Weeks after seeing it twice, I find myself still thinking about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Not just because of how its events will change future Marvel movies and TV shows, but also because its writing is so rock-solid. I’ve examined it from multiple angles, like a tourist circling a free-standing work of art in a museum, and while it’s not completely flawless, it’s so good that other comic book movie franchises that will remain nameless should be ashamed of themselves.
One thing that Marvel movies do with surprising adroitness and consistency is deliver characters with depth, nuance, and multiple dimensions. No single member of the Avengers cast feels flat or one-note. The only character who comes close to falling into that trap is Thor, and yet despite his Asgardian gravitas and hyperbole, there’s quite a bit to him. He loves his brother (even if he is adopted), he still revels in fighting, and he has a great deal of compassion for someone who’s primary means of interaction is hitting stuff with a magic hammer. This is even more evident in Thor: The Dark World, where he and Loki are the real highlights of the film and demonstrate that they have both grown as characters. But that’s a horse I’ve ridden before.
Getting back to Cap, I’ve written at length about the character before, and Winter Soldier delivers on a lot of the character’s promise. He is a man out of time, and out of his element, without a concrete villain to fight and ultimately betrayed by those he trusted. While he is learning and adapting to modern life, he is also holding onto his principles and his world-view, which he may personally admit is old-fashioned and even a little hokey. Yet those things are him, part of who he is, and part of what make his character so compelling.
Even more interesting is the character of Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. Here is someone used to keeping people at arm’s length, lest she add more red to her ledger. We’ve seen her work undercover and in conjunction with a team of super-heroes, but Winter Soldier expands greatly on the other dimensions of her character. We see her expertise in action. We come to understand just how far ahead of the curve she operates. She’s a character who thinks on her feet, takes action in spite of her fear, and gets caught off-guard when people genuinely trust her. The fact that Scarlett Johansson pulls this off through facial expressions and posture as much as she does with dialog and action is just icing on the cake.
Marvel has always had a strong emphasis on interesting characters who are just as much human as they are super-human. Their Cinematic Universe is no different. With Agents of SHIELD going strong, and Guardians of the Galaxy coming this summer, I expect this trend to continue. It’s a very, very good time to be a fan. It’s also quite satisfying to tell people, when asked about good character-building and dialog, to say “You know that movie about the guy wearing the American flag who tosses a shield around? Yeah, watch that, and you’ll see what I mean.”
It would be easy, far too easy at this point, for Marvel’s creative minds to just churn out one-note sequels to its successful movie franchises. Just rehash plot points, stick in named villains no matter how they’re written, and ride the wave of money all the way to the bank. But they tried that once, with Iron Man 2. And it backfired. Iron Man 2 is the worst movie of the set so far.
My point is that Marvel’s people had to get smarter about their stories, especially in the wake of The Avengers, and they did. Iron Man 3 is a character piece with expertly-timed comedy juxtaposed with an inward realignment on the part of Tony Stark. Thor: The Dark World lets Chris Hemsworth demonstrate true heroic gravitas and, I will reiterate, acts more like Superman than Superman does in Man of Steel. And now comes Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a very smart, very intense, very electric action-thriller about conspiracies, betrayals, secrets, and what happens when you drop the ultimate Boy Scout into a very deadly cloak-and-dagger scenario.
The scenario begins with Captain America working with SHIELD as part of a special ops strike team. He and Black Widow run covert operations to subvert things like hostage situations. However, when Captain Rogers realizes that his operations are getting ‘compartmentalized’ by Nick Fury, as in some of his guys follows his orders and others have different orders to follow, he gives SHIELD’s director a piece of his mind. In turn, Fury shows Rogers Project Insight, SHIELD’s new helicarriers meant to neutralize threats before they happen. Rogers, maintaining his stand on the moral high ground, raises his hackles even more, and Fury actually calls for Insight to be delayed. This was apparently an unpopular move, as both Fury and Rogers become targeted for assassination, specifically by the terrifying, heavily-armed spectre known only as the Winter Soldier.
For once, Marvel’s iconic heroes are in a situation that does not involve laser beams, magic hammers, or monsters of myth. This is a complete and total shift in tone, theme, and atmosphere from anything we’ve seen before in this cinematic universe. Superheroes stories always have their share of violence, perhaps more than their share given all the creatures and demigods and megalomaniacs who get punched in the face, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier goes down a different road. The violence is delivered through the entirely mundane and somehow more visceral means of blades, bombs, and bullets, and the victims of that violence are not always the bad guys. This is not a negative aspect of the movie, mind you – but it’s worth knowing beforehand so you know what you’re in for.
