Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks the unofficial start to the 2014 summer movie season (yes, I know it’s the first week of April, but that’s how Hollywood does business now). It arrives riding a wave of massive fanboy approval and some of the best reviews any Marvel movie has received thus far. A lot of people are calling it the best Marvel movie yet*, while some are boldly using the “it’s better than The Avengers” line to drum up hype and/or to get their name on the TV ads. I was actually hoping that those things were true. I wanted a more story-centric Marvel movie, and from the two amazing trailers, it looked like we might finally be getting one. In the end, kinda, but not so much. This movie is almost great. It’s almost what I wanted it to be, but in the end it succumbs to a lot of the issues that plague the other Marvel flicks; large gaps in logic, a weak villain, an overabundance of action in lieu of story in order to keep 12-year olds hooked, and an overdone visual effects extravaganza for a finale.
The Winter Soldier is not better than The Avengers, which remains the best Marvel movie to date. It is better than both Thor movies, it’s better than the first Captain America, and it’s better than Iron Man 2. I guess that means it’s tied with Iron Man and Iron Man 3 right under The Avengers (I still can’t decide which I prefer between the first and last Iron Man flicks). At worst, it’s 4th out of these 8 movies (9 if you count the Edward Norton Incredible Hulk), and at best it’s number 2. I liked the movie a lot and I’ll probably see it again, but it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be or could’ve been. There’s the short version. Meanwhile, we’re 4 months in now, and I’m still waiting for 2014 to produce a great film. The struggle is real.
*Disclaimer: when we refer to “Marvel movies” here, I’m of course referencing the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk and The Avengers, not Sony’s Spider-Man movies or Fox’s X-Men movies.
I know this is random, but now that I think about it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a really strange title. Basically, the movie is calling itself Protagonist: The Antagonist. It would be like The Dark Knight being titled Batman: The Joker. Toss that into your brain and shake it. Anyway, let’s get into the details. As always, because my reviews are more analysis than recommendation, SPOILERS AHEAD:
WHAT I LIKED
–The directors, Anthony & Joe Russo. I’ll freely admit that when these guys were first announced as directors of the film, I was confused and underwhelmed. I figured it was Marvel being cheap, once again either unwilling or unable to attract A-list talent to their project. I’ve never seen Community (the show for which the two are best known), and their only prior feature experience was a couple of poorly received comedies (remember You, Me and Dupree and Welcome to Collinwood? Me neither). Those fears were quickly alleviated with the film’s fantastic trailers, and now with the finished product the Russos have proven definitively that they’re multi-genre directors. The Winter Soldier is a difficult balance of drama, action and humor, and these guys pulled off all 3 aspects as well as can be expected given the material they were working with. I’m happy they’ve already agreed to direct Captain America 3, but it’ll even be even cooler to see what they do outside of Marvel with their newfound clout.
–Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Duh. He totally owns this character, and I absolutely buy his performance as Cap starts to question what his patriotism has actually earned him. I really like honorable heroes like Captain America, and in this modern age of slick anti-heroes, he’s actually a welcome change of pace. If you were to list Cap’s alignment in Dungeons & Dragons, he’d definitely be lawful good. (Was that reference nerdy enough for you?) His interactions with all the other characters are spot-on, and I like that he finds basically the only person he can trust (Sam Wilson/Falcon) in the unlikeliest of places, jogging laps around the sights of Washington.
–Scarlett Johansson is fantastic again as Black Widow. Her action scenes are really good, and I like the budding friendship between her and Steve Rogers. I especially liked that Cap and Black Widow don’t actually hook up. That would’ve been the easy, cheesy way to go, but keeping their relationship as is actually makes it more interesting going forward. Besides, as I’ll note in a minute, Natasha isn’t the right girl for Steve anyway. We get more vague references to Black Widow’s past, but again very few actual details, which was disappointing. I also thought that even though more than one character vocalizes Widow’s moral ambiguity, the filmmakers (primarily the writers in this instance) didn’t have the courage to fully commit to that aspect of her character. She doesn’t really do anything shocking or make any unexpected decisions. Just because she isn’t a Super Patriot like Captain America doesn’t make her morally ambiguous. I guess we won’t see any true Black Widow character development until she gets that long-rumored solo film.
