Friday, April 4, 2014

Captain America — The Winter Soldier: Another Marvel-ous hit!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.4.14

This one’s a lot more thought-provoking that I was expecting.

Confronting an enemy strong enough to catch his shield — and hurl it back, with deadly
force — Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
consider their rapidly dwindling options. Much as they hate to admit it, retreat might be
the better part of valor...
It’s safe to acknowledge, after so many rip-snorting predecessors involving so many characters — whether individually, or in groups — that Marvel Studios has the formula down to a science. Captain America’s second solo outing once more offers a welcome blend of familiar faces, superbly choreographed action scenes and just enough witty banter to prevent things from getting too grim.

Rest assured: No sophomore slump here.

And, yes, Marvel’s production team continues to navigate the all-essential fine line: offering insider nods to fans who’ve read these comic books for decades, while nonetheless ensuring that newcomers won’t be left out. That’s a remarkable feat by itself; still more impressive is the degree to which all of these films, this one included, continue to build on an ever-expanding tapestry that now includes a weekly TV series.

All well and good, and guaranteed to result in a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick.

But scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make this film much more than a popcorn flick, thanks to a deeply unsettling plot that’s ripped from today’s paranoia-laden headlines. It’s a very clever touch, because Cap — Steve Rogers — is precisely the right character to confront this crisis.

It’s not easy, in our increasingly cynical times, to work with a character whose moral compass feels too good to be true. Putting such an individual on the big screen is even more difficult, demanding a perfect marriage of talent and material. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was just such an iconic good guy: a genuinely virtuous hero who could speak of “truth, justice and the American way” without prompting snickers from the audience.

Chris Evans makes Steve Rogers just as true-blue, with just the right balance between old-fashioned ethics and resourceful savvy. We must recall that he’s a man out of time: a World War II hero who — in his previous film — sacrificed himself for what he believed would be certain death, but instead wound up in suspended animation, revived decades later in our modern era.

Fish-out-of-water stories, when done correctly, can’t help being entertaining. Markus, McFeely and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo do it correctly.

But while Rogers may be alternately amused, baffled and delighted by how things have changed, he’s never overwhelmed. He’s perceptive and quick-witted; he adapts as a situation demands.

He also has an traditional understanding of right and wrong, and — as this narrative unfolds — an increasing suspicion that lines have blurred in a disturbing direction.

The film kicks off with an extended prologue, which gives Cap an opportunity to strut his athletic stuff. A French terrorist dubbed Batroc (Georges St.-Pierre) and his minions have captured an ocean-going SHIELD vessel and its crew, and agency chief Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sends Cap and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to handle the situation.

It’s a marvelous action sequence, with Cap engaging in the same sort of parkour and free-running gymnastics that made James Bond’s initial foot chase in Casino Royale so breathtaking. We also get a dazzling display of Cap’s shield, wielded both as an offensive and defensive weapon. Longtime fans can’t help being impressed; this film’s sfx wizards get that shield to handle every stunt it ever pulled in the comics, and the result is impressively realistic.

Once upon a time, Christopher Reeve’s Superman made us believe that a man could fly; this film makes us believe that a boomerang-style shield delivers precisely what Cap demands of it. Pretty darn cool.

Batroc proves to be an insubstantial threat, just as he was when introduced in the comics back in 1966, as a kick-boxing savate master more properly known as Batroc the Leaper (and this film was wise to drop that silly sobriquet).

But it turns out that the Widow has a sidebar mission of her own: something involving the retrieval of a data drive. Cap isn’t pleased by this; he loathes need-to-know secrets, even when Fury points out the wisdom of compartmentalized information.

But Fury soon has reason to doubt this methodology, when it appears that SHIELD’s innermost security system fails to recognize his own voice ... even though he supposedly programmed its instructions. The situation quickly turns catastrophic; within hours, both Cap and the Widow — branded traitors — are on the run from their own former colleagues.

Somehow, this crisis has something to do with an ancient, oft-whispered enemy known as the “winter soldier.” Then, too, the timing is suspicious: coming just as SHIELD’s huge new helicarriers are about to be deployed on their mission to protect the country from safe vantage points, high in the sky.

This is the logical response, given the havoc wreaked by the alien chitauri in The Avengers; dire threats require ever-more-sophisticated defense measures. Fury understands this; so does his longtime friend Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), head of SHIELD’s World Security Council.

