Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Oh Captain, My Captain

Robert Redford is in a Marvel film. Think about that for a second. I mentioned as a side note the other day how comic book movies were getting wide respect in the film community, thanks especially to recent movies like The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, and The Avengers, the last of which sits pretty with the third highest worldwide box office gross of all time. Unlike video game adaptations, the comic book genre is now attracting talented directors, top shelf actors and producers invested in putting forward their best efforts. And there's no better example of that trend - which has only come in the last few years - than Robert Redford signing on for a major role in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which came out this past weekend. This is a man with two Oscars on his mantle, and perhaps SHOULD have been nominated for another with his starring role in 2013's All is Lost. The idea that someone as renowned as Redford, who could certainly hand-pick his next role, would decide to be in a movie like this speaks volumes as to just how influential, special, and overall GOOD the genre has become.
As you can imagine, he leaps at the opportunity.
And when we see the final product, we can understand why. Winter Soldier continues the story of WWII superhero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he adapts to a modern world vastly different from the relatively simple era in which he was raised. And that's the biggest difference between this and predecessor The First Avenger: theme. Whereas Joe Johnson's 2011 blockbuster danced to the tune of an upbeat, patriotic flair, the sequel from Anthony and Joe Russo (best known for their TV work on Arrested Development and Community) delves into dark shadows and moral ambiguity, and what that means to a man who adorns himself in stars and stripes, but is employed by the covert security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a man whose "secrets have secrets." And so this story ends up feeling more like Three Days of the Condor (completing the Robert Redford connection) or The Good Shepherd than it does your standard superhero fare, while still maintaining the same universe and rules we've become accustomed to with Marvel Studios' releases in the past decade.
Not since the days of piracy have eye patches been so bad-ass.
But espionage storyline aside, The Winter Soldier is STILL a superhero flick, and so you need a colorful, over-the-top bad guy for the hero to fight, right? Well, yes and no. On the yes side is the Winter Soldier himself (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious and silent assassin who is lethally brutal and a true challenge for our hero. But on the other end of the spectrum is a shadowy organization trying to bring down S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside, causing Cap to distrust all of his established allies, including Fury and fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Again, this is great not just because it provides such a sharp contrast from the largely open and straightforward story of The First Avenger, but also because it provides an excellent STORY, one in which the heroes (and the audience) are kept guessing as to what could possibly happen next.
Takes the "Iron Man" workout to another level.
That's thanks to the efforts of both screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first movie) and the directors Russo. The Russos especially have a lot to prove, as they've never really done the kind of action thrill-ride that Marvel fans expect. And while their last directorial effort came at a time when Kate Hudson was still an A-list actor (the 2006 comedy You, Me and Dupree), there's no rust as they do a very good job here. Like most first-time action directors, they make the stupid mistake of shooting too close to the fight scenes (thus obscuring any and all detail), but otherwise their solid camerawork keeps everything fresh and exciting. They also get excellent performances out of their actors, from veterans Redford and Jackson to young rising stars Evans, Johansson and Anthony Mackie (as a high-flying sidekick). Even with castings of the likes of MMA star Georges St-Pierre as a minor villain, there are no substantial acting weaknesses, and that can't be overstated when you once again remember that you're watching a superhero flick and not a full-on spy thriller. And for that matter the special effects are really something else, explosive and insane as are the demands of the genre, and yet on a smaller, more believable scale than those of the Iron Man and Thor franchises. They're even more impressive when you consider that relatively little CGI was used. Sure, computers were used to render the gigantic Helecarriers and a few other items of note, but the directors were quite adamant about practical effects whenever possible, and their success is readily apparent.
Okay, Michael Jordan could probably have done this, too...
There's really only one downside to this movie, and that unfortunately comes to the story itself. I said before that audiences would be kept guessing as to the plot details, and that's true. But unfortunately, the screenplay is itself not without predictability, many of the major twists getting telegraphed well in advance. Characters do pretty much what you expect, limited not by the well-known comic book origin stories, but by the constraints of the spy genre and the overall talent of the screenwriters, which is good but not GREAT. Markus and McFeely are simply never going to get any Oscars for their work, which to be fair isn't a world-ending event. But what makes the movie stand out from its brethren is how bravely it seeks to actually change the parameters set out by the previous Marvel films, and leave the next franchise movie with something completely different to work with than we the audience had imagined. It's that risk-taking that makes me excited for all future entries.
No, this isn't a new G.I. Joe picture. Why do you ask?
It might not be on the same level quality-wise with recent marvel hit The Avengers, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still easily among the best comic book movies of all time. Marvel's "Phase Two" sees the company putting out some of their best efforts, and things look to only get better as the years go on. It's so amazing to see this genre getting the kind of respect needed to thrive, both from the critics and the studios themselves. No, it's not perfect, but considering the upward quality trend we've seen from comic book adaptations in recent years, it's more than a welcome addition to movie screens. It'll appeal to the older spy fans AND the young superhero crowd, a seamless blend that needs to be seen on the big screen to be believed.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

Nice to see that you've been able to squeeze in some movies viewing and reviewing into your busy schedule. It'll be sometime before I catch up to write/draw my review on "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" but I agree, this is one hell of a good film. My first reaction was this was the BEST rendition of a superhero comic book on the big screen. I first started reading Captain America in the early 70's (I was 12yrs old) and this film, to me anyway, was as if they took those pages and story lines and pasted them up on the big screen.

And *Spoiler Alert*

If you would have told my 12 year old self, that actor Robert Redford (who at the time was making great films like "The Sting", "Jerimah Johnson" and "Three Days of the Cpndor) would one day be in a movie and utter the words "Hail Hydra" I'd have said you were crazy!

Yes, we've come a long way since then, comic book movie-wise.