–Nick Fury FINALLY getting some legit screen time and character development. This is easily the biggest role Samuel L. Jackson‘s Fury has had to play in any of these movies. I’ve been waiting a long time for Nick Fury’s moment in the sun, and Jackson is too good an actor to be continually relegated to second-tier status in these movies. I wouldn’t expect this to happen again going forward, so enjoy it here while it lasts. One of the best aspects of the story was seeing a man so confident over his domain slowly coming to realize that he really didn’t have any control whatsoever over what S.H.I.E.L.D. was really up to all this time. The sequence where he tries to defend himself in his armored SUV was especially cool, as was the ensuing car chase that eventually leads to our first look at The Winter Soldier. Although I did find it a little ridiculous that he makes his escape from that dire situation by using some magic blue energy stick thingy to apparently melt his way through the car and the ground beneath. Was that Tesseract jizz or something? I guess the Winter Soldier and his boys didn’t think following where that hole in the ground leads would be a worthwhile course of action. It was also cool having Fury finally take off the eye patch and eventually decide to destroy any evidence of who he was as a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. And as always, Jackson gets some of the best one-liners in the movie.
I was also a big fan of Cobie Smulders‘ Agent Hill getting into some real action, too, and her appearance in that montage at the end applying to work at Stark Industries was very interesting.
–Emily VanCamp as “Agent 13”. I know it was a bit part, but I want to see more of her character going forward. She hit all the right notes in the few scenes she was in. Apparently, this character becomes Steve Rogers’ girlfriend in the comics, and I think it would be very cool if that happened in the movies as well. There’s no indication yet that she’ll appear in Age of Ultron, so we may have to wait til Captain America 3 to see her again. Sad face.
–Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. Robert Redford in a comic book movie. Whodathunkit? Apparently, he was a big comic book fan as a kid and this kind of thing has always appealed to him. Winter Soldier was the perfect comic book film for him to be in considering his history of political and military thrillers. He’s no stranger to government conspiracies (All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor) or military cover-ups and uprisings (Spy Game, The Last Castle). I do think the Alexander Pierce character is severely underwritten (due to ADHD Marvel’s need for an action scene every 10 minutes), but that didn’t take away my joy in seeing Redford here, and his presence elevates the material by default.
–The genre-bending. Even if it doesn’t always work, I appreciate Marvel’s attempts to make the solo films more than just “comic book movies”. The Winter Soldier pays homage to 1970’s political thrillers, and there’s certainly a lot of those elements in here, even if they are on a much larger scale. The people who’ve called it Mission: Impossible meets Bourne are mostly right. I wasn’t crazy about the hook of the plot being that HYDRA was trying to make a comeback (mostly because I thought the HYDRA stuff were the weakest parts of the first Cap movie), but I like that they shook things up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and threw the whole operation into question. I like the concept of taking S.H.I.E.L.D. down, but as I’ll note below, I wasn’t crazy about the execution of that idea.
–The stunts. It’s refreshing to see a comic book movie where the action sequences aren’t entirely or primarily created in the computer. Although there is plenty of CGI-enhanced action in this film, there are just as many scenes with real stunt guys performing some terrific fight choreography and vehicular mayhem. The many comparisons to the Bourne movies are apt in this regard. In particular, the elevator fight scene is spectacular, maybe my favorite scene in the movie. I loved the buildup, with Cap slowly realizing what was going on as more and more special forces-looking bros get into the elevator with him. It was a fantastic mix of action and humor that’s very difficult to get right. There were several shots throughout the film that were done in annoying rapid-fire-editing, in-your-face closeups, but for the most part the action is shot in nice wide angles where you can actually decipher what the hell is going on; a rarity in modern action scenes.
