Some of my previous posts should indicate that I am pretty big fan of Marvel Comics. Have been since the days of the X-Men cartoon. When producer Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios began their grand movie experiment with Iron Man in 2008, I was immediately on board. Sure, there have been some lows (The Incredible Hulk, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but highs have been much higher (the aforementioned Iron Man, The Avengers). Marvel Studios is right smack in the middle of what it refers to as “Phase Two” of its project: Captain America: The Winter Soldier follows Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, and precedes Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron. This new movie featuring Steve Rogers, the soldier out of time, has the responsibility of being both a sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger and a stepping stone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Under the dual directorship of Anthony and Joe Russo, it does a pretty good job.
I am not sure how popular this opinion is, but I was not a big fan of the first Captain America. I found its depiction of World War II to be simplistic, and desperately wished we could have arrived in the 21st century earlier in the film. The sequel doesn’t mess around. Not only is the entire film (save a flashback or two) set in the 21st century, it is about the nature of life in this brave new world. After corruption rears its ugly head in the government, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, referred to by Feige as the film’s “co-lead”) have to work outside of the system in order to bring it down. Both leads perform the parts they’ve become familiar with, but there is no new ground tread by either actor. The supporting cast includes Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, a character comic fans will recognize as Cap’s long-time partner Falcon. Mackie is one of the best parts of the movie; he is charismatic and funny, serving as a strong foil for Captain America. I found myself wishing he had been in more of the movie – perhaps Joss Whedon will find room for him in Avengers 2. It would be nice to add some diversity to that overwhelmingly white group of characters, which only seems to be getting whiter with the reported addition of characters like Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (no, The Hulk does not count as a man of color).
The cast also features Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, and plenty of cool cameo players, all of whom do a good job (well, Robert Redford does his Robert Redford thing, but that’s what you get with a Robert Redford type, and it fits the character), but the real standout in the production is the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (among others, I’m sure). The writers craft a surprisingly confident screenplay, that is not afraid to hold back on the action at times, despite being an action movie. The commentary regarding freedom and what that word means in the current era is not entirely original, but it is well-executed here. Even transgressions like villainous monologues and random character motivations don’t come across as too offensive.
There is action, of course; this is a comic book movie after all. The final set piece is entertaining, but it is overly reliant on computer generated effects that, for some reason, just don’t look very good this time around. Falcon’s flying apparatus, for example, never quite looks convincing. Luckily there are a surprising number of instances of practical stunt work, both with cars and people, including a kinetic car chase and a fight with Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre) early in the movie.
Ultimately the movie looks a lot like its fellow Marvel Studios films. There seems to be a “house-style” of directing emerging, wherein few innovations are being made and fewer chances are being taken. Perhaps that is why Marvel is tapping guys like the Russos, whose biggest film credit prior to Captain America: The Winter Soldier is You, Me and Dupree, and are more known instead for their work on sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community. Perhaps Marvel views guys like the Russo Brothers and Thor 2 director Alan Taylor as lower-level workmen they can squeeze into a particular box. It certainly raises questions about how much autonomy more stylistic guys like Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn and Ant-Man‘s Edgar Wright will have, especially considering that Marvel Studios will be looking at those possible franchises as future tent-poles, as their more established actors’ contracts begin to approach completion.
None of that speculation has any bearing on the film at hand. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an engaging piece of entertainment, but it is far from perfect. There is way too much going on; characters like VanCamp’s Sharon Carter are greatly underserved, presumably as set-up for the already announced Captain America 3. Even the sub-titular villain takes a backseat to other characters, though he gets the majority of the emotional focus. The sequel does its job, though, serving as an effective follow-up, and as a very satisfying chapter in Marvel’s over-arching story. Many Hollywood prognosticators are predicting that we will soon reach a saturation point where comic books movies are concerned, but if we keep getting movies like this one, I will keep seeing them. All that’s left now is to board the crazy train; it’s going to be several months, but next stop is Guardians of the Galaxy.