How long can Marvel keep up its movie winning streak?
I’m happy to say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is yet another crowd pleaser from The House of Ideas. Well, let me clarify that. It’s another crowd pleaser from The House of Mouse Ideas. See, you have to narrow it down to the Disney produced Marvel movies, otherwise you’d have to include films like Elektra and Ghost Rider, and trust me, nobody wants to do that. (Somewhere out there, I bet that one lone Elektra fan just clicked away to another page, vowing never to read another one of my reviews.) But getting back to the point, the nine movies produced by Marvel Studios so far have been mostly entertaining, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier has some things about it which are likely to put it near the top of many people’s lists when they sit down to choose their favorites.
Like the Iron Man and Thor movies which preceded it, the latest chapter in Captain America’s story opens with the titular character dealing with the repercussions of the events from The Avengers. As Steve Rogers, our hero is still adrift, unsure of how a man from World War II fits into contemporary times. There’s a great sight gag in the opening scene in which the soon to be important Sam Wilson tells Steve he needs to add Marvin Gaye to the list of things he should catch up on, at which point Rogers actually pulls out a notebook containing a list which includes such items as The Berlin Wall (up & down), Star Wars (already checked off), Star Trek (not yet seen), and Steve Jobs (the first of way too many Apple product placements in the film). As Captain America, he is increasingly discontent running clean-up operations for S.H.I.E.L.D. whom he feels is beginning to cross the line in their efforts to keep the world secure.
His concerns about the organization only deepen after he is sent to rescue hostages aboard a captured S.H.I.E.L.D. cargo ship. This shipboard sequence is the first time in the film we see Captain America in action and it has to be said, whoever had the bright idea that the Russo Brothers, best known for directing television shows such as Community and Happy Endings, might have the chops to helm a multi-million dollar action movie… deserves a raise. Without a flashy armored battle suit or a hammer that can call down lightning, the action in a Captain America movie comes down to fighting, speed, and tossing a shield, and the Russo’s get it all just right. The fight choreography is excellent, the camera is steady enough that you can actually see what’s happening, and the editing makes all the moves flow smoothly. Plus, the fighting is full of those kind of punches that make everybody in the theater go “oooooo” every time one lands. How good are the fight scenes in this movie? So good they make even perennial second-rate villain Batroc The Leaper look cool. They’re THAT good.
But we were talking about Cap’s dilemma, weren’t we? It turns out the hostage situation wasn’t the mission’s primary objective after all. Rather, the fighting was cover for the Black Widow to steal some encrypted files for Nick Fury, data relating to a top secret initiative to which Steve wasn’t made privy known as Operation: Insight. In a nutshell, Operation: Insight centers around three massively armed helicarriers which are to be used to preemptively kill anyone S.H.I.E.L.D. determines might pose a threat in the future. Steve is disgusted at the idea, of course, seeing the whole notion of preemptive justice as an insult to the idea of liberty. Fury, on the other hand, believes that security should trump freedom, especially after the alien attack on New York seen in The Avengers. Based on the data retrieved by the Black Widow, however, Fury does have some concerns that the operation is being taken over by outside forces. Soon after expressing his suspicions to the World Security Council, Fury is attacked in the streets by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier. Not only does this sequence stand out due to an extremely well done car chase, but also because it provides plenty of that patented Marvel humor which helps make these movies so enjoyable. After being told by the onboard computer that his car’s armor is failing, the flight mode is broken, and communications is down, Fury angrily demands to know just what is still functional. "The air conditioning is working perfectly." the computer chimes in helpfully.
With S.H.I.E.L.D obviously compromised, it isn’t long before Cap and the Widow, along with their new friend, The Falcon, are also being hunted down by The Winter Soldier. Do I even need to mention the action when these four first encounter each other? Well, I’m going to anyway because it’s probably the best fight scene I’ve watched in ages. It’s so hard to believe the Russo Brothers have been wasting their talents on Emmy Award winning television comedies like Community when they’re so good at filming people punching each other in the face. Oh well, they’ve found their calling now, and I can’t wait for Part 3, which they’re also set to direct.
Fighting isn’t all the movie has to offer, though. There’s a fair amount of espionage and super-spy stuff going on, with one betrayal by a recurring character that I actually didn’t see coming. And while Marvel movies will never be accused of being character studies, the film does take time to advance the personal stories of Nick Fury and The Black Widow a little. As for Steve Rogers himself, he’s allowed a few quiet moments in the movie to reflect on the things he lost due to his time in suspended animation. He spends an afternoon touring a museum where they are holding a retrospective on Captain America and the Howling Commandos (keep an eye out for a very familiar looking security guard), and takes the time to visit his old flame Peggy Carter, now bedridden with Alzheimer's disease in a home for the elderly. He also, of course, spends some time developing a friendship with Iraqi veteran Sam Wilson, a fact that couldn’t make this viewer any happier since one of the first comics I ever picked up during the seventies was an issue of Captain America and the Falcon. I’m an old nerd, and it’s just not modern day Captain America to me if Steve and Sam aren’t hanging out with each other.
And, in the end, that’s really what makes these Marvel Studios movies so successful. While they change the stories around, they manage to hold on to the essence of the characters readers have come to love over the years. Robert Downey Jr. embodies the playboy arrogance of Tony Stark, Chris Hemsdale successfully conveys the psuedo-Shakespearean trappings of Thor, and Chris Evans absolutely nails Steve Rogers, the aw-shucks all-American boy from Jersey. The movies have also had a good understanding of Captain America, the hero. In the first movie, which was set in World War II, Cap was the living spirit of patriotism and service, of those traits we so fondly ascribe to the greatest generation. In this present day outing, he proves himself to be the representative of the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You see, over the decades, the chroniclers of Captain America have been quick to point out that, for our hero, representing American ideals is not always the same thing as representing the American government. That’s the underlying conflict we have in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As you probably picked up on earlier, the movie very unsubtly addresses the question of how much a country should be willing to compromise it’s ideal of freedom in the face of the government’s promise to provide security. Depending on your personal political leanings, it’s easy to see this storyline as a critique of the Bush administration of the 2000s or of the Obama administration of today. Really, it works either way if you really want to get down to it. But as a Christian, and in particular a Catholic, the theme resonates quite strongly due to the current efforts of my government to squelch religious freedom in the name of providing security in the form of mandated health care. Given that, I have to say that I’m quite pleased that the movies solution to the problem is basically to punch the government in the face and take our freedoms back. It’d be nice to see that happen in real life. Figuratively, of course, in the courts and voting booths.
Don’t worry, though. All that political stuff isn’t the main focus of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s there if you want it. If not, it’s easy to ignore and just sit back and take in some of the best action to hit the big screen in a while. Enjoy it while it lasts, though, because I really don’t see how much longer Marvel can keep up this winning streak.
In a world he didn't create, in a time he didn't choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he's not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.
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