Captain America: The Pretty Good Sequel

Captain America image from MTV

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the kind of movie that is hard to review. Overall, it is a really good movie, but it has some problems that are impossible to ignore. While I don’t want to sound like a “negative Nancy” about a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, to make this an honest review I have to discuss where this movie fails. So that’s what I’m going to do, but just to be clear from the outset: I liked this movie, and give it an 8 out of 10.

The Winter Soldier is part of the long-running series of Marvel movies that I’ve been following and reviewing for quite some time. It follows Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), recently unfrozen after being trapped in ice since World War II, trying to adjust to the 21st century. He has decided to work for S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel universe’s biggest and most powerful top-secret spy agency tasked with keeping the world safe from its most dangerous enemies. However, Rogers is having second thoughts about whether he has made the right decision, and is staring to suspect that his new employer may be up to no good. That’s when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, is attacked by The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly unstoppable assassin. As Rogers tries to figure out who sent The Winter Soldier to attack Fury and why, he uncovers some dark secrets and is forced to fight some of his former comrades on his path to the truth.

This is where the first major problem with this movie lies. While it is suspenseful, thrilling, action-packed and fun to watch, I just couldn’t escape a little disappointment with the “big reveal” and the way the plot unfolded. The trailers and promotional materials for this movie promised a “political thriller”, where you couldn’t tell who the good guys and bad guys are. Frankly, that’s a lie. As it turns out, who the good guys and bad guys are gets sorted out fairly early on, and the reveal is depressingly predictable. This is a movie that is begging for its characters to exist in shades of grey, with Captain America having to choose between his values as both sides have equally valid points. Instead, we get a clear-cut, black-and-white story with an unrealistic villain.

It would have fit in better in a 1960s cartoon.

The villains would have fit in better in a 1960s cartoon.

This brings me to the second problem: the film’s not-so-subtle political message. Films with political messages have a very long and storied tradition in Hollywood, but not everybody appreciates them. After all, what if you don’t agree with the message being presented, or simply don’t want any politics messing with your enjoyment of the movie? Even if you are perfectly fine with these sorts of message-movies, there are some that handle their subject better than others. Did you notice the subtext about intellectual property rights in the first two Iron Man films? If you think about it, Tony Stark spends most of these films trying to keep the government and copycat inventors from stealing and copying his work. However, these films approached their subject in a smart way – highlighting that Stark isn’t completely “in the right” on this issue and pointing out that the characters all have their own, equally legitimate perspectives.

Captain America’s movie doesn’t do that. The Winter Soldier comments on the ways that technology has eroded everyone’s privacy in the past decade. Instead of presenting this in a multifaceted way as the Iron Man films had, TWS clearly takes a side and makes the other side out to be either evil or duped by the evil characters. No wonder Robert Redford (All the President’s Men, Lions for Lambs) signed up to play a role.

On top of those problems, the movie sets up some forced romantic tension between our hero and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and it just doesn’t work. The two actors do not have the right on-screen chemistry to pull this off, on top of the fact that they are both playing no-nonsense characters who are more concerned with the mission than with relationships. Besides, I thought The Avengers (and the comics) pretty firmly established that Black Widow was Hawkeye’s girlfriend. Where is he in all of this?

"Wait, my girl did what? With who?"

“Wait, my girl did what? With who?”

All right, enough griping about this movie’s flaws. For everything this movie did wrong, at the end of the day, it did much more right.

The action was well-done as always, and the special effects were as breathtaking as you’ve come to expect from the franchise. Marvel still cleans house when it comes to how awesome their films look, if nothing else.

I liked that this movie goes into Nick Fury’s past, so we get to see more facets of his character than just “tough boss man”. He appears more human in this film than in any of his other appearances, as we start to learn why he is the way he is. Up until now, we have only seen him cool and in charge, but for the first time we get to see him in a place where he is truly vulnerable.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Falcon (Anthony Mackie), whose relationship with Steve Rogers is probably the best part of the movie. A veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan (it isn’t made completely clear) who lost a friend in battle, he is able to relate to Captain America through their shared experiences of war, service in the name of freedom, and personal loss and sacrifice. Their spontaneous camaraderie feels natural, and makes sense both logically and emotionally.

The star of the show, of course, is the title character. Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier shows just how much range the actor has. It was really impressive just how much emotion the man can convey without having to say a word. I think the Winter Soldier only had about five lines in the entire movie – everything else was conveyed with his face and body language. Yet he managed to capture the essence of the character, and his inner torment, so wonderfully that you could really feel his pain.

I’m happy with The Winter Soldier, and I think it is a welcome addition to the Marvel movie universe. Even so, I can’t help but feel it could have been better. After watching Thor: The Dark World and finding that movie to be virtually flawless, it feels like Marvel’s latest entry is just a tiny bit disappointing at the end of the day. Not enough to stop me from buying it when it comes out on DVD, but maybe enough to suggest caution before deciding to see it in theaters.