Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Captain America: Winter Soldier Review

I'm not a big comic book reader, but I do enjoy the characters and the stories. I pick up enough facts through my various nerd hobbies that I feel like I have a vague understanding of most of the popular characters (and even some of the not so popular ones.) Like most, I've enjoyed the recent boom in Marvel movies; in addition to being pretty solid comic-to-film adaptations, they're almost all pretty great action movies in general.

(As always, more thoughts after the break)

One franchise in particular has been great to see make it onto the big screen: Captain America. I'm not really sure why, but that character has resonated with me more and more over the years. I think it's the combination of a consistent sense morality combined with down-to-earth powers and a bit of inherent tragedy that make the character consistently compelling (when he's presented properly.) Or maybe its that the shield throwing tricks always put a smile on my face.

Whatever it is that draws me to the character, Captain America: The First Avenger was one of the lead-in movies to The Avengers I was most interested in, and it did not disappoint. I thought it did an excellent job of setting up the character for what he would be in the Avengers (steadfast leader, moral ground,) while also setting up a narrative and a character for Captain America that can exist outside of The Avengers.

Before I go off on a tangent, let me just say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is both an excellent sequel to the first Captain America movie, and a good follow up to the meta-narrative put in place as part of The Avengers. It does a great job of fleshing out Captain America and Black Widow, redefining S.H.I.E.L.D. in the context of the "Marvel movie universe," and it introduces The Winter Soldier and The Falcon in forms that are remarkably not hokey (given how easy it would have been for either or both to be cheesy.) It is in a lot of ways a perfect "comic book movie": not only does it do a very good job respecting the source material, but the story itself really feels like a comic book brought to life. Highly recommended to anyone that enjoyed the previous movie or The Avengers.

Now, onto that tangent: the overwhelming success of The Avengers lead to every existing franchise getting a green light for another sequel, or at least a very enthusiastic "go ahead" for those that may have had sequels in the pipeline. They've been varying degrees of successful, with The Winter Soldier being probably the most successful of the immediate sequels, for reasons I think are inherent to the comic that inspires each franchise.

Iron Man 3 was an okay movie, but kind of aimless; I feel like that movie is saved by the passion of the actors, which isn't something I'd have expected to ever say about a comic book based movie. The first movie did an excellent job of setting up the franchise (while also being pretty re-watchable) and the second movie does a fantastic job of escalating the premise of the first movie while adding in new components. The third movie feels like it lacks a really good sense of identity or direction, and as a result the film feels like it doesn't have any real lasting impact or impression.

Which is super weird looking back on it, because I don't remember anything in the movie coming across as especially underwhelming or bad. The plot kind of is until it isn't, and as a result Iron Man 3 is much less impressive than it's predecessors (even if it isn't actually that bad.) I think a big part of the problem with Iron Man 3 is that they couldn't really find a narrative thread from the comic books to really tug on. It has a lot of callbacks and spiritual nods, but it more feels like the writers were trying to sneak in as many cool Iron Man moments as they could before they lost Downey Jr.'s contract for standalone movies instead of bringing an iconic Iron Man story to the big screen. I'm not familiar enough with Iron Man to know if that's due to a lack of great story lines from the comics, or if the writers just ran into other issues, but the net result is a movie that isn't bad, but isn't great.

Thor 2 met with middling reviews and reception (though I'm sure it did just fine at the box office overall.) I have a friend who swears that the movie is actually pretty good, but I don't really have an interest in seeing it. I think the Thor franchise has an issue that will keep it from ever becoming a reliable source of sequels: Thor is a character that thrives on the fantastic, the cosmic, the grandiose. All of the Thor stories that really interest me in the character (from a super outsider's perspective) are all things that I can also see as being a nightmare to market: cosmic scale conflicts, battles between eternal Asgardian foes, ancient artifacts wrecking havoc, etc.

The first Thor movie does a great job of giving you just a taste of that in the beginning, then pulling things back to something easily relatable/marketable by focusing on Thor's relationships with normal people. However, in order to keep me interested in Thor movies, I need stuff like what Chris Sims describes as the intro to Thor #337 in his Ask Chris #190 article. That intro presupposes a story that is huge, sweeping, and awe inspiring. Something you'd need gods to solve.

I don't doubt that Thor 2 tries to do something like that (everything I've heard about the movie's plot makes it sound like they're swinging high,) but the general impression that I get is that the execution didn't really work out (though as with Iron Man 3 that may be primarily due to writing/production issues independent of anything else.) I think the biggest issue that Thor runs into isn't a lack of stories; its a lack of budget. Thor had the virtue of mostly taking place on good 'ol Earth, but the further and further you get out into the infinite cosmos of the Marvel Universe, the more zeroes you add onto the end of the production cost. Done right a Thor movie would probably run the same cost as The Avengers, but with a much more narrow appeal so the ROI is probably less. I really like the idea of Thor (the first movie was great fun,) but I'm not sure how many standalone movies they can really wring out of that property (though I'd love to be wrong.)

The Winter Soldier seemed to benefit tremendously from: 1) being much more grounded than Iron Man or Thors (i.e. cheaper on the SFX budget,) and 2) having some strong, simple narrative threads the writers can adapt to the big screen. The core tenets of Captain America can be written broadly enough to appeal to a broad range of ideals, and they're timeless enough that you can adapt a character from 1950 to still work in 2014. Hell, even the idea of The Winter Soldier translated pretty well to a modern setting; something I was really dubious about considering it's a character steeped in Cold War fears.

I think the thing that makes a Captain America movie easier to make is that you can get away with making essentially a really fantastic (in the literal sense) spy movie. Take a Bond film, ratchet the consequences up a few notches (though those usually have pretty dire consequences so you don't need to do much there,) step the fight scenes up to include more superhuman moves, change out the next gen tech for invincible shields and bionic arms (still not outside a Bond movie,) and you pretty much have The Winter Soldier. Its a pretty clean formula, and I think having that solid base allowed the writers and production team to flesh out the other aspects of the movie that made it feel complete.

That's an extremely long winded way of saying that The Winter Soldier succeeded where the more recent Marvel movie sequels (specifically: The Avengers related franchises) have failed. It created an interesting narrative that works independent of The Avengers, can easily tie back into The Avengers 2, and can continue on it's on course while still being interesting (this movie all but stated: "See you guys for Captain America 3!") It feels like a lot of factors play into that, one of which being that I think Captain America naturally lends itself to a film franchise better than his comic book brethren. Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk are probably capable of more spectacular movies, but that spectacle comes at a price (both practical and metaphorical) that can more easily throw those movies off (though in fairness Iron Man did really well until that final mis-step.)

It is for that reason that I'm conflicted about the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy. On one hand, it's all the worst complications of Thor dialed up even further - crazy high special effects cost, hard to immediately relate to (at least Thor is based on Norse gods,) nebulous plot, lack of familiarity even for those aware of comics in general. But on the other hand it feels like the folks behind that movie realized that they're working with a difficult property to sell and have approached the project in a unique way: adventures of a band of super-capable space miscreants/assholes. I can't help but be drawn to it, and I sincerely hope that if this Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being a good/great movie Marvel knows not to try and catch lightning twice (no chance of that happening, but I can hope.)

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