The last 10 years have brought us more comic book movies than you can shake an enchanted hammer at. Geeks, like me, used to wait several years to enjoy superhero cinema. Not anymore. At most, one only has to wait six months to enjoy the latest big-budget comic-book blockbuster. During the summer, it’s merely a matter of weeks. This glut of like-product would be more troubling if the quality of the movies didn’t seem to still be improving. The latest Marvel movie may have changed that.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” may very well be the best comic-book movie to date. It’s lightning in a bottle: the perfect combination of mega-budget thrills with a smart, well-articulated plot. It fuses the over-the-top spectacle of comics with a real-world espionage plot.
Captain America (Chris Evans) is a man out of time. Frozen at the tail end of World War II and revived in modern times where he struggles to assimilate, he’s a relic from a bygone era trying to find purpose by doing what he know best: being a soldier. As an agent of the super secret spy agency, SHIELD, he strives to serve his country proudly. But this isn’t the nation he fought so valiantly for in the ‘40s.
The United States is now a juggernaut of military might, developing super weapons that makes the good captain nervous. His fellow avenger, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is more comfortable with the cloak-and-dagger elements. There’s a philosophical difference between the two that defines the movie. Captain America fights for freedom; Black Widow works in the shadows to protect citizens’ interests. It makes for an interesting pairing.
Both are valiantly trying to shed a heavy past. For the star-spangled hero, that past comes back to haunt him in a very real way. A dangerous assassin named the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Shaw) surfaces and tries to murder top agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) amidst a brewing conspiracy. It turns out a super evil organization has been lying dormant waiting to take over the super-powered militaristic arm of the U.S. Government. Captain America goes from hero to fugitive in a very short span of time.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” outstandingly blends action and espionage. It’s the first superhero film that feels like it has evolved past the traditional comic book movie framework to deliver something rewarding. The cast emotes with earnest performances from Evans, Johannson and, newcomer to the franchise, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon. There’s also some great turns by veterans like Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford, the latter of whom plays the kind of chilling politician that makes life-and-death decisions with cold detachment.
The film revels in real-world themes. On paper, that sounds like a recipe for disaster. The main character walks around clad in red, white and blue, espousing the virtues of truth, justice and the American way. Trying to introduce themes dealing with whistle-blowers, like Edward Snowden, and the circumvention of our personal privacies in the digital-age, juxtaposed with a hero known for carrying a shield and wearing minuteman calf-high boots, seems impossible. However, the effectiveness of the plot surprises.
Playing with the iconography and the nationalism of a hero like Captain America constitutes the trajectory for which these comic-book films should be striving. There are decades of quality stories waiting to be adapted. It doesn’t always have to be about punching Hitler in the face or saving the world from alien invaders. There are plenty of grounded stories waiting to be told that could transform the comic book movie. The fact is Marvel made a Captain America movie that makes the character relevant. That is no easy task.
“Winter Soldier” especially impresses by proving that comic-book movies haven’t peaked. In fact, they seem to be getting better. As new filmmakers are brought into the fold and treat the material seriously, we get superhero movies that abandon kitsch in favor of good stories with high-octane action. The Russo Brothers, best-known for television work like “Community,” deliver not just the best comic book-movie to date, but one of the best big-budget action films I’ve seen in years. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is an absolute marvel from start to finish.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo