'The Winter Soldier' is a relic from the past, and a new high for Marvel
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the comic book created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, Callan Mulvey, Sebastian Stan and Emily VanCamp
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 16 minutes
April 4, 2014
(out of four)
Washington, D.C. at dawn. It's been an iconic image in Hollywood history, nowhere more common than in the political thriller. So when Captain America: The Winter Soldier fades in on just that image - slowly panning across the National Mall with the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument so familiarly hovering in the background - it's consciously placing itself in a very specific tradition.
It follows through on those impulses, playing out like a 1970s political mystery that just happens to have a superhero (or two) as its unwitting gumshoe. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo establish a tonal harmony right away, as the ominous weight of the film's establishing shot is quickly interrupted by Marvel's customary levity, this time in the form of a cheeky joke about Captain America's jogging speed compared to that of his fellow early-morning runners. That said, the humor here isn't sarcastic like The Avengers or irreverent like Iron Man; instead, it comes largely from the underplayed sexual tension between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, and is deployed primarily as a tension-breaker as the circumstances surrounding them get shadier and more dire.
The Russos clearly know their material, and watching them indulge spy-thriller tropes in the guise of a flashy blockbuster is a delight not just because of how well they pull it off, but because the whole thing serves as a [possibly] accidental commentary on the state of the industry itself. Hollywood doesn't make thrillers anymore - and certainly not the kind being emulated here, namely the kind of slow-burn paranoia of Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View or All the President's Men, among others. Instead of financing a few movies like that, the studios would rather finance one giant movie like this. And so the filmmakers used that business model to make the kind of movie they couldn't have made otherwise. That they're taking their cues from the likes of Alan Pakula rather than their blockbuster contemporaries exemplifies they way they're clearly trying to mold what they inherited from the existing Marvel universe into something more substantial and, in this day and age, out of the ordinary.
In that light, The Winter Soldier is a fairly remarkable accomplishment - a sci-fi superhero movie by default, but one that refuses to behave by those expectations.
Even the physical abilities of Captain America (Evans) himself are treated more like that of a highly trained CIA agent than a superhero. He's not dealing with portals to other dimensions or aliens descending from another galaxy, but deception and subterfuge. He's engaged not in crimefighting, but espionage. When he has to fight, it's close combat, and staged to emphasize a sense of primal (if slight) fragility rather than his otherworldly abilities. The action is a secondary necessity to the mystery at hand, rather than an excuse for its own spectacle.
The Winter Soldier isn't built on action setpieces anyway, but quiet moments of intrigue. Here, again, the Russos call on their 1970s predecessors to inform how they present the story. There's a certain type of scene that's particularly revelatory. You know the one: A character arrives home at night, only something is a bit off. There's someone inside already. Perhaps he has the radio on, tipping off his presence. Or maybe she's patiently waiting in silence. Darkness dominates the frame; the mysterious figure, seated comfortably on the couch, is illuminated only by a shaft of light crossing across her face. Or perhaps by the dim light of a nearby lamp. He's seated just to the right of the window, out of sight from the outside but hardly out of danger. Something bad is about to happen to one of them, or already has - or, at the very least, something very, very important is about to be revealed.
These are always key moments, and the Russos - working off a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely - use two of them in The Winter Soldier, and to great effect. The lighting choices by cinematographer Trent Opaloch throughout the film - but in particular in those two scenes - perfectly embody the sense of ambiguity and mistrust that permeates a story like this. And it reflects the internal unease being ushered into the Marvel universe. The safety apparatus of S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised, leaving the Captain, Black Widow (Johansson) and even Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in various stages of limbo - and, perhaps for the first time, what feels like actual danger. (The aliens in The Avengers, for example, always felt like an excuse for action rather than an organic threat within the story. With all due respect to The Avengers.)
The three (along with, eventually, Steve's new friend and ally Sam Wilson, played by the always-reliable Anthony Mackie) are on their own, under threat from forces not only outside their organization but within it. The way this film's revelations disrupt the whole infrastructure of the Marvel universe makes it, at the very least, the most narratively daring of any entry yet.
Like the best thrillers in this tradition, The Winter Soldier considers the implications of its political and moral corruption, even addressing its characters' varying interpretations of freedom - which, among Rogers, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), the security council and even certain outside factions as yet unrevealed, run the ethical gamut. In this regard, the film is the closest Marvel has come to the thoughtfulness of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. For once, the stakes seem to matter.
Opaloch's fondness for wide compositions (often sparsely populated), particularly in his interior shots, give us a false impression of transparency, when in fact he's using them to invite a feeling of eerie uncertainty. The visual design as a whole is put to fine use, from the action sequences (which use a lot of the tight, handheld camerawork that often mars action, only the filmmakers in this case actually have a clear sense of choreography to go with it) to the quieter character moments (which resist the over-reliance on close-ups we've been seeing more and more lately, and sticks largely to medium shots).
It's all in the service to a storyline that warrants the extra care, and which distinguishes itself from most other movies in the franchise. The titular winter soldier doesn't apply to the Cap'n, but to a mysterious assassin figure who's been more rumor than reality over the preceding few decades. An enduring myth, a government secret weapon ... who knows. But the movie isn't really about him - he's simply a key part of a bigger underlying conspiracy. There end up being so many pieces to it, in fact, that the third act has a hard time handling how to structure it all, and the momentum starts to give way. But it never breaks - and, more importantly, it doesn't devolve into cheap action, but feels entirely like the result of a carefully crafted thriller. Even if it gets a bit baggy. And even if at least one subplot concludes with a shameless bit of climactic tension that would make Galaxy Quest proud.
It's a funny thing. Years ago when the cinematic Marvel Universe and its various individual properties were just starting up, this character was, of all of them, the one I was least interested in seeing. And yet I now think the Captain America entries might be the best two Marvel has made. Not coincidentally, they're the two that have done the most to separate themselves from the others. The First Avenger could exist completely outside of any other Avengers. And about, say, 85 percent of The Winter Soldier could stand on its own, too. Replace S.H.I.E.L.D. with any other secret government entity and change superhero names into spy names, and what you've got here is an old-fashioned thriller beholden to no franchise expectations. I'm not sure if this will be true of the third entry, but for this one? Let's just say The Avengers 2 needs The Winter Soldier a lot more than The Winter Soldier needs The Avengers 2. The major studios may not make political thrillers anymore, but somehow the Russos found a way to make a good one right under their noses.