It’s now clear there are smart and sassy Marvel Studios films that zero in on story along with really dumb ones that sacrifice story values to CGI effects. So let’s send up a cheer for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” With a few caveats, this is one of the smart, sassy ones.
Indeed if you removed the super heroics, “Winter Soldier” would make a fine James Bond film. Actually better than most 007 movies, come to think of it, since it deals albeit briefly with moral ambiguity and ripped-from-the-headlines government surveillance.
This movie is a kind of throwback to vintage Cold War spy melodramas. Before you can even start an idiotic Ten Best Spy Movies list, look who shows up in the movie: Robert Redford, playing a dubious cold warrior supposedly among the good guys in SHIELD, who reminds you of one of the savviest of spy movies, Sydney Pollack’s 1975 “Three Days of the Condor” in which he starred.
Watching him and Samuel L. Jackson as SHIELD’s venerable director, Nick Fury, giving this comic-book movie a touch of gravitas is one of the real treats of “The Winter Soldier.” No, it’s not deep-dish acting but these guys can command the screen like nobody’s business.
Captain America has always been something of an orphan in the Marvel stable. A bit too gee-whiz for the other super cool dudes (and ladies such as Black Widow), it’s telling that the World War II comic-book hero had to be thawed out from a huge ice cube in “The First Avenger”: He does feel like someone from another era who has been kept in ice — or mothballs.
But he acquitted himself well enough in his first movie and the over-the-top “The Avengers,” so now he’s back in his second solo effort or, to be accurate, starring vehicle with a few A-Teamers aboard.
Most notably that includes Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Without her the movie might have been much duller. What U.S. Army officer Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) lacks for in savoir-faire and shady duplicity, Natasha more than makes up for.
Intriguingly the movie begins, after some heroic derring-do aboard a pirated SHIELD ship at sea, by plunging its characters into the murky waters of moral ambiguity and shifting alliances more in tune with the fictional world of John le Carré.
Would that the movie had stayed in those waters. It it had, “Winter Soldier” might have been right up there with the first “Iron Man,” as one of the best Marvel movies.
Instead, so as not to confuse its fan base apparently, Marvel and the film’s writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, swiftly resolve all ambiguity: Soon enough you know where good and evil reside.
Which is a pity since the first act far outshines the second and the second far outshines the third as the waters clarify and, unlike Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” series, the superheroes need no longer ponder if someone is exploiting their powers or, worse, if they’re using these powers against their better judgment.
There are also stabs at identify crises and lingering self-doubts in both Steve and Natasha worthy of fuller exploration. Alas, these get abandoned in favor of a spectacular vehicle chase, shootouts, hand-to-hand combat and surprising twists and attacks.
Hey, I love that stuff too but the really great spy movies, if you place this movie in that category, serve both masters, character and action. “Winter Soldier” tips the balance way in favor of action. Thank goodness it’s really good action although the directors often stand in the way.
The director/brother team of Anthony and Joe Russo are better known for indie films such as “Welcome to Collinwood” and episodes of “Arrested Development” on TV, which makes for an unlikely CV to guide a superhero flick. The stunt work and visual effects are top drawer but blame must fall to the brothers for over-cutting that obscures much of what’s going and and lessens the intensity of the action.
Presumably the directors are on board to strengthen the character development, which they partially do especially in the back-and-forth flirtations between Steve and Natasha. These two make a good team — a guy who cannot tell a lie (or tells it so badly as to give away the game) and a woman mired in duplicity and malleable morality.
Joining the A-Team is Anthony Mackie in a nearly risible role as a former paratrooper who dons a giant pair of wings to become The Falcon, able to swoop around the sky. Joining the bad guys is a fearsome warrior called the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who turns out to be a link to Steve’s 1940s past.
The characters populating this film are better tuned than in most Marvel movies. Indeed the strange thing is that many are more intriguing than the Captain himself. Part of the problem is that Evans is a sturdy and steady actor but not a spectacular one. He lacks the comic twinkle of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark or the subtle depths of Johansson as Natasha.
There’s much going on every minute and not one of those minutes ever flags. The film is thoroughly enjoyable but you wish the filmmakers didn’t throw the ball to the effects guys so early in the third act. The outcome of these Marvel CG battles is a foregone conclusion so why rush to the predictable?
Most audiences would probably prefer more of the repartee between Evans and Johansson, more showdowns between Redford and Jackson and more meat-and-potatoes old-school action.
But the good news is that enough of this exists in “Winter Soldier” to make this an exciting chapter in the continuing saga of the Avengers. You may want to salute the screen.
Opens: April 4, 2014 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production: Marvel Studios
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Georges St-Pierre
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Michael Grillo, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Music: Henry Jackman
Special effects supervisor: Dan Sudick
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt
PG-13 rating, 136 minutes