It’s very cool to meet someone who has a lot in common with Captain America despite the age gap.
Tales of intrigue, betrayal, secrets, and revelation have lasted for millenia, long before the advent of superheroism as we know it, as characters compromise themselves morally and legally to do what they feel is right. This is especially true in this modern, cloak-and-dagger world, where secrets are even better concealed by technology and businessmen and bankers lie as a matter of course. That said, Captain America is a completely straightforward, honest person living in a thoroughly dishonest world, but given his skills, notoriety, and fortitude, he’s in a position where he begins to unravel conspiracies just by being himself. For all of the film’s well-timed and well-executed reveals and double-crosses, when you drop Captain America into a story like this, the conspiracies start coming apart almost immediately.
The movie spends about two-thirds of its running time on this very tense, very visceral spy thriller, and then seques very easily into rather straightforward action for its final act. I’m trying to avoid hyperbole in the name of something resembling objectivity, but i just used the word ‘very’ three times in the last sentence – this film makes an impression. From the realistic bent of its firefights to the sharpness of its dialog, Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes it clear that no punches are going to be pulled. Thankfully, beneath the callbacks to the works of John LaCarre and Tom Clancy and cleanly shot, well choreographed fights, which would make this film stand alone as an above-average action thriller, there’s even more to enjoy.
He’s not only displaced in time, but out of his element.
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow really steps out on her own here. While we’re still waiting for what is certain to be a fantastic solo outing, she and Chris Evans make a great double act especially throughout the middle of the movie. She always seems a step ahead, approaches her challenges with confidence, and lets the facade of cold, calculated confidence crack now and again to reveal the very human character beneath all of the flash and guile. Anthony Mackie is a breakout star, definitely feeling more like a supporting and necessary character than a sidekick, as Falcon often was in the comics. He’s a modern soldier, mostly courteous with just enough bravado to make him compelling and endearing at the same time, and his wing-suit is weaponized cool not seen since Iron Man. Samuel L. Jackson gives Nick Fury more depth and complexity than ever, and while I’m not sure how in the world a mainstay leading man like Robert Redford got into a Captain America movie, he does fantastic work and demonstrates that he is still one of the best in the business. As for our title roles, Chris Evans continues to impress as Captain America, simultaneously the sort of upstanding person you wish existed more often in real life and the kind of selfless hero that can’t help but inspire. Finally, the Winter Soldier doesn’t get as much screen time as you might expect given his name is in the title, but his role as the ultimate vector of the villainous plans afoot is superbly executed, and he has real on-screen menace and intensity when he’s around.
Over and above everything else, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is smart. Its ties to the rest of the Marvel Universe are more implied than explicit. If you’ve been along for the ride from the beginning, you’re going to pick up on a lot and be left wanting more. If you’re new, you’ll want to know more. Names, when dropped, feel a great deal more subtle than they have been in the past, we see more of SHIELD than we ever have before, and even the superscience bits have weight that don’t interfere with the drive of the narrative. I don’t think the tonal shift is for everyone, and some viewers may get turned off by the running time or the subject matter, as I mentioned before. But in terms of objective flaws, the movie has very few, so few that none are springing immediately to mind.
One of many perfectly executed ‘oh SHIT!’ moments.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is some of the best work Marvel has done to date. It’s gripping storytelling from start to finish. If this is any indication of how strong ‘Phase 2’ is going to continue being in relation to ‘Phase 1’, I am even more excited for Guardians of the Galaxy in August. It doesn’t have the all-ages appeal and pure fun factor of The Avengers or the truly deep and intimate character focus of Iron Man 3, but with its very strong cast, excellent writing, engrossing action, and monstrously influential implications for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in spite of the 1200 or so words I’ve just written, there are no words with which I can recommend Captain American: The Winter Soldier any higher than this: It’s not the best superhero movie ever made… but it comes damn, damn, damn close.
Normally this is my Writer Report slot, but one of the movies I’ve been the most excited about in a long time finally got a full-length trailer last night, and as much as I’m sure other, bigger sites are doing write-ups of it, I want to get my own two cents out there because people should see this when it comes out. So, in case you missed it on Jimmy Kimmel last night, or if you just want to watch it again, here’s the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy.
