Monday, May 4, 2015

Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"  *** (out of ****)

Walking into "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014), which I will refer to as simply "Captain America" from now on, my expectations were low. Not because I enjoyed the first movie, "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011) and felt, well, you know how it goes with sequels, they are rarely, if ever, as good or better than the original. No, my expectations were low because I am not a "fanboy". I am not a comic book enthusiast. I have been slow coming around to all of these Hollywood adaptations of comic books.

However, I must admit I was surprised. "Captain America" is actually watchable. What surprised me most about the movie was is it somewhat socially aware. It mentions issues which society is currently dealing with. I know many "fanboys" like to believe comic books are a window into the world, that the comics deal with issues, but I never bought into that. It makes comic books feel a little too important. I feel comic books and the movie adaptations of them are mainly "escapist entertainment".

As "Captain America" began I started to think my original perception was correct. I had a difficult time understanding the movie. "Captain America" relies upon the viewer having a) seen the first movie, b) knowing in advance the Captain America origins, and/or c) a combination of both. Unfortunately I fall into the "d" category. I never saw the first movie and don't know the origins of the character. There is a brief moment however when we get to hear the story of Captain America AKA Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and understand he was a soldier in WW2 and was part of a government experiment which gave him superpowers after originally not being accepted into the military. He was then frozen and thawed out as it were in today's world.

The movie takes a good 30 minutes to get to its story. Before that time the viewer doesn't really understand the story, the motives of the characters or where the plot will ultimately lead. Generally that it too long to wait to establish your story. But "Captain America" is a very long movie, two hours and 16 minutes. It could have used a few more edits to make the story "tighter". Once it "settles" into its story though the movie begins to gain our interest. For me, my interest came from the social comments the movie makes and not so much the characters. What prevents "Captain America" from being an even better picture is it needed to offer more of a critique of the social issues; government surveillance and the politics of fear, which it addresses. But it doesn't really go anywhere with those ideas.

This may lead some to say, Alex, if the movie doesn't say anything about those themes, why are you recommending it? As far as I am concerned the bar is so low for comic book adaptations the movies simply have to make minor attempts to actually be about something and I'm impressed.

I am also very late in the game when it comes to comic book movies. I have seen Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) as well as more modern movies like "Spider-Man" (2002), "Iron Man" (2008), "Hulk" (2003), "Daredevil" (2003), "X-Men" (2000) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). None of them have impressed me with the exception of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises", which I even placed on my annual "top ten" list. So I haven't been keeping up with the Marvel Universe and decided I am the wrong audience for these movies.

Growing up I had no interest in comic books though I did collect trading cards when I was in elementary school. In my teens I started reading Russian Literature and "serious" novels, not comics. I was fascinated by Kafka and Camus not Superman and The Avengers.

But now my feelings are starting to change. I re-watched the Tim Burton "Batman" movies I discovered I liked them more now than when I was a child. I enjoyed "The Dark Knight Rises" and now I find I enjoyed "Captain America". Maybe I should give these kind of movies a second chance.

I admit I really don't understand everything in "Captain America" as far as background story goes. I'm not completely sure what "S.H.I.E.L.D." is or what it stands for. I am not sure who the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is. What are her super-powers? How did she get her super-powers? How does she relate to Captain America? What is she doing in this movie? In the past all of this would have bothered me. "Captain America" doesn't really explain any of this. But, that's okay. I just went along for the ride. I am aware there is something called the "Marvel Universe" which is attempting to connect all of these super-heroes in the same time frame and they may appear together in movies, like "The Avengers" (2012). Fanboys can better describe it to you than I can. So I know in previous movies all of these things were explained. I worry though if these movies are able to stand on their own. For the most part "Captain America" did.

The characters I enjoyed watching the most were Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of "S.H.I.E.L.D." and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who also works for "S.H.I.E.L.D.". They are presented as two men who hoped to change the world with their ideas and perhaps even revolution. These two characters are the most realistic and encompass the world in which we live in. They are confronted with the same so-called "moral" dilemma's our government and society contend with, namely how far should the government be allowed to go to ensure "freedom" and "protect" its citizens through surveillance and the threat of war.

Supposedly the filmmakers, Anthony and Joe Russo, who are set to direct the next Captain America movie and an up-coming third "Avengers" movie, wanted this film to be reminiscent of political thrillers which were common in the 1970s. "Captain America" isn't quite at the level, even with the appearance of Redford, who was in his own political thriller, "All the President's Men" (1976), one of the great masterpieces of the decade. Still it is that ambition of "Captain America" which elevates its story.

"Captain America" is a good movie with a decent plot. I may not like the movie for the same reasons fanboys and comic book readers like the movie but this installment in the Captain America series is worth watching. Maybe next time they can make a greater social commentary and then you would really have something special on your hands.