Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Captain America: The Winter Soldier RETRO-REVIEW

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When I first started this Retro-Review series, I think this was the movie I was most excited for.  After all, before Captain America: Civil War completely changed the status quo and elevated the MCU to a whole new level, this movie was changing the game and elevating the MCU to a level it hadn’t reached since The Avengers—and arguably it even exceeded the level of The Avengers.  Just about every aspect of this movie works perfectly, from the character development and relationship elements to the stunt work and choreography.  This movie doesn’t make nearly as much use of computer-generated effects as most other MCU movies, but it really doesn’t need CGI to create convincing effects (other than the helicarriers and Falcon’s flight effects).  On the whole, there is really nothing in this movie that doesn’t work spectacularly.

Much of the credit has to be given to the tone of the movie.  The Russo brothers worked all the best elements of the espionage/political thriller genre into this movie, and it is fantastic.  The first time watching this movie, the twists and turns and changing loyalties keep you guessing almost to the end.  The nurse across the hall turns out to be S.H.I.E.L.D., S.H.I.E.L.D. turns out to be Hydra, Fury had his own ship hijacked, Zola is alive, Bucky is the Winter Soldier (okay, that one was pretty obvious to anyone familiar with the comics, but still…)…  Even after multiple viewings I still enjoy the journey of Steve’s discovery of just how corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D. really is.  Ultimately the only characters that you can feel confident in are Steve, Sam, and Natasha.  However, early on Pierce positions himself as a presumptive ally of both Fury and Steve who is simply misguided in sending S.T.R.I.K.E. against Steve.

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The Hydra reveal is such an incredible and unexpected moment, especially after we had been led to believe from the beginning of Iron Man that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a benevolent government agency that wants to keep everyone safe from the unknown—even if their World Security Council does have a tendency to “Nuke first, ask questions later.”  Considering that I really got into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the beginning, it was a huge shock to discover that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated by Hydra.  And watching the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents fighting each other because they weren’t sure who was on which side was a good inclusion.  The movie can’t focus too much on the regular agents’ reactions to Hydra, but it gives just enough to make us curious—and want to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., of course!

None of this would work without Steve Rogers, of course.  Steve’s firm moral center and innate “goodness” are what really keeps the movie grounded.  Steve is still very much a “man out of time” who does not understand the modern world.  This starts off as a clever joke when Steve reveals his list of things to learn about in order to get caught up on what he missed.  However, the joke wears off very quickly when the World War II-era Greatest Generation icon comes face-to-face with a post-9/11 America’s national security “needs.”  Steve’s firm moral center declares Project Insight to be “fear” instead of “freedom,” while Fury sees it is nothing more than the natural progression of the events started by The Avengers.

I love that Steve’s response to Project Insight is to visit his own Smithsonian exhibit.  It’s not that he doesn’t know any of it; he simply needs the reminder of who he really is and what he really stands for, in contrast to the shifts and changes in society since his era.  His two reminders of who he is are that Smithsonian exhibit and Peggy Carter, so it makes sense for his to return to those constants in a moment of confusion and soul-searching.  And the moment with Peggy is especially touching for the bittersweet tinge to it:  in his first movie they were very slowly drifting toward each other up until he went into the ice.  She had to move on (which we saw in Agent Carter season1), but he never got that opportunity.  So he is still dealing with the regrets and missed opportunities, while she has learned to accept her fate (as evidenced by her eventual marriage).  And yet, this is also the movie which starts Steve on the path of accepting that he can never be with Peggy and moving on with someone new.  At first this is played off with a laugh as Natasha suggests about half the female S.H.I.E.L.D. agents as potential dates for Steve.  However, when he asks Sharon (not knowing she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent assigned to protect him) for a coffee, that’s the first indication that he is himself ready to move on.  And I think the best part of that relationship is how little of it there actually is.  Though it is hinted at, they are content to save it for the next movie instead of pushing another love interest on Steve so quickly.

