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Thursday
Apr032014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Has superhero fatigue set in? Six years have passed since the first “Iron Man” film, with each year seemingly more crammed with costumed heroes than the last, so one has to wonder how much longer this will last before the subgenre implodes on itself. If “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is any indication, it still has some legs, though it’s clear that we’re crossing into “been-there-done-that” territory at this point.

Although it had its detractors, I would argue that 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” is one of the best in the recent Marvel canon, right up there with “Iron Man” because the film showcased the type of courageousness and nobleness one would expect from a hero. Captain America didn’t fight for any other reason than because it was the right thing to do and his big heart and selfless desires—to fight and even die for his country, if necessary—validated him. He was a character that was easy to root for and love. Thematically, the film didn’t have much going on, but as a character study, it worked, which forgave its thematic thinness. “The Winter Soldier” introduces more themes, many of which pertain to today’s world due, in part, to its modern setting, but neglects to follow through on them. That is the film’s biggest deficiency.

The story takes place in Washington, D.C. where the Captain, also known as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to his new life as a part of the Avengers working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage agency that deals primarily with superhuman threats. S.H.I.E.L.D., under the leadership of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) is about to launch Operation Insight, which will place machine gun mounted helicarriers in the sky that are designed to protect the country’s citizens. The Captain doesn’t agree with this operation and, after a crazy turn of events, including a violent attack on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the possibility of a S.H.I.E.L.D. compromise, he is branded a fugitive. So while being hunted by the mysterious Winter Soldier, he finds himself on the lam with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), vowing to uncover whatever plan is about to unfold and put a stop to it.

And it’s with the introduction of those helicarriers that the film introduces its themes. The Captain disagrees with the very idea, arguing that launching the operation would only scare people into giving up their freedoms (“This isn’t freedom; this is fear,” he explicitly says at one point). To him, placing these eyes in the sky, always peering below for potential threats, compromises the freedom and right to privacy America’s citizens deserve. In a post-9/11 world where phone tapping and other surveillance measures are commonplace, these ideas couldn’t be more relevant.

The film even questions the notion that joining the military is the greatest thing you can do. While the Captain still considers the well-being of the country’s citizens his number one priority, he talks about how joining today, as opposed to during the World War II era he grew up and found his patriotism in, isn’t the same. The moral compass of “the greatest generation” is now gone and we instead “protect” our citizens with fear and intimidation. In a strange way, the film supports serving your country through activism rather than enlisting in a time of government corruption and unconstitutional actions.

As intriguing as these themes are, “The Winter Soldier,” unfortunately, drops them all too quickly. Actual insight is limited and most come through deep exposition rather than narrative exploration. Instead, the film rests on the laurels of being yet another Marvel movie. The flip side to this somewhat disappointing coin is that, luckily, the majority of those Marvel movies, while not all great, have been pretty solid. The action here, while certainly not as bombastic as “The Avengers,” is serviceable, if a little clunky. While some of the action is fluid and fun, other moments are too shaky and hectic. The camera likes to zoom in occasionally and follow each punch and kick to their fast paced conclusions and doing so sometimes makes the action a bit hard to follow.

One welcome addition in this installment is the greater focus on Black Widow. Not much more than a periphery character in the previous films, she has an expanded role here and she is allowed to come into her own. She’s a more complicated person than her previous appearances might suggest and she has to battle her own motivations between doing what she’s ordered to do and doing what’s right. The bond she forms with the Captain doesn’t really lead anywhere if looking for an emotional arc, but it works nonetheless.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” will do exactly what filmgoers will expect of it and in that regard, it’s a success. Most won’t care about its thematic inconsistencies and had they not been included in the first place, one couldn’t fault it, but bringing them up and dropping them so quickly afterwards only to bring them up again in a cheesy late movie speech is a missed opportunity. This film had the potential to be one of the more intelligent, insightful movies in the Marvel canon, but ends up compromising its ideas for more of the same old Marvel action. It’s just a good thing that Marvel action is still as impressive as it is. But while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is easily recommendable right now, push this back a few years, when superhero fatigue has done more than show glimpses of itself, and it might not be.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier receives 3.5/5