–The visual effects, handled primarily by the wizards at ILM, are phenomenal throughout. The epic finale, despite being way over the top logistically, looked amazing. The only thing that I thought was really stupid was the bit where Falcon is inside S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters trying to outrun the helicarrier crashing into it. He then jumps out of the window and Nick Fury is able to jerk the helicopter to a right angle so Falcon can jump in and escape. That’s the kind of ludicrousness I expect to see in the Fast & Furious movies.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
–THIS Scarlett Johansson character poster:
I hated it since the moment I saw it. Like, what the fuck is she doing here? Being lustful? “I’m the Black Widow and I will defeat you with my powers of seduction.” Or is it, “See these two guns? I don’t need them cuz I’m going to kill you with my BEWBS.” I don’t get it. In general, movie posters have been getting dumber and less creative in recent years, but this is a special kind of stupid.
-I thought Anthony Mackie did a perfectly fine job as Sam Wilson/Falcon, but I’m putting him in the Dislike section because I’m straight up tired of seeing Anthony Mackie. I know this isn’t actually the case, but it feels like I see him in at least one new movie every friggin month. (In reality, he was in 4 major releases and 1 indie in 2013) It must be nice to be him though, from a career standpoint, because he appears to have a monopoly on late 20’s-early 30’s black male characters in Hollywood. Simply put, I’ve got Mackie Fatigue. He’s a good actor, Hollywood, and believe me, I understand full well that we need more black movie stars, but The Next Denzel Washington he ain’t. Stop forcing him down our throats! Funny that he and Mark Wahlberg were both in Pain & Gain together last year, because I wish the two of them would each take a 5-year vacation from mainstream movies and let some other people get these roles.
–Garry Shandling’s cameo. Only because he looks fucking terrifying. If it’s possible to overdose on Botox, Shandling has done it. Grossypoo.
–Once again, the score was just okay. We’re now 8 (or 9) films into this Marvel extravaganza, and only one (The Avengers) has had a memorable score. I’m still waiting for any of these superheroes to be given a worthy theme, and it looks like I’ll be waiting a long time before that happens. Henry Jackman‘s score here is competent, but that’s it. It’s good, but I don’t feel the need to own it. I don’t know who to blame for this, either. I don’t know if Marvel has a say in the hiring of composers or if the directors are making these choices, but something is horribly wrong here. In 8 (or 9) movies, the only theme I could hum or whistle for you right now is Alan Silvestri‘s Avengers theme. I’m sorry, but fucking Captain America should have a bigass, badass, awesomeass theme. Black Widow should have a little motif by now, as should’ve the Winter Soldier. But alas, tis not not to be. Again. The best music cue in this film was the use of Marvin Gaye‘s “Trouble Man” for the montage at the end of the movie.
Want proof? Here’s Brian Tyler‘s attempt at an Iron Man theme from Iron Man 3 last year:
Do you remember that? Could you hum it now after just listening to it? Me neither. But get excited, because Brian Tyler has officially signed on to score The Avengers: Age of Ultron next year! Hooray. Can you feel my excitement? Let the Marvel musical mediocrity continue!
And it’s not just these Marvel movies. No no. For more than a decade now, after 4 movies and 2 Wolverine spinoffs, the X-Men scores have been consistently bland as well, and you can expect that to continue with Bryan Singer‘s homeboy John Ottman returning for Days of Future Past. Thankfully, Hans Zimmer is working on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, so we’re likely to get one good comic book movie score in 2014. And there’s at least some hope that Tyler Bates will bring some KAPOW! to the Guardians of the Galaxy score in August.
-Also in keeping with Marvel tradition, we get a mediocre primary villain in the Winter Soldier. Yeah, he’s cool-looking and yeah, he’s a badass physically, but a great villain those things do not make on their own. I read one review that pointed out if you removed the character from the film entirely, not too much would actually be affected. Sadly, I think that’s actually true. There was a lot of potential in Steve Rogers trying to save his old friend Bucky from the clutches of evil, but because the Winter Soldier character is mostly mute and completely brainwashed, the writers willingly removed all opportunity for quality interpersonal drama. All we get is Cap pleading for him to come to his senses, and Bucky making “I might recognize you” puppy eyes back at him. It’s only at the very end of the film that the Winter Soldier becomes a human being again, so I guess we’re not gonna see anything compelling from him until Captain America 3 (tentatively scheduled for 2016). Over at The Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton wrote in his review, “it sometimes feels like the movie is all set up for “Captain America 3: No, We Promise, This One’s Really About The Winter Soldier.”