The relationships between all the characters are explored very well.  This begins with Sam and Steve “running together” around Washington D.C. before bonding over the shared experience of returning home to war.  At first Steve is ready to cut and run as soon as Sam mentions waking up from the ice, but Sam slowly brings Steve out of his hesitancy, to the point that Steve trusts him enough after 2 interactions to seek sanctuary at Sam’s house when they are on the run from Hydra.  About the only thing in this friendship that I have to question (nitpicking) is why Steve decides to trust him to much so quickly.  I have no problem accepting that Sam would trust Steve—I mean, who doesn’t trust Captain America???—but after even S.H.I.E.L.D. turned on them, why would Steve trust someone he’s only met a couple times?

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Steve’s friendship with Bucky also gets a lot of good development, both expanding on the history and pushing it forward into the future.  We find out just how close they were growing up (to the point that Bucky invited Steve to live with them after his mom died).  And at the same time we see Steve’s reaction to learning that Bucky is now a brainwashed Hydra assassin.  His brotherly love for Bucky is so great that he absolutely refuses to kill him.  When Bucky interferes with his mission, Steve fights him enough to complete the mission, but he would prefer to leave Bucky able to shoot him over completely incapacitating him.  And after Steve completes the mission, he refuses to leave without Bucky.  In fact, their friendship is so powerful that it is even able to cut through some of Bucky’s programming.  This friendship really gives the movie a lot of heart and depth.

From a technical standpoint all of the fight sequences and effects come off very well.  I love how well this movie displays what it means for Captain America to be a “super-soldier.”  His overall health and strength are greater than a normal man.  Couple that with years and years of training and he can cut his way through a boat-full of hostiles in a matter of minutes, and an elevator-full of Hydra agents in a matter of seconds.  He also has the intelligence and experience to recognize the Hydra ambush in the elevator before they can spring it.  The fights are all choreographed beautifully—even the one at the beginning when Steve takes out “Batroc the Leaper.”

I also absolutely love all the new technology that they show off.  The “lightsaber” (Fury’s cutting tool) and facial mask are both expanded on by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Fury’s SUV has a ton of awesome features.  The one that I liked the most, however, is the one they didn’t show:  Fury actually tells the SUV to take off (but the VTOL capability has been damaged).  In other words, Fury is actually driving a “hover-car,” something of which S.H.I.E.L.D. made extensive use in the comics.  I’m a little disappointed that   Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t used this at all yet.  Maybe they will in season 4…

Image Courtesy www.comicbook.com
One of the biggest concerns with the MCU movies is always in how they manage to integrate the shared universe elements.  However, The Winter Soldier does an excellent job of this.  By and large the references to other MCU properties are done in passing or played up for laughs (Iron Man stopping by for a child’s birthday party is one, and Iron Man getting an “up-close” look at the original helicarrier’s turbines is another).  The HISHE [] for this movie (among others) did make the argument that they should have called in the Avengers, but it actually makes a lot of sense to me for them to avoid the Avengers after discovering that Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D.  Considering how well Hydra had placed its operatives within S.H.I.E.L.D., there was no guarantee that Hydra wouldn’t be watching the Avengers.  If they went to Tony or contacted Thor, it’s a pretty good bet that they would have been tracked and captured almost immediately.  Instead, they go to someone they hardly know who is completely unconnected from S.H.I.E.L.D. (Sam).

There really aren’t any negatives to this movie.  Everything works extremely well.  In fact, the only negative comment I could find while rewatching the movie for this review was “There are an awful lot of coincidences.”  And that is absolutely true:  Steve just happens to go running with the one guy with a skill set that will be useful later on, the Winter Soldier anticipates Fury’s escape well enough to ambush him after he lost the rest of the assault team, Steve and Natasha somehow find Zola, Bucky’s mask falls off just in time for Steve to recognize him, Hill just happens to position herself in the capture team to be one of 2 guards on the prisoners, the van holding the prisoners is at the back of the convoy so they can escape without anyone seeing, Sam manages to jump headfirst out of the building and miraculously land in the helicopter hovering several floors below without getting chopped up or cracking his skull… and those are just off the top of my head!  There’s no escaping the number of coincidences that happen to keep the plot moving forward.  At the same time, any movie is bound to have a lot of coincidental circumstances which must happen for the plot to move forward.

All told, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably my favorite MCU movie prior to Civil War.  It is arguably the one with the least flaws, and just as arguably the one which propels the narrative forward the most.  It certainly set the bar high for the future movies!

Is this your favorite MCU movie?  What is your favorite part?  Let me know in the comments!

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