Okay, bad news first: CAPTAIN AMERICA TOO is pretty much Marvel’s post-action movie. It has a good action movie type of plot: Captain America finds out his agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised, has to go on the run, has to figure out who he can trust and operate without his usual resources to uncover and defeat a vast conspiracy. He has to fight two different legendary warriors, both with some “just how badass is he?” buildup, and one of them even played by the great UFC champion Georges St-Pierre. The Captain gets continually chased and attacked by a crew of headset and vest wearing soldiers led by Frank Grillo of WARRIOR and THE GREY. There are many, many fight and chase scenes involving different fighting styles, fun acrobatics, various forms of transportation (motorcycle, SUV, robotic wings, helicarrier), weapons, super strength, super parkour, colorful technologies, interesting locations, clever gimmicks, epic destruction, badass dialogue and good character and plot motivation. Everything you want in a great action movie except…
…yeah, you guessed it. Motherfuckers shot it like a TAKEN movie! Fights shot mostly close up, camera wobbling around, choppy editing. Sometimes they’ll throw in a wide shot and flirt with total action clarity, but don’t get too excited, they’re gonna muck it up. Even if they’re doing a long shot of Captain America running across a boat taking out everyone he encountersthey’re gonna wobble and put objects in the way so you feel like you almost have a good view but some guy that’s taller than you keeps getting in the way.
It’s certainly not the worst action you’ve ever seen, but it’s got just a quantum too much solace, if you know what I mean. You can tell there’s cool stuff going on, but you have to work for it. You have to kinda squint and think about it and you can mostly calculate what they’re doing. (I saw it in 2D, I imagine the fake 3D version is worse, but you tell me.)
To be fair, there aren’t alot of comic book movies outside of the BLADEs that have outstanding fight scenes, and DARK KNIGHT, the gold standard for comic book pictures, does a worse job (except for the great vehicle-related action). The action style of WINTER SOLDIER doesn’t sink it, it’s just a shame because it’s the only thing holding it back. It comes so close to capturing the type of thrilling, smart but crowd-pleasing summer movies I love from back in the T2 days.
If it was shot better this would probly be the best of the official non-Blade Marvel movies. Even so, I think only THE AVENGERS nudges it out. So it’s mostly good news here.
I like the sort-of-grounded approach to this: they use the fast pace and quippy style of THE AVENGERS, and the established super powers, but they back away from aliens and magic for the time being (the exception being an unfortunate mid-credits teaser that makes AVENGERS 2 look like a cross between the first GI JOE movie and that other Chris Evans super power movie PUSH). I like when they ditch the old super hero formula and stick comic book characters in a different type of movie. Kinda like DARK KNIGHT was a police procedural and THE WOLVERINE was an ’80s action vehicle, this puts Captain America and his S.H.I.E.L.D. co-workers into a spy movie. They say it’s a ’70s conspiracy thriller like THE PARALLAX VIEW, but there’s no Space Needle so it’s more like a funner BOURNE movie.
By the way, if I’m ever looking for a fugitive I promise you I will look exclusively at couples kissing at malls or in parks. We’ve seen this evasion technique in every man-on-the-run movie ever made. When the gunmen pass you gotta grab the person you’re next to (and not in a relationship with, but perhaps there is an unspoken sexual tension between you) and surprise them with a passionate kiss. Either that or you say “Put your arm around me and kiss me right now!” It always works. This is how Saddam Hussein hid out for so long, he was sneaking off to the mall for Panda Express, and he would have a girl with him in case troops went by on the other escalator. When they found him his spiderhole was full of used Orange Julius cups and greasy Annie’s Pretzels wrappers. Well I’m not gonna fall for it, you guys.
I don’t know why they used that one, but for the most part the movie cliches in WINTER SOLDIER are souped up Marvel style. A Captain America foot chase involves busting through doors, denting walls, leaping from tall buildings and flying vehicles. A Nic Fury street ambush involves a car that responds to voice commands and has the capability of hovering. It’s grounded but not stuck on the ground.
