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After the cataclysmic events in New York with The Avengers, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), is living quietly in Washington, D.C. and trying to adjust to the modern world. But when a SHIELD colleague comes under attack, Steve becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue that threatens to put the world at risk. Joining forces with Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America struggles to expose the ever-widening conspiracy while fighting off assailants sent to silence him at every turn. When the full scope of the villainous plot is revealed, Captain America and the Black Widow enlist the help of a new ally, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). However, they soon find themselves up against an unexpected and formidable enemy—the Winter Soldier. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The further away they get from origin stories, the better the Marvel Studio films get. Their ‘Phase 2’ output has, as far as I’m concerned, vastly overshadowed their ‘Phase 1’ films and I think this has everything to do with the growing pains of creating a shared, ongoing movie universe. The early films were entangled not only in their character’s origins, but the origins of the world(s) around them, including a number of Earthbound and cosmic histories. Everything came together nicely for The Avengers, where the characters’ charms overpowered busy plotting and bombastic special effects sequences. Phase 2 has been about strengthening those characters and largely ignoring the shared universe angle for the sake of better stand-alone product. This disregard for lopsided origin stories seems to have even inspired Marvel to keep the back-stories of their Guardians of the Galaxy heroes to a minimum.

Captain America: The First Avenger definitely suffered from acute ‘orign-storyitis’ – arguably more than any other film in the Phase 1 canon. It didn’t have to deal with too many SHIELD leftovers, like Iron Man 2 and Thor had, but was awkwardly cut in two between Steve Rogers’ journey from zero to hero and his victory against Red Skull. At the time, it felt like a hasty dive from rousing WWII adventure into a modern setting, but, in hindsight, The Avengers needed Captain America just as much as Captain America needed The Avengers. Joss Whedon touched upon the necessities of Cap’s ‘man out of time’ lifestyle and, despite divided screentime, Chris Evans established a unique personality. By the time Marvel was ready to release the first Captain America-centric sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I realized that Whedon and Evans’ efforts had saved audiences from hours of unscrupulous sentimentality. Cap doesn’t need to be changed by the modern era – he just needs to apply/adjust his unwavering morality to a new situation. This is ultimately the best trick various screenwriters have been able to pull with the character – they made him into a genuinely noble hero that isn’t obnoxiously dogmatic or naïve and they did it at a time when Superman is crushing cities and making out with Lois Lane on the ashes of dead Metropolites.

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is probably Marvel’s most ‘adult’ movie in that it features a particularly twisty and politically-themed narrative. First-time tent-pole action movie directors Anthony and Joe Russo (previously known for Welcome to Collinwood and their work for hire on a number of TV sitcoms) have cited spy movies and conspiracy thrillers, like Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965), and especially Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), as their inspirations. Critics and audiences have also noted comparisons to Hitchcock’s political thrillers ( Foreign Correspondent, in particular), the James Bond series, and the Jason Bourne movies. Despite these more mature influences, the Russos knew better than to make a cynical movie. They emphasize realistic emotional traits while still acknowledging the pulp, adventurous tone Joe Johnston tapped into with first Captain America film. And, without allowing the situations to get too silly (something that better fits the cosmic Marvel properties), the directors aren’t afraid to let their characters be funny, usually with the same dry, sarcastic wit that has characterized the Marvel movies since Iron Man. This deft tonal balance between stone-sober political thriller and giddy pulp ultimately drives the film through most of its narrative shortcomings (something that is becoming another defining characteristic of the Marvel films).