And what was with Winter Soldier’s mascara? Why does he need black face paint around his eyes? Is he applying this stuff himself, or does he sit in a chair for HYDRA’s makeup artists before he goes into battle? I can’t even tell you if I enjoyed Sebastian Stan‘s performance in the part, because it required very little actual acting. I’m sorry to be a downer about this, but the older you get, the more you insist that these characters actually be characters. Fanboys, it’s not enough that a villain looks cool and has cool powers. It just isn’t. If that makes me sound old, so be it and go fuck yaself. One day you’ll raise your standards, too.
-I wasn’t crazy about the plot twist being that HYDRA was making a comeback by using S.H.I.E.L.D. as a front. And the fact that HYDRA might play a big role in the Avengers sequel and Captain America 3 is kinda disconcerting. Consider it this way: in the first Captain America, HYDRA is an ineffective secret Nazi organization that doesn’t accomplish anything and uses henchmen with more ineptitude and worse aim than Imperial Stormtroopers as its primary fighting force. What about these guys is supposed to scare me as an audience member? In Winter Soldier, they don’t even bother explaining how HYDRA infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. all those years ago; we just get this montage of random images from the past several decades that Toby Jones‘ disembodied mind (don’t even get me started on that idea) apparently spliced together over the years just in case somebody came asking. Gotta stay busy somehow I guess, right?
Furthermore, I wasn’t convinced by Robert Redford or the other characters’ motivations for being on HYDRA’s side of the fence. Other than that, HYDRA= awesome.
–Was there too much action? The short answer: YES. This film could have been so much more stimulating if they’d had the balls to stick with some of the political intrigue, but on more than one occasion you could sense how desperate the movie was to get to an action scene. As a result, interesting dialogue scenes are cut short so the bullets and fists can start flying again.
All of the action in this movie is solid, but there was too much of it, and here again we encounter this modern Hollywood scourge where we have to include a mega spectacle at the end of the film. To me, aside from the elevator scene, the two most interesting action scenes in the movie were the opening where Cap singlehandedly (and awesomely) takes out every random pirate on the deck of that ship, and the first big confrontation between Cap & Black Widow vs. the Winter Soldier on the streets. The big finale, with Falcon flying around, huge CGI ships shooting at each other and various things crashing and exploding paled in comparison. This finale probably cost $30-50 million by itself, and it’s the least cool part of the movie. I saw one interview where the writers of the film said the impetus for the entire story was Marvel chieftain Kevin Feige saying he wanted to see helicarriers crashing, and the writers then built the story around that concept. If that’s true, I want Feige replaced as Marvel’s de facto showrunner immediately. “I don’t care how we get there, but at the end of this movie, I need a huge battle with helicarriers crashing and exploding.” That is fucking idiotic.
-One of the big flaws in the Marvel movies is that they provide no real sense of an overall timeline. From watching this movie, I have no clue whether it takes place before or after the events of Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World. All I know for sure is that it takes place sometime after The Avengers. I don’t know if it’s months, or a year, multiple years or what. I’ve searched high and low online and the only official timeline I can find is one that leads up to The Avengers. The only common thread between these movies seems to be the characters. From a storytelling standpoint, they’ve been very inconsistent and frequently neglectful of intersecting and relevant events. I’ll delve into that further below, but the fact that we can’t tell what happens when or in what order is hugely annoying.