By the way, the Captain isn’t resting on his laurels, he’s definitely learned some new fighting styles since getting unfrozen, ’cause I know they weren’t doing Brazilian Jiujitsu moves in WWII.
You know what I noticed, I think this is the first Marvel movie to hint at the existence of racism. When Nic Fury tells a story about his grandfather’s life as an elevator operator it implies a racial or at least class division in the world. When he sees white cops eyeing him in his SUV later he definitely suspects he’s being racially profiled. We see in his face the deep resentment of a man whose family went in just two generations from the guy who pushes the up and down buttons for the rich people in the building to the guy in charge of the fuckin helicarriers, and yet still be looked at as a possible car thief. It’s kinda cool that the color-blind casting of Jackson could end up adding some motivation that wasn’t there when it was David Hasselhoff, as good as he was.
That’s just a sidebar, but the main story is very political. The Marvel producer guy says it’s a coincidence that the story questions S.H.I.E.L.D.’s pre-emptive strikes and disregard for civil liberties at a time when the Obama administration and intelligence agencies are being criticized for overreach like that in real life. (He has not said whether it’s a coincidence that they use a method similar to something I had in my book Niketown, available now, buy yours today.) It doesn’t matter, though. It adds a little real world applicability to their sci-fi world, and some MAGNUM FORCE style questioning of the ethics of the previous installment (THE AVENGERS). Remember that S.H.I.E.L.D. casually used the same type of spy device that was so ethically problematic in THE DARK KNIGHT that Lucius Fox would’ve resigned if Batman hadn’t voluntarily destroyed it after one use.
When they first cast Chris Evans as Captain America it seemed kind of weird, because he was known for playing arrogant douchebags, and was really good at it. But now I completely buy him as Mr. Likably Earnest Wholesomeness. I love that being Captain America does not mean blindly following the government, but staying true to his values even as a vast unamerican empire grows around him. He’s the one who always questions S.H.I.E.L.D.’s approach. Even when sent on a mission to save hostages from pirates, which could be a cut-and-dry case, he notes that it’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship so “they’re not off course, they’re trespassing.”
I think RJ MacReady makes a good point in the comments about SPOILERISH a late-movie reveal and how it puts the blame for sacrificing liberty for security on an evil other instead of on ourselves. I agree that it lessens the blow of the movie as a political statement, but at least the traitors don’t go all killer-in-a-SCREAM-movie and switch to maniacal ranting once they’ve been revealed. They make their arguments for their world view and seem to believe that they’re pragmatic good guys.
The titleastical Winter Soldier (SPOILER Sebastian Stan from THE COVENANT, the guy I thought was Casper Van Dien in the trailer for THE FIRST AVENGER) fortunately takes a back seat to those very human villains, and is allowed to have some mystery to him. It’s a good concept, but when he’s not fighting we find out he’s just a blank, a human weapon. Intentionally so, but since he never develops a personality he feels more like setup for the next one than deserving title character. Also, not the greatest hairdo in my opinion. But at least we finally know who that guy was on the roof in the alternate ending to BLADE.
Don’t throw your shield, Blade! He’s really good at catching stuff!
I didn’t really think about this until recently, but the Marvel movies don’t have any great villains. Team DC has The Joker (multiple interpretations), Two Face, Bane, Danny DeVito’s Penguin, Ross L. Ghoul and if you count Catwoman and even Zod is pretty cool and that girl he has with him. Archie Comics, for their part, has Jughead. But Marvel only has Loki. He’s the popular one, at least I’ve noticed women love him in that Benedict Cumberbatch kinda way. He was pretty good but three movies is more than enough. Red Skull was not great, Jeff Bridges was dumb when he turned bad, the Mandarin turned out to not be the Mandarin, and if there are other villains I don’t remember them except for my favorite one, the one that nobody else likes, Mickey Rourke in IRON MAN 2. And I like him because he’s a weird Mickey Rourke performance, not because he has robotic whip hands or whatever it was. I guess the only great Marvel villains on film are Magneto and my girl Mystique, not owned by Marvel Films.
