(Photo : Disney/Marvel)
The superhero franchise has been rehashed so often, that the idea of finding any semblance of originality in upcoming hero films is illusive at best. Marvel and Disney have combined for nine films in the last six years. The latest of the string of movies is "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." The film is second in the "Captain America" series; the first film was well-received financially and critically but few really felt that it was a truly ground-breaking film. How does "Winter Soldier" fare in relation to its predecessor?
In the latest film, S.H.I.E.L.D is engaged in a new project Insight that would essentially put three weaponized aircrafts into the air where they would be able to kill any targets at a moment's notice. Captain America is obviously not thrilled by this idea and starts to question his allegiance to the organization. However, he is slowly forced back into action when one of his closest friends is put in great danger by a mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier. The Captain and the Black Widow attempt to find out who this killer is in hopes of saving the world.
From the vague synopsis it is pretty clear that this movie does not tread any new ground. That proves to be its greatest strength and underlying weakness. The formula is so familiar that the creative team behind the film is able push it in a number of directions, even waxing political throughout with questions about secrecy in a modern age dominated by technology. The movie also addresses some issues of morality concerning war and diplomacy. In many ways, this is the most dynamic Marvel film to date when it comes to maturity and dealing with modern day problems.
The film also aims to dig deeper in Steve Rogers' psyche. Early on in the movie, he enters the Smithsonian Museum to check out an exhibition dedicated to him. He hides under a cap, hoping to avoid notice and seemingly looking to understand how he fits into this world. When faced with the new Insight program, the hero immediately rejects the project and being a part of it; there are a few moments where he even questions continuing his life as a soldier but also wonders what he would become without it. One of the most poignant moments in the film features Rogers visiting an ailing and crippled Peggy Carter at a nursing home. Their conversation is brief, but the juxtaposition of the man stuck in time with his former lover in the decay of her life is striking and poetic. Chris Evans' stare is filled with nostalgia in this moment and the solemn tone actually emphasizes Rogers' identity struggle more clearly. The thespian does a terrific job throughout the film to imbue Rogers with a sense of dignity and emotional strength.
The film also gives Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury a lot of screen time. This is the first film in which he is actually forced into action to save his life and there is a tremendous amount of vulnerability in the portrayal. For once he is not simply a plot device, but a person with a history. The same goes for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. Her relationship with Rogers develops throughout the film and their repartee not only showcases their growing bond, but also hints at some romantic feelings on her part. Cobie Smoulders also gets ample screen time as Maria Hill while Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson (A.K.A. Falcon) provides the Captain with a suitable sidekick. Robert Redford is also rather potent as Alexander Pierce, a senior member of S.H.I.E.L.D. that has a rather dark agenda on his hands.
Sebastian Stan appears as the Winter Soldier, a villain that is not as one-dimensional as the ones usually showcased in most comic book movies. The writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely does a great job of giving the character depth and making him a major part of the political and moral discussion at the center of the film. Not only does he become Captain America's main adversary, but he becomes his double in a number of different ways. The implications for his character ring equally true for the film's noble protagonist. This portrayal of the villain adds tremendously to the stakes in the climactic battle, adding a layer that is far different from the "will he kill him or not" question that dominates most of these films.
The action is terrific as directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. The opening sequence takes place aboard a ship and moves rather seamlessly from one battle to the next; fortunately this action relies heavily on choreography rather than computer animation, adding refreshing authenticity to a genre that rarely has it. In fact, this may be one of the major positives of the film. There is a great deal of CGI, but it is quite unnoticeable throughout the running time. Each sequence is given ample time to develop, but none of them ever feel overlong or rushed. This enhances the pace of the film and keeps the viewer enthralled throughout the two-plus hours.
Those seeking thrills will certainly be pleased. And while there is depth to the movie, it is impossible to feel completely satisfied after finishing the viewing experience. The movie toys with the viewer throughout, constantly playing with expectations in a manner that becomes manipulative. (SPOILER AHEAD) At one point, a major character gets killed off. However, later on in the movie it is revealed that this person is in fact alive. And then a few scenes later, this character, who was listed as having a number of traumatic injuries, is up and running in the film's major climax. It is understandable that the production companies are looking after their investments, but it is shameful that there seems to be no interest in taking a huge risk. Killing off said character for good would have tremendous implications for the remaining films in the franchise. Imagine the Avengers without one of their major leaders? How do they respond to that crisis? How does it affect each person individually? How does it hurt the unity of the team? These are thrilling questions that would add depth to any subsequent installments. But based on this film, the producers are afraid of making such a daring move and truly pushing the envelope. The ultimate result is a film that while refreshing in some respects, still feels afraid of truly pushing itself to the limit.
But the film suffers from a number of other issues, some with major implications on the characters and overall universe. Captain America protests Insight's killing people, but has no problem boarding a ship and chucking foot soldiers off a boat. One can understand that war includes death, but even for a character so traumatized by the loss of his past and friends in war, he seems rather nonchalant about the whole idea.
But the bigger problem is that the film does not fit completely in its own universe. If the film's major villain is looking to send up three ships into space and immediately annihilate 20 million people, wouldn't you want to bring in your whole team of superheroes to save the day? Why just rely on three when you have a handful more at your disposal? Is Bruce Banner on vacation or something? It seems completely implausible that with this kind of manpower, S.H.I.E.L.D. would not even think to send more superheroes to help out Captain America with saving the world. This was an issue that also plagued "Iron Man 3," and it seems that Marvel/Disney is content with sidestepping the logistics and hoping that audience members do the same.
It is essential to point out that audience members will be treated, as has become tradition with ever major release, to two end credit sequences. One of them makes revelations about certain characters in the upcoming "Avengers: Age of Ultron" while the second sequence points directly toward a sequel to "Captain America 3." That there is likely to be a sequel is already clear as the film itself lacks any closure. If anything, the film itself has opened more questions than it has answered throughout its running, ensuring that the viewer has interest for the upcoming film.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a lot of fun and features solid performances from its cast throughout. However, it is impossible to walk away from the film without feeling that it is incomplete; it becomes abundantly clear at the end that a lot was left out with the intention of saving things for the sequel. Fans of the Marvel Universe will undoubtedly savor and converse about all the questions left in store for the sequel, but the rest of the viewers might start to feel a bit wary about the ongoing parade of Marvel movies and their increasing manipulation.