-That second end credits bonus scene was completely unnecessary. Really, we need ominous music for a guy looking at a museum display? GASP! He just found out everything Captain America was saying is true! DUN DUN DUN!!! If it were up to me, only the Avengers movies would have two bonus scenes. As fun as it was to see Mark Ruffalo again, it wasn’t necessary to see him talking to Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man 3, and Thor’s return to Earth at the tail end of The Dark World was superfluous at best. That should’ve been included in the actual movie, not as a bonus scene. It just feels like they’re now including deleted scenes from the home video releases in the actual films, which, needless to say, is moronic. I didn’t love the first bonus scene either, by the way, but at least it was relevant for things to come.
Basically, it was all the silly comic book elements of the film that I had a problem with. Go figure. I hate to sound cliché, but if they’d simply Nolan-ized Captain America and put comic book characters in the real world, this COULD have been a truly great movie. Instead, it’s a really good, but flawed comic book movie.
Not that IMDb’s user ratings should ever be taken seriously, but THIS is ludicrous (as of 4/11/14):
Going by that ranking, here are just a few movies IMDb users have ranked below Captain America: The Winter Soldier: There Will Be Blood, Jaws, The Terminator, Dog Day Afternoon, The Truman Show, Jurassic Park. O RLY?
THINGS THAT CONFUSED ME/NITPICKS
–Once again, where are The Avengers? Or at the very least, where are the references to the events of the past couple films? Again, without being able to find any official post-Avengers timeline, I have to assume that these events take place in chronological order according to the release of the films. That means that coming into The Winter Soldier, there’s been another alien attack (Thor: The Dark World), this time in London, that apparently S.H.I.E.L.D. was completely unaware of since it doesn’t get mentioned at all here. Similarly, there’s no mention of the President being kidnapped or anything about Extremis (Iron Man 3) or Tony Stark’s house being destroyed or Iron Man going missing. You mean to tell me that if Nick Fury were assassinated like that, nobody would pick up the phone and call Tony Stark to at least inform him? And that upon hearing the news, he wouldn’t join the effort to find out what happened? I’ll buy that Thor wouldn’t have found out about it, and I’ll buy the same for Bruce Banner if he’s in seclusion again, but SOMEBODY would’ve told Stark. And isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that they keep Hawkeye around for? Where has HE been the last YEAR while all this shit has gone down? On vacation I guess. Aside from “it would’ve cost too much to hire Jeremy Renner“, give me one good reason from a story perspective why Hawkeye isn’t in this movie. You can’t do it. He seemed to be pretty close to Black Widow again at the end of Avengers, but now he’s gone rogue or is on some other secret mission or something? Bullpoop.
-When exactly did S.H.I.E.L.D. build this massive “Triskelion” headquarters in Washington D.C.? When did this World Security Council (or whatever the hell it’s called) suddenly get 3 completely different members than the people we saw in The Avengers? (The female council member is the only carryover.) Where did Grumpy Powers Boothe go? And how in the blue fuck did they excavate the equivalent of about 100 football fields to build the underground hangar that housed those 3 new helicarriers?! It would’ve taken multiple years just to build those ships (but if I’m not mistaken, Fury implies they were built post-Avengers), and god knows how long to dig that large a site underneath a populated area like that. Underneath a RIVER for fuck’s sake! I hated this concept from the instant of that big reveal after Nick Fury took Cap down his super secret elevator.
“Project Insight” my ass. More like “Project Look At All This Stuff We Miraculously Built in 6 Months, Bro”. Perhaps those stone angels from Noah were a part of the construction crew.
Put it this way: if S.H.I.E.L.D.’s construction guys had been contracted for The Big Dig in Boston, that shit would’ve been completed in about 8 weeks instead of 15 years. Hell, why didn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. just build a fucking Death Star if they’re that efficient?
-How exactly were three helicarriers hovering over Washington D.C. going to kill people in New York City and other parts of the world? A missile fired out of an aircraft in D.C. was gonna travel across the planet to kill one of the people on HYDRA/S.H.I.E.L.D.’s kill list? Why would you need a gigantic airship for that when we already have the ability to fire long range missiles from the ground? By the way, if you were looking for Easter eggs during that targeting sequence like I was, you may have spotted “Anthony Stark” as a target in NYC. I’m sure there were others, but we’ll have to wait til we can pause a home video release or digital copy of it to see them all. Regardless, the concept was dumb.
