous, especially for one that began on a thought-provoking note. But X-Men: First Class was also not looking to tie in three other heroes and be the final step before the much anticipated Marvel mash-up The Avengers that is to come next summer. And with DC Comics barely making a ripple with The Green Lantern, they also found absolutely no competition (Well, maybe from a certain boy wizard) from their rivals. WithCaptain America being the one of the last major blockbusters of this sweltering summer, they end on a seriously cool note.
Captain America follows the attempts of the steadfast Steve Rogers (Played by a hulking Chris Evans), a weakling with asthma from the Bronx who relentlessly attempts to join the US Army and jet over to Europe so he can “kill Nazis.” Finally, with a little help from a German scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Played by a enthusiastic Stanley Tucci) and the gruff Col. Chester Phillips (Played by sleepy-eyed Tommy Lee Jones), he gets enlisted in a program that turns the not-so-manly-mans into manly-men super soldiers. They pick Rodgers “because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power.” Under the watchful eye of the machine-gun packing femme Peggy Carter (Played by a smoking hot Haley Atwell), Cap dons a blue get-up and brandishing a stars-and-stripes printed shield, he goes toe-to-toe with HYDRA, a Nazi weapons division lead by the sadistic Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull (Played with purring evil by Hugo Weaving) and the mousy scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Played by the always-welcome Toby Jones).
Under the masterfully paced direction of Joe Johnston (The Wolfman), Captain America takes its time get to know its characters and dreamily gaze on their personalities. We can’t help but root for the morally responsible Cap as he always does the right thing. Chris Evans plays him as the all-American good old boy when he’s bulked up and a runt with a heart of gold when he’s shrunken down. In one scene, the runty Rogers throws himself onto a live grenade to protect his fellow hulking soldier, who all ran and hid themselves. It’s scenes like this the Rogers steals our hearts and allow us to root for him even when he’s in the stickiest of situations. His best friend, Bucky Barnes, who acts as the unwavering voice of support for his comrade, stands behind Cap every step of the way. Haley Atwell transcends the damsel in distress role and is instead is a pistol-packing hellion who can hold her own against Nazis and keep the Cap drooling in a little red dress. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is perhaps one of the more terrifying villains as he grapples for independence from the Third Reich and salivates over world domination. He and Cap have many show-stopping smack downs that will leave the audience cheering for the Cap to give Red Skull a good, old-fashioned ass whooping. Pitting the extreme good against an extreme evil is a bit obvious, but it works with Captain America lore, as Cap appeared in March of 1941 on a comic book delivering a lick to Uncle Adolph (America had not yet joined the war, which slathered on controversy at the time). The rest of the performances are fine, especially from Toby Jones, who appears to be channeling Ronald Lacye’s Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It should be noted that the retro Captain America is one of the more conservative superhero films to come down the tube. They are churned out at an alarming rate these days and they are coming in all shapes and sizes! But the Cap becomes the symbol for all that is morally and ethically right. It seems old fashioned and has a wide-eyed innocence that makes the film impossible to dislike. It’s good clean fun and takes very few risks. Even at the end when the US Army is plotting their final move on HYDRA, the Cap makes the simple suggestion of knocking on HYDRA’s front door. Why complicate the matter? The film is desperately avoiding any sort of complexity, whether it underlying or outright. There are no profound opinions or winking satire to the film. It just keeps everything simple and that is honestly it’s most alluring quality. It helps that the characters are so wonderfully illustrated and realized, which ultimately allows them to be more intriguing than when the Cap is wrecking havoc behind enemy lines. The film is also a rallying cry for the underdogs, which balances out the self-confidence that radiates from titans like Iron Man and Thor. Captain America isn’t looking to change the world, despite his worldwide battle, and I commend it for that. It’s just looking to thrill us the old-fashioned way, much like Super 8 so beautifully did. It’s just trying to cater to the child-like wonder in all of us, and the Cap beyond succeeds with that mission. Plain and simple, I loved everything about this movie. I loved the look, feel, the epic scope, the characters, their earnest interaction, and all the arresting action. Go see it.
Grade: A (Make it a double feature with Super 8)