|Review by Matthew Stogdon|
It’s growing increasingly difficult to review Marvel films.
I feel like a scratched record continually singing their praises. Over the last six years the comic-cum-film studio has established a solid formula for adapting some of their best loved properties and characters, combining solid action sequences, entertaining performances and interesting stories. I’m not saying they’re perfect, far from it, they still have a long way to go before being accepted as serious cinema but Marvel has managed to achieve something with superheroes that no other filmmaker has even come close to: evolving the genre.
As an avid reader of comics, I know there’s more to them than just capes and punching but for so long the general conception was that you could never step outside an origin story set in a single city. Through the last few MCU releases we’ve sampled science fiction, fantasy, war drama and now political thriller, all with a superhero twist – and it’s this refusal to be categorised and compartmentalised which is a real credit to these productions.
Discovered and defrosted by SHIELD, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America played by Chris Evans) is now a soldier without an army or a war to fight. Following his involvement in the battle of New York (see Avengers or every single bloody episode of Agents Of SHIELD) Rogers is effectively seen as SHIELD property and gets to work protecting American interests.
Over the last few years he’s been working with a covert team codenamed STRIKE and fellow Avenger, Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow, portrayed once again by Scarlett Johansson), running missions and generally following orders passed down by Nick Fury [Jackson].
The film opens with a routine mission, the result of which irks the Captain when he discovers that members of his team have separate (some would say conflicting) objectives. Feeling out of place in an organisation built on espionage, Rogers tours his own exhibits at the Smithsonian and even meets with veteran and PTSD counsellor Sam Wilson [Mackie].
Underneath all of this, a dark and twisted plot has been developing and after an attack on a high ranking SHIELD agent, the pieces begin moving quickly and suddenly Rogers finds himself not only a pawn but a target. The film then kicks into high gear, resembling more of a cold war spy drama than a straightforward action flick.
With its poignant exploration of the political and militaristic regimes that have shaped the first decade of this century, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a slap-in-the-face wake up call for audiences; specifically because it’s only when we’re given an external perspective that we really analyse the things we cherish and protect.
In the West, we consider our freedoms and liberties the envy of the world but the price we pay to maintain them is extraordinary. I’m not even talking about the big stuff like bugged phone calls and international invasions, I’m talking about personal compromise: Facebook, Instagram, Netflix. Our lives, preferences and choices spread electronically across the globe, believing we are volunteering select information willingly and freely, only to discover said information isn’t as secure as we once believed and our options are more limited than advertised.
This is the world that Steve Rogers has found himself in, one of endless compromise and subterfuge. A world where the enemy could be anyone and those calling the shots are equally shadowed and mysterious. For a series of films about bad guys trying to take over the world it shouldn’t feel like such a bold move but when you remove the camp, moustache-twirling villain, it suddenly becomes very real and action farce becomes a subtle and surprisingly mature political statement.
One of the defining characteristics of the Captain America character is his unwavering black and white ethical and moral spectrum. There is good and evil and that’s the end of it. He has little time or tolerance for a world of all engulfing grey. This is the hardest element for both comic writers and filmmakers to convey. In the wrong hands, this comes off as arrogant, condescending and nauseatingly naïve. But from writer Ed Brubaker’s run in print and Chris Evan’s portrayal on film, you genuinely believe this man is incorruptible.
He’s everything America could and should be: strong, honest, tolerant.. a leader. SHIELD, on the other hand, is everything America has become. Maybe it’s the current political climate or simply a credit to the acting but the entire cast have a weight to their expressions, a shared look of disappointment and shame.
As Cap catches up on the highlights and horrors of the last few decades (he keeps a list of key points) he can only feel regret that he wasn’t there to help guide and shape it and desperately wonders if the freedom he was fighting for was worth it and even achieved. Emoting all this while delivering energetic fight sequences is an incredible achievement and Evans continues to be one of the finest credible pillars of the Marvel cinematic universe.
Which brings us to one of the weaker links. Natasha Romanoff is such a fascinating multifaceted character and I’ve been both surprised and disappointed that her appearances in Iron Man 2 and even Avengers were not on par with the male leads. Here she’s fleshed out, given more of a personality, her skill is evident but with it is an adaptable facade and humour that makes her a captivating mystery.