And how the fuck do the satellites in orbit know where every single one of these people is down to the square inch? I doubt Tony Stark is wearing a S.H.I.E.L.D. tracking device on him at all times. The same goes for foreign terrorists. Really, how do they know precisely where ANY of these people are? I’m throwing the red challenge flag on this one and calling bullshit, folks. And if the answer really is “they can read people’s DNA” as I believe is the case in the movie, I’ll now ask you when this became Star Trek.
-As cool as it is to see Cap throwing his shield all over the place like a boomerang (one that apparently has Bad Guy sensors in it), the physics of the shield are confusing to me. Does he have some kind of magnetic device on his left forearm that summons the shield back to him, or is he just that good at throwing it that the return angle is always perfect for him to somehow slide it onto his arm? Also, while I understand how the shield might bounce off of other metal surfaces or concrete, there are a couple points in the film where it bounces off PEOPLE and returns to him. I’m sorry, but no. If that thing hit a human being it would knock that person the fuck out and then simply fall to the ground. Because physics.
-One day, a bad guy will think to shoot Captain America in the legs. I swear Cap deflects about 10,000 rounds of ammo in this film with his shield, because despite noticing the fact that it’s clearly bulletproof, the bad guys persist in trying to shoot him in the torso and head while his legs and feet are constantly exposed and not bulletproof.
-I’m curious…how does the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show continue now that S.H.I.E.L.D. basically no longer exists? Again with the vagaries of this timeline. [Here’s a sort-of answer.]
If these are invalid questions and you think I’m silly for asking them, feel free to provide me with some rational answers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – PG-13 – 136 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8/10 (barely an 8 though; I rounded it up from like a 7.75)
Recommendation: It’s obviously worth seeing in theaters, in IMAX if possible, but after seeing it in glorious 2D, I see no way in which 3D would add anything here. I could be wrong, but I’m betting every IMAX theater is showing it 3D-only. If that’s the case, don’t bother. [I like CinemaBlend’s To 3D or Not to 3D articles, and HERE is the one they did for Winter Soldier]
Biggies Consideration: Best Stuntwork, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing
-I like Entertainment Weekly‘s piece ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is the most political (and subversive) superhero movie ever made.
-I don’t hate Badass Digest‘s explanations for why Iron Man and Hawkeye weren’t involved in the events of Winter Soldier.
–Joss Whedon has one hell of a storytelling mess to clean up going into Age of Ultron, that’s for sure. I feel like the Avengers sequel is gonna have to be 4 hours long, because the first 2 will be spent tying up loose ends and finding a way to bring these characters back together in a logical manner. Let’s recap: Tony Stark no longer wants to be Iron Man, and even if he did, he no longer has the infrastructure to do it (unless you’re gonna tell me he had backups of everything at Stark Tower in New York). Thor has seemingly come to Earth to stay, so I guess he and Natalie Portman are sharing an apartment somewhere and Thor has to get himself a job…or something. (perhaps Thor 3 will be a fish-out-of-water sitcom complete with a laugh track – Thor gets a cell phone! Thor learns to drive! Thor eats his first pizza! LOOOOLZ). Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are off to find Bucky, which means Anthony Mackie’s Falcon has to at least make a cameo in Age of Ultron. And oh yeah, Captain America’s shield is at the bottom of the Potomac River somewhere. Even Nick Fury, who faked his own death, needs to be relocated and inserted into the story somehow. Finally, you have to tell me where the F Hawkeye and Bruce Banner have been since the first Avengers.
Allegedly, Guardians of the Galaxy will have no impact on Age of Ultron or any of the Captain America/Thor/Iron Man storylines, so we’ve pretty much seen all we’re gonna see that’s relevant from Marvel’s “Phase Two” until next May. Good luck, Joss!
for the road…