Thursday, April 3, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dirs. Anthony and Joe Russo

2.5 out of 5

Patience is a virtue when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The long-term nature of the Marvel movie franchise is, by now, common knowledge to savvy moviegoers and casual fans alike, a development that protects a film like Captain America: The Winter Soldier from a more rigorous scrutiny.  A pedestrian addition to the MCU canon, Cap's latest adventure epitomizes the concept of these interlocking movies as a exercise in anticipation for the next chapter, sometimes at the expense of creating a dramatically satisfying stand-alone piece of entertainment.  And this happens to be one of the times where Marvel sells the sizzle reel while making the audience think it's getting the steak.

Set almost entirely in Washington, D.C., Winter Soldier centers on Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his post-Avengers life as an operative for S.H.I.E.L.D., the secretive multinational defense organization headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, finally given more to do than just glare and issue orders).  While on a mission to ostensibly rescue a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel hijacked by Algerian pirates, Rogers observes his colleague Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) collect data from the ship's computer.  Rogers begins to question the moral rectitude of an organization that's seemingly spying on itself - fears that Fury does nothing to assuage when he briefs Cap on a new global surveillance program to be carried out by three new computer-controlled, heavily-armed helicarriers.  A security crisis promptly places Rogers under suspicion of treason, and soon he and Romanoff are on the run, trying to evade the reach of senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and clear Captain America's name.

Placing the most naive member of Marvel's cinematic stable of superheroes at the epicenter of a political thriller is a clever premise, but unfortunately one that's not given enough room to breathe.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels crammed with subplots and characters that add to the spectacle but do little in terms of story cohesion: there's Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), an American military veteran and ally of Rogers with access to a cutting-edge flight suit; Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent whose cover is blown immediately after she's introduced onscreen; and the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a genetically-enhanced assassin who periodically drops in to shoot people and glower at the Captain and generally look like the cover of a futuristic Assassin’s Creed video game. 

You'd think that the nemesis would earn his subtitle, but Winter Soldier is intent on masking intentions and emotions for the sake of a few plot twists: some interesting, some terribly telegraphed.  Outside of those moments, however, it's a lot like climbing an expository ladder - one that often finds Captain America retracting his past and makes the film feel like it's covering old ground.  Last November, I praised Thor: The Dark World for being an outside-the-box extension of the Marvel brand; Captain America returns the company to business as usual, creating copies of past successes and relying on sideways allusions and we'll-get-back-to-that-later teasers to give the illusion of story propulsion.  

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, known mostly for their work in the world of TV sitcoms, are tentative action helmers who don't exactly put their stamp on the Marvel house style, but there are glimpses of their prowess - they squeeze more tension and humor out of Fury under siege in his souped-up SUV than in any of the other standard fight-and-chase sequences.  In the end, maybe a fairly inconclusive film like Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the price of watching an ambitious cinematic universe unfold.  Sometimes you've just got to wait for the good stuff.

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