Then there’s the inclusion of Anthony Mackie as Wilson/Falcon, who exudes infinite respect for Rogers as a fellow soldier, rather than holding him aloft like a gilded trophy or aiming him like a weapon as so many others have. From his introduction in the very first frame to his appearance in the final scenes, he’s a solid addition that reminds us not everyone in this shared fictional world has to be super powered to be a true hero.
Speaking of new inclusions, Robert Redford’s performance as Alexander Pierce is sublime. It’s been a long time since Redford has displayed anything other than lacklustre mediocrity (I openly admit I missed All Is Lost) but he brings a sense of authority to the story and elevates what is effectively a simple supporting role; sort of like Marlon Brando in Superman: The Movie.
Of course, all this is without addressing the second titular character. Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier is a spectacular threat. I love the character from the comics and since the announcement of a live-action Cap film years ago, I’ve been waiting for a strong Winter Soldier presence. Now that we have it, I’m not at all disappointed. The look and feel of the character isn’t exactly hard to replicate (long hair and metal arm) but the desperate confusion behind his eyes, which quickly gives way to a blood-chilling death stare, is keenly impressive. And again, similarly to Evans, Stan has to achieve all this while moving with extreme skill and precision like a merciless anti-Cap. My only complaint would be the running time (approx. two and a quarter hours) can’t accommodate more Winter Soldier.
CGI: the utilisation of computers to generate images that are simply impossible to synthesise.
As a filmmaker and critic, this is what I earnestly believe. If you can build it, shoot it, make it or replicate it there’s no reason for CGI. Seemingly, this is an opinion shared by the Russos, as every stage of this movie’s production design is marvellous. The costumes are simple yet respectful of the source material. The sets and locations are iconic and expansive. The props are a beautiful plausible mix of technological gadgetry, high-powered weaponry and comic book fantasy. The list goes on. Sure there are plenty of larger than life visual sequences that have computer enhanced imagery (not to mention some incredibly simple and subtle adjustments to age and weight) but the majority of this movie looks and feels completely real and for that reason, we suspend disbelief for the more grandiose developments.
But as with every Marvel release, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Once again, we come back to the same two points that really cripple these fine films.
Firstly, we have the score. When it was announced that Henry Jackman was producing the music for Winter Soldier, I was giddy. His work on X-Men: First Class alone was superb and most importantly memorable. Outside of Brian Tyler’s Iron Man 3 score and Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme, everything’s been a bit bland; perfectly serviceable but lacking in definition. Say what you want about Man Of Steel but it’s difficult to argue the quality of Zimmer’s score. Same problem stands here. There are some splendid arrangements and melodies but overall the finished product lacks real presence.
The second point, which may be contested by almost everyone reading this, is the ever expanding Marvel cinematic universe. To date, Marvel have done a stellar job stringing their films together and introducing new characters with supporting or cameo roles in preceding films but by placing two separate additional scenes in the middle and after the end credits, they’re starting to pull centre focus.
This leads to people leaving the cinema talking about the new characters in a final one minute sequence (rather than the two plus hour film they’ve just watched), not to mention the constant whining about why every conflict can’t simply be resolved by The Avengers. In other words, audiences are getting greedy and complaisant. Furthermore, the jump-on factor is stretching far into the distance.
In decades to come, if people want to get up to speed with Black Panther 4, they are going to need to go all the way back to 2008 and watch Iron Man to fully appreciate how everything came into being. We’re spoilt and subsequently fawning over the minutest details rather than appreciating the fact that we have not one but two really good films about a guy dressed like a flag flinging a metal shield at bad guys.
With Guardians Of The Galaxy on the horizon, shaping up to be an amazing and fun cosmic flick, not to mention the guaranteed box office powerhouse that is The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Marvel’s reach is quite frankly unparalleled. And if we can expect more scripts, acting and direction of the calibre demonstrated here, it’s hard to imagine a.) an end to their reign or b.) how anyone else could challenge them. Which, as a comic fan makes me nervous.. because what I’ve just described sounds a lot like the origin story of a super villain. Dun dun duuuun! Only time will tell.
Located in the East of England, Matthew Stogdon has been reviewing films for nearly a decade and making his own films with Cheesemint Productions for half as many years. His very active Twitter account is @stoghz and you can read all of his reviews at https://www.theredrighthand.co.uk