The screenplay is based on a long run of Captain America comics by brilliant crime author Ed Brubaker, who had the audacity to write a badass espionage story that broke one of Marvel Comics’ cardinal rules by bringing Bucky Barnes back to life. Between well-worn espionage elements (one might even call them clichés) and a number of familiar, historically-based plot-points, this movie version of The Winter Soldier is a bit generic on the story front. The comics had dozens of issues to unravel new ideas, whereas the movie has just over two hours and is forced to stick to a core story that will feed into future Marvel properties. And Cap’s emotional arc certainly doesn’t work as well without the substantial shared history Brubaker infuses between him and Bucky. Evans and Sebastian Stan, who plays Bucky in both Captain America films, do their best to establish their connection, but the reveal of the Winter Soldier’s identity doesn’t connect with the same impact it did in the comics. But that’s also the interesting thing about this adaptation – Marvel used Bucky’s secret identity as a cover for the film’s much bigger secret, one that had an impact on all follow-up movies and TV shows.

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I assume most, if not all, readers have either already seen the film, watched the follow-up episodes of Agents of SHIELD, or have been exposed to the internet meme that followed the release of the movie, but, just in case,

spoiler alert

for the rest of this paragraph. The reveal that Hydra has secretly operated within the ranks of SHIELD since the end of WWII is a twist worthy of any Nixon-era espionage flick and, unlike Iron Man 2 and (to a lesser extent) Thor, where the SHIELD storylines were arbitrarily shoehorned into storylines that didn’t fit them, it ties directly into the Captain America franchise. So, besides finally avoiding the pitfalls of cumbersome origin stories, Marvel seems to have found a way to organically coordinate their greater universe plotlines into their standalone films.*

The connections to the stylistic extremes of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne sequels could’ve proved very problematic for the Russos, who weren’t particularly well-versed in cinematic action before directing The Winter Soldier. Greengrass’ vigorous shaky-cam techniques have become the bane of similar movies over the years, most of which are directed by filmmakers that don’t understand the lack of visually coherence these types sequences have on a big screen. The first big action beat, where Cap takes on fan-favourite minor villain Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre), is problematic – over-cut and over-shaken – but things get much better from there. The Russos, along with their second unit teams and stunt coordinators, find a nice balance between the rough brutality of Greengrass’ films and a more fluid, geographically coherent form of fisticuffs. More important than the action’s relentless nature is the fact that it all feels so dangerous (the scene where Winter Soldier attacks on the highway is particularly nerve wracking). Naturalistic photographical choices and a number of convincing practical stunts help the filmmakers to integrate digital effects more convincingly than most of the studio’s previous efforts.

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans continues to excel in the role of Steve Rogers. While Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth have become the quintessential screen versions of Iron Man and Thor, Evans’ Captain America has transcended (though not supplanted) the character he’s based on. Even under the supervision of an expert writer, like Brubaker, I’ve never been able to read the character on the page with the same fragile gravitas Evans’ brings to the role. One look into the actor’s weary, but determined eyes and the viewer can feel the weight of the world sitting on Cap’s shoulders and appreciate his heroism on an irony-free level. It’s really refreshing, even in the context of the actor-friendly Marvel series. Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, who were the victims of The Avengers’ ensemble storytelling, are given a better chance to stand-out in this SHIELD-friendly feature. Their roles are expanded without overwhelming Cap’s place at the center of the film. Johansson, in particular, has incredible platonic chemistry with Evans – almost as much as Anthony Mackie, who matches him beat for beat throughout the film with equal parts weight and levity.  Robert Redford’s appearance is blatant stunt-casting – he’s the star of Three Days of the Condor, Pakula’s real-life conspiracy feature All the President’s Men (1976), Tony Scott’s Spy Game (2001), and Phil Alden Robinson’s referential espionage comedy Sneakers (1992). He can’t match the joyful camp Hugo Weaving brought to Red Skull in the previous film, but he fills the role of, spoiler alert, secret villain with all the swagger that fifty years of experience has earned him.