Therefore it was smart for this one to not go for traditional comic book type villains, more like normal spy movie ones, snakes in suits and the well-armed soldiers who work for them. I guess Grillo is a guy from the comics named “Crossbones,” but he works fine as just a badass mercenary in Kevlar, one who keeps on coming after him like the fuckin coyote.
Although I don’t for a second buy the conventional nerd wisdom that Batman and Superman and everybody now have to follow this unprecedented “shared universe” strategy of serialization, THE WINTER SOLDIER really takes advantage of it. They’re able to drop characters in and out as they need to. It’s not like LETHAL WEAPON sequels where they feel they have to force every previous character in and give them a storyline, but when needed they have them in their arsenal. Therefore, Scarlett Johansson’s Detective Natasha Blackwidow (introduced in IRON MAN 2, improved in THE AVENGERS) gets to be co-lead and get her best showcase so far. Nick Fury (who has had cameos in most of the Marvel movies and a central role in THE AVENGERS) is important in this one and gets his first full on action sequence. Agent Maria “Hill of Beans” Hill (from THE AVENGERS) can show up just for a little bit and it’s exciting because we know what her significance is without her having to be in more than a few scenes.
They use all of them ’cause they fit, but they’re okay leaving other people out. It didn’t even occur to me until I read it somewhere that John Hawkeye wasn’t in this one, but I think you’re supposed to assume that any Marvel movie he’s not in he’s standing by watching from a cherrypicker like he was when he was introduced in THOR.
Like THE AVENGERS this is a Marvel movie not weighed down by origin stories. These characters have all been set up already, and they hit the ground running. Even the new guy, Anthony Mackie as (veteran guy who has robotic bird wings), is refreshingly unshackled by beginnings. He just has a natural way of meeting and becoming buddies with Captain America, and then he tells us “oh by the way, this is what I do, I have these bird wings.” It is immediately clear that the bird wings are not as useful as an Iron Man suit, and fortunately he’s able to prove himself still useful without them.
By the way, congratulations to Anthony Mackie on a legitimately good character. I always see him in things and he’s never bad but I always want to like him more than I’m able to muster. Here I actually look forward to seeing him again. Bonus points for introducing the youth of America to the TROUBLE MAN soundtrack and causing it to be used in an important montage.
In a way this Marvel approach takes some of the strengths of television and puts them into movies. There are things that happen here that have serious ramifications for the ongoing story that will effect not only the next CAPTAIN AMERICA but also THE AVENGERS 2, THreeOR, INCREDIBLE HULK HAWAIIAN STYLE and whatever else they’re working on. It makes the events meaningful in a different way than in the endings of most movies, but with more spectacle and production value than TV.
And it’s a spectacle all right, but when I think back on it the first thing my mind goes to is the intimate opening scene where Captain America meets Birdman on his morning jog. It’s funny and it’s very human but also he has super powers. Good ol’ Captain is humble enough to think he has to introduce himself. Then smokin hot Agent Blackwidow pulls up in a badass black Corvette Stingray and makes fun of him, and Birdman laughs like “ha ha, this fuckin guy and his lifestyle.”
That’s really the secret, these are very likable characters and they have a good chemistry and like to tease each other while fighting side by side. A serious movie but with natural laughs, and lots of flip-kicks and superpunches. Just get Tony Stark working on a steadier camera rig and we got gold here fellas.
VERN WILL RETURN IN… NEED FOR SPEED REVIEW
If my warning about the action has you worried, here is a clip so you can see for yourself if it will bother you or not. This is an officially released clip of the beginning of CA’s fight with UFC’s MMA star GSP. You can see there are some nice head-to-toe shots mixed in, but in my opinion they need to hold those longer and not quickly jump to closeups. To be fair this also seemed worse on the big screen, so maybe if you like to sit in the back you’ll have an easier time with it than me.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.