Sunday, April 13, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Continuing its unprecedented success, the Marvel Cinematic Universe marches onward with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This entry falls on the high end of the spectrum, not quite at the level of Iron Man or The Avengers but a good deal better than Iron Man’s two sequels and the Thor movies. The first Captain America was stronger than expected, and this sequel surpasses it. Despite the time gap of 70 years between the two stories, writers found clever ways to connect the films thematically, delivering a sequel that leans heavily on action while still spinning an engaging and worthwhile tale.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has trouble trusting government organization S.H.I.E.L.D. due to director Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) numerous secrets. Once the safety of certain S.H.I.E.L.D. members becomes compromised, Captain America partners with Natasha Rominoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to uncover the faces behind the threat, including a masked, super-powered assassin known only as “The Winter Soldier.”

Someone at Marvel has been watching some 1970s political thrillers (and that’s a good thing), because in its tone, The Winter Soldier recalls such classics as Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. Nothing is what it seems, and no one can be trusted, not even our own government. Despite having never done a big-budget comic book picture like this, Robert Redford seems right at home as senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce. Casting Redford was a masterstroke, as his very presence further evokes the great political thrillers of old, and his talent helps ground moments that could have come off as silly. The other noteworthy newcomer is Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Anthony Mackie’s energy and likability make Falcon a welcome addition to Marvel’s superhero lineup, and Mackie and Chris Evans have great chemistry.

The best Marvel movies impact the Marvel Universe at large. While Iron Man 2-3 and Thor 2 have their strengths, you could skip them and not need much if any catching up. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a game changer. Major events unfold that will affect not only future movies but also Marvel’s current TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bigger stakes make everything more interesting, action scenes included (of which Winter Soldier has plenty).

The first Captain America took place during World War II: the type of good-vs.-evil setting in which a character like Captain America makes the most sense. For its modern-day sequel, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely found clever ways to not only emotionally connect the two films but also keep Captain America an interesting and relevant figure. Joss Whedon took the character in the right direction in The Avengers, and The Winter Soldier goes further down that path by introducing even more moral ambiguity. In a world of uncertainty and deception, a code-of-ethics man like Captain America can at once become unsure of his role while also providing a moral center the audience can root for.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t go too deep with its political intrigue (it’s first and foremost a superhero movie, after all), but it does tap into two current US initiatives that continue to be causes for concern: the use of drones for assassinations and the mass surveillance of US citizens. Winter Soldier does well to address these issues not only for relevance but also because of all that Captain America stands for. When Nick Fury describes some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s controversial practices, Cap responds, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” While he might have seemed goofy or out of place on screen twenty years ago, a superhero dressed in red, white and blue who represents core American values seems almost refreshing today. As Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) tells Captain America in The Avengers, “With everything that's happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout

Violence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on par with other Marvel films - frequent and occasionally intense but not bloody or graphic. Moral complexity and ambiguity over who’s good and who’s bad could be challenging for younger viewers.

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