Tuesday
May012012

The Avengers

It’s been building to this for years now, ever since Tony Stark first suited up to be Iron Man. Since then, we’ve had a sequel to that film, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, each working as a set up to this moment, when all of them are brought together to form The Avengers. Expectations are high and if early reviews are to be believed, they’ll be met, but I have a sneaking suspicion that in retrospect, opinions of it won’t be nearly as good. The Avengers is no different than any other superhero movie, except there are six of them, which turns out to be too much for one film. Eye candy notwithstanding, The Avengers is tonally inconsistent and character growth is all but missing, making it one of the most disappointing and shallow experiences of the year.

The main villain of the film is Thor’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Using an artifact called the Tesseract, he has opened a portal through space and has arrived at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his team of scientists are working. After causing a bit of destruction and forcing agent Clint Barton, better known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), to take his side, he sets off to start a war. Fearful of what could come, Fury forms a team of Earth’s greatest heroes to fend Loki off, which includes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

The Avengers has a number of problems, but its biggest is that too much of the film’s enjoyment is supposed to come from the novelty of seeing all these heroes fight side by side against evil and even that proves to be too difficult a task to pull off. Although the finale is unquestionably fun to watch (particularly thanks to the Hulk), the film misses a clear opportunity to make this team a single unit. Aside from one instance where Iron Man bounces a projectile of Captain America’s shield, the powers of the heroes are never incorporated together. Instead, Iron Man is flying through the sky, the Hulk is jumping here and there off buildings, Thor is fighting his brother and Captain America is on the ground doing his own thing. They’re isolated so much it begins to feel more like little snippets of each hero’s movies have been cut together and less like the cohesive team experience we were promised.

When they are all together, they’re not fighting (unless it’s with each other), but these characters have been established differently in their own films and they don’t particularly mesh well. Iron Man, for instance, is the funny one, the one who always has a quip ready to spout out when confronted by someone else. In his own films, where the tone could be established as a singular trait, that’s totally fine, but when opposite the seriousness of Thor or Captain America, he doesn’t work, and vice versa. In one particular instance, Captain America is struggling with the idea that the he was frozen solid for 70+ years and everyone he knew, everyone he fought alongside with in the war, is now dead. He’s unfamiliar with the modern world and is finding his predicament difficult to handle. The movie then directly transitions to Stark in his playboy pad bouncing jokes off left and right. There’s an uncomfortable flow in The Avengers—it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serious, tense action film or a silly, self aware comic book movie—and it pervades the entire thing.

There’s also a distinct lack of character progression in The Avengers. While it could be argued that the other films addressed that issue by building them up to this point, it doesn’t excuse the thin writing here, which is surprising given how gifted writer/director Joss Whedon is with writing characters. They all end up pretty much where they were before (despite some poorly implemented middle ground where the characters struggle over the death of a character with whom they hardly had any interaction), which is precisely the problem. The story moves forward, so the characters must as well, but they don’t. Any minor progression is forced in arbitrarily and usually through quick lines of dialogue. Thor says at one point he used to court war, but now shuns it, as if that’s all you need for character growth.

Now, is The Avengers still worth seeing? Sure it is, but only for the most basic, visceral reasons. It’ll get your adrenaline pumping, but emotionally and narratively, there isn’t much going on. Never mind the useless, ugly and sometimes imperceptible 3D that dims the picture; when it gets to that final stretch of film, you’ll be won over, just as I was. Without it, the movie fails. That, of course, makes it a clear case of style over substance, which is what the public is calling for, so I guess in that regard it succeeds, but consider this. Both stylistically and narratively, The Avengers is most comparable to the recent Transformers films in that they both neglect the story and characters, hoping the slam bang finish will make the audience overlook its obvious deficiencies. That’s not a good thing. Once the excitement dies down and moviegoers have had repeat viewings, the veil will be lifted. The Avengers is nothing special.

The Avengers receives 2.5/5