Cards on the table: I almost didn’t review this movie, because when I walked out of the theater I just wasn’t sure I had that much of value to say. In a lot of ways, this is just another Marvel superhero movie. It’s a good Marvel superhero movie, but it’s not a film that’s likely to win new converts to the brand. And while I’ll stand by that initial reaction, the more I thought about it, this is a movie that has several points worth discussing if you are already invested in the Marvel-verse. So consider this a pseudo-review. Yes, I’ll be talking about my impressions, but I’m also going to go into a few of the particularities that make this movie a standout for reasons well outside the question of, “Was it a good film?”
That last bit may seem a bit paradoxical, but here’s what I’m aiming at. There’s been a running criticism of the Marvel movies, especially of the first Captain America and Thor films, that they were little more than episodic lead-ins to The Avengers. It’s the same sort of criticism that’s been leveled at Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit as well as a number of other “franchise” pictures of late, that they aren’t really movies, just extended TV shows. The basic argument, and one I think is pretty much on point, is that in an episodic medium like television where a new episode is delivered every week, you can slowly build an arc over the season. Movies, on the other hand, generally have a minimum of a year between each “episode,” most of the time longer. Episodic content depends on regular content delivery to be effective. That’s why movies, even movies in series, generally need to be self-contained in their narratives.
The same criticism is very easily leveled at Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There’s an overarching narrative, sure, but there are so many characters weaving in and out over the course of the film, so many plot threads left unresolved, that it’s not difficult to reduce it to a mere installment in a broader story. It’s also very vulnerable to another post-Avengers criticism: the question, “Where are the Avengers?”
Here’s why neither of those objections bothered me in this particular instance. Whereas every other Marvel superhero movie to this point has overtly tried to be a MOVIE, i.e. and adaptation of a comic book into a new medium with new rules, Captain America: The Winter Soldier strikes me as a comic book put into motion. Yes, it’s still seeking the movie label to some extent. Yes, previous Marvel movies broke the “movie rules.” But this is one felt like it was consciously playing by a different set of rules: comic book rules, not movie rules.
What that means for this review is that it’s almost impossible to evaluate The Winter Soldier as a movie. My enjoyment (and yes, I enjoyed it) was predicated on the fact that I like superheroes and comic books, not that I like movies. So it didn’t bother me that Iron Man didn’t come flying in to help, because I recognize that there’s an artificial separation of heroes within the comic book medium. In that medium, it’s something that’s just accepted. And because The Winter Soldier represents something akin to an event run of comic books, it’s ok that there are characters that come in and out and plots that remain unresolved, because that’s how the medium works. We get the overarching plot of the run, plus some plotlines to revisit later. Again, this does not make for a good movie. The episodic nature of these story elements is frustrating when looking at this only as a movie. But as a piece of entertainment in the vein of comic book storytelling? I had fun with it. If we agree to meet the movie with those expectations in place, we can actually talk about some of the performances, plot pieces, and other story elements that make The Winter Soldier pretty compelling piece of entertainment, and probably among the best of the Marvel movies to date.
One of the things that jumps out, especially in the first half of the film, is how visceral the action of this movie is, and it’s a function of the movie’s leads (Captain America and Black Widow, once again played by Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, respectively) being very human superheroes. Captain America has strength, endurance, and physical durability which goes well beyond ordinary human capacities, but he’s still governed by his ability to harness that physical potential with training. He’s a lot closer to Batman than, say, the Hulk (or basically any of the other Avengers). The Hulk doesn’t need to learn hand-to-hand combat techniques; in his own immortal words, “Hulk smash!” Captain America can’t do that.
As Cap opens the film as the leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. black ops unit, the movie has a feel that’s actually akin to something out of the Bourne franchise. There aren’t any magical beings beating up alien monsters. It’s a fist-to-fist battle between humans, where we can feel the impact every time Cap knocks a henchman senseless with his very hard, very real metal shield. A lot of our early coverage of Guardians of the Galaxy has centered on how different the movie feels, and while that could still be the case, The Winter Soldier has beat it to the punch by moving in roughly the opposite direction. It’s a welcome departure that brings a politically charged, if heavy-handed, story home to the here and now.
This is aided a lot by some great performances from nearly the entire cast. Robert Redford might be the highest profile addition, and he great, but it’s Anthony Mackie who stood out to me. From his first moment on-screen, he was someone I wanted to see more of. There’s another whole movie in the development of his character and his relationship with Captain America that mostly gets glossed over here in favor of more (admittedly quality) work for Johansson. I’m counting on him making a leap in prominence akin to Rhodie’s change from a background character in Iron Man to an active supporting hero in Iron Man 2. Evans is stellar as Cap, striking the perfect note of perpetual do-gooder without seeming self-righteous or unrelatable.
If the story does have one big hole, though, it comes with the motivation of the antagonists. Calling this a comic book rather than a movie doesn’t excuse weak villains, and not only is the big bad here rehashing Loki’s argument for ruling humanity in The Avengers, but it’s a vastly inferior version of that argument. In The Avengers, we have an understanding of Loki’s personal desire for power. In this story, we get a overarching idea of what the villain wants, but we’re missing an emotional connection to why the villain wants it and to what end he would employ such absolute power.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
I cannot wholly excise from this review that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is being presented as a movie, regardless of the rules the story actually appears to play by. That said, if you think superheroes are fun and won’t be bothered too much by the fact that this episode of content will be separated from the parts that tie into it directly by at least a couple years, there’s quite a bit to like here. The story, even on those terms, isn’t without a few issues (including some I didn’t get the chance to dig into above), but there’s also some really well put together action, quality performances, and intriguing plotlines to be found. It’s more than enough for an enjoyable time at the movies, just be aware of what you’re signing up for.