Cap isn’t so sure; he questions the wisdom of trading personal freedoms for the increasingly intrusive “security” offered by clandestine surveillance. And if any of this sounds familiar, that’s intentional; Markus and McFeely are going for the edgy, real-world tone of classic 1970s political thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor.

Indeed, I can’t help noting that Cap’s dismaying discoveries — while trying to stay alive — unfold in a manner quite similar to what Redford experienced, back in the day, as the ill-equipped protagonist of Condor.

And it gets worse. A few unpleasantly familiar figures from Cap’s first big-screen adventure pop up again, uncorking obvious questions about their own unexpected longevity. One individual, in classic evil scientist mode, chortles over how infiltrating the United States has become even easier in this era of ubiquitous camera and cyber-surveillance, because one need only hack such systems in order to identify and target the most likely threats to a fifth-columnist invasion.

On top of which, profiling software — the same algorithms employed by, say, Amazon, to calculate our tastes in entertainment — can track personality, behavior and socio-political tendencies in order to anticipate and identify the democracy-minded citizens most likely to rise up and combat such an invasion ... and dispatch them ahead of time.

I dunno about you, but I find that quite chilling. Because it doesn’t sound unreasonable.

Cap and the Widow are perfect for such a storyline, because — unlike most Marvel comics superheroes — they don’t have secret identities. They’re well known as Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff, often seen in street clothes; they therefore function as the more-or-less “ordinary folks” caught up in an increasingly awful conspiracy. (Granted, both are extraordinary in many respects ... but they’re not Norse thunder gods or hulked-out scientists, and they don’t have the protection of fancy flying suits of armor.)

These two characters are well-matched by virtue of their opposing viewpoints: Steve Rogers, the true-blue American patriot who believes in mankind’s nobler instincts; Natasha Romanoff, the former Russian agent turned SHIELD operative, whose black-ops instincts prompt her to assume the worst of every collaborator.

Rogers wants to trust his friends; Natasha doesn’t believe true friends even exist.

Steve and Natasha begin this adventure as wary colleagues; after all, they did battle side-by-side to stop Loki and the chitauri in The Avengers. This script’s sidebar charm comes from anticipating the necessary thaw, as they’re forced to rely on each other. Evans and Johansson share a natural, flirty chemistry: He grows exasperated by her refusal to be candid; she tries not to mock him too much as an overgrown Boy Scout.

I keep coming back to the Redford/Faye Dunaway dynamic in Three Days of the Condor. Evans and Johansson strike the same sparks here, and we can’t help wondering where this relationship will go.

But they’re not the only folks on our minds; this massive storyline is laden with supporting characters. Jackson is feisty, commanding and easily annoyed as always, his Nick Fury somehow much more imposing than the super-powered colleagues he keeps trying to draft into SHIELD.

Anthony Mackie makes a strong impression as Sam Wilson, a war vet and compassionate VA staffer who helps soldiers recover from the psychological damage of their combat tours. When Cap decides that the halls of power have become hopelessly corrupted, he logically turns to a civilian far removed from such halls: a former soldier with a similar streak of patriotism. Mackie sells the part with easygoing charm.

Cobie Smulders returns as intrepid SHIELD agent Maria Hill, further expanding a character who has become an integral part of the Marvel movie tapestry; Maximiliano Hernández similarly pops up again as condescending SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell.

Hayley Atwell also returns as Peggy Carter, one of the figures from Cap’s WWII past.

Newcomers include Frank Grillo, as tough-as-nails Brock Rumlow, a special-ops veteran who backs Cap in the field; and Emily VanCamp as Kate, the personable nurse who lives in the apartment adjacent to Steve’s.

And, of course, Marvel Comics’ 91-year-old paterfamilias, Stan Lee, makes his usual cameo, this time as a Smithsonian Museum guard.

That latter bit is the payoff for an apparently inconsequential earlier scene, before everything goes to hell; once again, I applaud Markus and McFeely for a clever script that always makes good on seemingly random details.

You’ll want to remain in your seats, as usual, because this film includes an important post-credits scene — directed by Joss Whedon — that anticipates next year’s sequel to The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a stylish, exciting and deftly constructed blend of comic book lore and real-world political paranoia. That’s a tall order on anybody’s menu, but the folks at Marvel Studios have succeeded again.

As Stan Lee himself would have said, back in the day, Excelsior!

No comments:

Post a Comment