Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review PLUS: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

Up to the point of Thor: The Dark World, the current incarnation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been, almost entirely, pop entertainment. Awesome pop entertainment, yes, with some wonderful character arcs and relationships, but anything that transcends beyond? Not much. 

The one aspect of the series that has been challenging with regards to modern society and politics has been S.H.I.E.L.D. - the organization that out NSA's the NSA. The organization's director, Nick Fury, is so shadowy and ethically questionable, he rides the fascism line HARD. Dealing with such a group must be a trial even for someone as strong as The Hulk.

The star spangled hero Captain America, a man left over from the WW2 generation, is especially uneasy with this group, and even more so with a world that accepts it as necessary. THIS is what he fought for?

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap has reluctantly joined with Fury's team with the goal of serving his country (when life throws a lemon...). He has concerns, but swallows them for the greater good - this struggle is read not just on his face, but in the way he walks when not on the job. The dejected disappointment and tragic trudge of someone who is basically superhuman makes for quite a performance, and Chris Evans gives it his all.

Soon, a conspiracy within the ranks confirms and exceeds Cap's suspicions. Instead of spoiling what happens, here's a quote from William Burroughs:
You see control can never be a means to any practical end. ... Control can never be a means to anything but more control ... like junk.
The transcendence of this movie comes from the deeper questions posed by the villains. It's a statement on where we've been, where we are now and where we could end up. Government surveillance, preemptive strikes, borderless wars, and even hacktivism are covered. In The Dark Knight, Batman was presented as being forced to use super surveillance tech to capture a mad man. If seen as commentary, you could take it as the U.S. "not wanting" to do this, but having "no choice", which is B.S. In The Winter Soldier, Captain does an epic amount of dismantling, which some real life politicians might call treasonous. Talk about REALLY having "no choice".

Part of accomplishing this progressive move was the choice of filmmakers. The Russo Brothers were previously known for directing TV shows and You, Me and Dupree. To perfectly tackle the feat of a comic book movie with an espionage thriller edge and non intrusive direction was a happy surprise to see from this duo. There's a confident command going on here, without the need to show boat - very much in common with Captain America himself. Simple execution but not generically textbook. And the one element executed expertly? Suspense.

Tension is thick here. The dilemma and crisis Captain confronts might be the strongest a superhero has faced since The Dark Knight. In that movie, it was Batman's personal code and soul at stake. In The Winter Soldier, it's what the Captain represents - the high standard that he has put on himself, for his country and fellow man. Both conflicts were traumatic turning points for these characters, and the conclusions are more bittersweet than anything. The difference between the two? Captain has no time for brooding and self doubt - there's a mission to accomplish.

Marvel's Phase 1 was pop, and Phase 2 has been a time of change - not just for The Avengers but the creative talents picked to helm these projects. Many chances are being taken, and rightfully so. This is a sequel that, I hope, will be copied and piggy backed for years to come. Hail MCU.

5 / 5 *s

PLUS - When Simple Beat Style: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" vs. "Man of Steel"

An article on ScreenCrush came to my attention recently. In it, the author made the argument that it was only after watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier that his opinion on the handling of Superman in Man of Steel went sour. It came down to Captain *spoiler* choosing not to finish off Bucky vs. Superman snapping Zod's neck. One was an affirmation of a character's code, and the other an out of place moment.

While I still contend that Man of Steel was a good take on Superman (though I might knock a star off in hindsight), the article's comparison made me think about what else The Winter Soldier may have done better - this time, with the language of cinema. I submit to you the following examples:

Superman = Jesus

There are two "infamous" shots in Man of Steel that floored many a critic, and made many an audience member laugh. The first was in a church, where Clark Kent seeks advice from a young priest. It's a well written scene, and makes sense for the character to reach out in this manner, considering the problem he faces. However, our hero is framed in front of a glass portrait of Jesus Christ. THIS IS TOO OBVIOUS. It's almost film school level framing, actually. Now, looking more closely at it, it seems that Jesus is on his knees in that portrait, meaning to express Clark's doubt in a deeper way. That spec of detail almost forgives the childish attempt at depth, until...

... Superman floats away from the Kryptonian ship, arms extended from his sides, with music playing that makes you think about church. This character has always been compared to Jesus and other religious figures, and there's nothing wrong with that. What IS wrong is BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA. There are other ways to get across this similarity than the superficial.

Captain America and his feelings

In the review above, I touched on the performance of Chris Evans, and how, early on, he carried on his shoulders the weight on Captain America's emotions, all without moping. There was some great body language, sure, but there was more at play here to establish tone, atmosphere and feeling - all to connect us with our hero.

For starters, the sequel feels far different from the first movie. The First Avenger was stylistically designed to have classic cinematography and color schemes. No matter what we all thought of the overall film, the mood was set to give us an old school FEEL. In The Winter Soldier, we have some very modern camera movements and colors to match what's happening in the portion of the story we're watching. Ironically, this too is film school like, but appropriately so. It's textbook in technique, but creative in execution.

There is a feeling of cold detachment to the first act, which makes sense because of Captain's thoughts on the world at the time. He feels alone, so the environment should reflect that to make us experience that. His apartment looks sterile, clean and clear, so we FEEL that way too. His trip to a museum exhibit on his past exploits is shot in a sweeping and slow manner, giving us time to absorb the images, think on them and FEEL what they mean. And, by feeling, we understand without having to be beaten over the head.

What does the tone and atmosphere say about a film? How about of the filmmakers? In Man of Steel's case, it tells me that it's a bit impatient to get information across, slightly clumsy and that Zack Snyder gets lost when trying too hard (despite being a tad restrained). In Captain America: The Winter Soldier's case, it tells me that underestimating the audience's intelligence is wrong, cinema is a universal language that ALL can UNDERSTAND, and The Russo Brothers know how to engage without being obnoxious.

So, in this way, yes, Captain America beat Superman. And he didn't have to snap a neck to do so ;)

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