To preface my review I will begin by stating my expectations for this movie, to serve as a frame of reference for my impression of it.
I enjoy movies of all kinds and I can usually find something to appreciate in even very bad movies. I also enjoy being critical of movies, including the best ones; a fact that doesn’t preclude an overall enjoyment of a movie. For myself, it adds to the experience.
My expectations for the new Captain America are not the same as the ones I had for The Wolf on Wall Street, not just in content, but in quality. Which would seem to go without saying, but that does not mean my expectations for The Winter Soldier were low. To the contrary, my expectations were just different.
The Whedon Effect
If I were to base my expectations exclusively on the first Captain America, I would undoubtedly be expecting less. The First Avenger was not terrible, but “comic book movies” have come a long way in the three years since its release. The Avengers has been released within that time and with the masses exposed to a Joss Whedon script now even cheesiness is expected to have a certain level of polish and charm.
The Winter Soldier begins with an action sequence and I quickly come up against one of my few complaints with the movie: shaky cam. A “technique” that is used to make actions shots seem more frenetic, or often to hide bad choreography; which makes its inclusion a little confounding. The shakiness to an extent masks how fast paced and well choreographed the early fight scenes actually are. Thankfully this was at its worst in the beginning and quickly improved to a tolerable level.
When it comes to Cap’s choreography there is a superb subtlety to his skill as a fighter. Captain America is strong, fast, and resilient—but he was not always so. His character did not spend a lifetime studying martial arts, nor did his means of acquiring superhuman abilities in any way bestow upon him superhuman fighting skills as well. He at first relied on his superior physical attributes and the skill came through trial-by-fire experience.
This is well reflected in Cap’s utilitarian, no-frills fighting, which cannot always be described as realistic, but manages to feel authentic within the context. More importantly it is satisfying—which correlates to what The Winter Soldier managed to do over and over again: satisfy. More than once I realized while watching that I, the viewer, was being given exactly what I wanted at that given point in the movie. Especially commendable considering the movie did not succumb too much to predictability.
Captain America, by name alone, paints a picture of the consummate über-patriot; loyal and ever the unquestioning good soldier.
Which is not very compelling.
By placing the word “no” in Cap’s vocabulary the team behind The Winter Soldier manages to add both depth and complexity to the character. A patriot without a doubt, but not a blind one, this current incarnation of Captain America is not a yes man, following the company line. He is more introspective, questioning himself and his allegiances when it becomes necessary to do so. A character so uniformly moral is usually flat and uninteresting, but here Cap comes across as dynamic and relate-able.
The titular antagonist similarly appears initially to simply be an archetype; cold (winter…), ruthless, unrelenting, cunning, and nearly unstoppable. Were this the case it would still be well done as the Winter Soldier seems sufficiently sinister as initially presented, but learning more about his sub-plot and where it may lead makes him a compelling character in his own right. The other villains are standard issue for the genre, and are fairly one-dimensional; though several do represent a strong nod to the source material.
For someone who professes to be a critical movie-goer, this review has been awful glowing, has it not?
To put it candidly: The Winter Soldier delivers exactly what is desired from it; epitomizing what a good theater movie should be. I didn’t analyze the delivery of every line, or stay vigilant for plot holes, in the same way that I don’t sit in eager anticipation of a Matrix-esque shootout during a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier did not have to do much to surpass the original, and with the slavering Marvel addicted masses, needed to do even less to be a box office success. No one would have been surprised to find this franchise on cruise control as Marvel rolls on toward The Avengers 2. Instead, we are treated to a well-written, tightly paced, action-thriller that, like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, can be held in judgement without the “comic book movie” moniker, and still be found worthy.