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Video


Captain America: The Winter Soldier was shot using both Arri Alexa and Red Epic digital HD cameras and post-converted into 3D for theatrical exhibitions. This Blu-ray features a 2D, 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer and it is expectedly spectacular. The Winter Solider is a more visually sedate film than the other Phase 2 releases with their comic book-inspired palettes (I didn’t see the 3D version, but, based on the shaky camerawork, it must’ve been atrocious). The Russos and cinematographer Trent Opaloch opt for a mechanical, desaturated look. Highlights are blown out into pure whites that bloom into the black edges along with a number of blinding lens flares. Details are often either obscured by all of this shiny light or caked in smooth shadows, but those fine textures that survive are wonderfully delicate without any major signs of compression. The colour temperature is consistently cool, including lots of steely blues and lavenders during daylight scenes and sickly greens during nighttime scenes and darker interiors. These colours are generally clean, smoothly graded, and do not interfere with the warm flesh tones and electric red/orange highlights. The gritty look includes some fine digital grain, specifically throughout the softer, more consistently toned backgrounds, but the noise doesn’t appear to be a compression issue.

Audio


Captain America: The Winter Soldier features a big, aggressive 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that will surely please the folks looking for a new demo disc. Between the smacks and clangs of hand-to-hand combat, the cracks and pings of heavy gunfire, the crunches and revs of car chases, and the whoosh and vibration of flying helicarriers, this track keeps all seven channels and the LFE thoroughly engaged. The centered dialogue and incidental effects are a smidge underwhelming in comparison to the livelier action sounds, but they aren’t completely smothered. Dialogue-heavy sequences aren’t too busy with environmental ambience, anyway, so it’s only an issue when an action sequence starts and the viewer needs to rush for the volume control. Composer Henry Jackman, who wrote the infectious, guitar-driven X-Men: First Class themes, has the unenviable task of taking over musical scoring duties from Alan Silvestri. Jackman uses some of Silvistri’s original symphonic cues, but mostly opts for dissonant industrial and electronic sounds over traditional melodies. The results sort of fit the material, but are also pretty problematic – though I don’t hate it nearly as much as most music critics. Love it or hate it, the soundtrack is richly realized and evenly blended into the mix. The electronic additions and drums bounce around the stereo channels, while the symphonic elements are big and warm.

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Extras


  • Commentary with the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely – This is a very professionally-minded and well-paced commentary that covers the filmmaking process from inspiration to completion. It’s not the most fun-natured track and the commentators aren’t too concerned with remaining screen-specific, but it is a valuable behind the curtain glimpse at the Marvel film machine, including all the committee-run changes the story goes through on the way to the screen, as well as plenty of technical chatter.
  • On the Front Line: An Inside Look at Captain America’s Battlegrounds (10:10, HD) – A typically brief making-of featurette/EPK that focuses on the action sequences.
  • On Set with Anthony Mackie: Cut the Check (2:00, HD) – Super quick look at the Falcon actor’s on-set catchphrase.
  • Steve Roger’s Notebook (2:30, HD) – Concerning the different versions of Cap’s list.
  • Four deleted scenes with optional directors’ commentary (3:40, HD)
  • Blooper reel (2:40, HD)


 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Overall


Captain America: The Winter Soldier sits right in the middle of Marvel’s improved second phase of shared-universe films. Its grounded, espionage fiction themes and images are sometimes too familiar, but is a nice contrast to the more light-hearted and science fiction films that surround it. As a standalone movie, it’s very good, but, in serving its part as a single piece in a larger work, it gives vital texture and may prove to be one of the most important rungs on Marvel’s ladder. Marvel/Disney’s Blu-ray looks sharp and sounds wonderful. The directors and writers’ commentary is very nice, but I’d definitely prefer more in the way of supplemental features (I already miss the ‘Marvel One Shot’ shorts).

* It was reported years ago (perhaps falsely) that Hydra was the main threat in Zak Penn’s earlier drafts of the Avengers (hence the Tesseract sucking Red Skull into space before Cap had a chance to actually defeat him). I’d be interested to know if some of those story elements worked their way into The Winter Soldier.

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

* * Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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