Breaking it down:
In General: This is really encouraging. Guardians is Marvel’s gutsiest move to date. None of these characters or worlds are anywhere near as well-known as The Avengers are these days, and the House of Ideas have a bit of an uphill battle getting butts in the seats. This trailer is a masterful move. It introduces the characters (we’ll get to them), gives us a bit of the alien worlds and cultures we’ll be dealing with, and hooks us with familiar music, promises of action, and tastes of the film’s comedy. Speaking of which…
Tone: Some folks may be upset that Marvel tends to lean towards the comedic side of things, from Tony Stark’s constant wise-cracking to some of Loki’s less genocidal antics. However, anybody who’s read Guardians in the last few years, be it written by Dan Abnett or Brian Michael Bendis, will tell you that the tone set by the trailer matches the tone of the books exactly. Despite the grave threats they face protecting Earth and other worlds from on a daily basis, the Guardians never take their work or themselves too seriously, especially…
Star-Lord: As the human character of the group, Peter Quill’s the audience surrogate and access point for the weird and wonderful cosmic world we’re going to be seeing. Again, the tone of the character feels pretty spot-on. The characters who don’t know him (Korath, the Nova Corps, etc) have a really hard time taking him seriously, which is kind of perfect. It already feels like a refreshing change from the dire, dour tone of other super-powered being films (looking at you, Man of Steel). This guy isn’t seen as a savior or a Chosen One, he’s seen as a nuisance, moreso than any of the other Guardians. The comic nerd part of my brain is uncertain some of the interesting minutiae will be seen in the film, as his race is listed as Terran meaning they don’t notice or want to discuss his half-breed nature, and I’m not sure we see his trademark Element Gun… and then he yawns while standing in line-up and I forget what I was worried about because I’m grinning again.
Drax the Destroyer: Bautista is perfect for this. Between The Man with the Iron Fists and Riddick, I can tell you that the guy is really good at commanding the screen just with his imposing physical presence. Drax is a lot like that: He doesn’t necessarily need to say anything to make you back away slowly covering your genitals. The shots we have of him in the line-up and under Nova Corps scrutiny look like someone who just wants to rip something, anything, apart, but he’s behaving himself because he’s saving that rage for someone who’s really asking for it. The detail in his red accents, seen in motion, are actually a really nice touch to the character.
Gamora: I have no doubt whatsoever that Zoe Saldana can pull off playing the deadliest woman in the universe. Pretty much everything I’ve seen her in has displayed her confidence and ability to disappear into her character. Gamora is the kind of person who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, and I don’t think we’re going to have any trouble seeing her as an equal to Drax when it comes to physically throwing down. We don’t get as much of her action as we do a tasteful shot of her back, but Gamora’s always been equal parts ass-kicking, genius and sex appeal. Her little smile during her intro seals the deal.
Rocket Raccoon: I’m actually glad Rocket didn’t say a word. I hope Marvel conserves as much of this guy’s attitude and dialog as possible so audiences really fall in love with him on opening day. The mere concept alone should be enough to sell people: He’s a four-foot humanoid raccoon that likes big guns and bigger explosions. The fact that he’s constantly cracking wise is and should be just a bonus.
Groot: Again, less is more when it comes to Groot. His somewhat curious expression and the reactions of the Novas were pretty much perfect. This presentation can and should make people interested in what he can do. Audiences aren’t used to seeing something as strange as a walking tree-person, at least outside of Lord of the Rings, and his inclusion on the team should really round things out.
Nebula: Most people know Karen Gillen as Amy Pond from Doctor Who. It may come as a shock to them to see her playing Nebula, a very nasty character from Marvel’s cosmic side. I won’t speculate on the role she’ll play in this film, save to say she might also be after that orb Peter’s seen trying to grab in the beginning of the trailer. Oh, and remember the big purple dude grinning at the end of The Avengers? That’s Thanos. Nebula’s his daughter. And he’s the guy Drax is mad at. Just putting that out there.
The Kree: We only see Ronan the Accuser for a brief moment, manhandling Drax, and from the start of the trailer we see the great Djimon Hounsou as Korath the Pursuer. I’m excited to see the scope of the Marvel Universe open up to include new races and groups, and the Kree look suitably intense, the more human-like but no less threatening counterpart to the Skrulls/Chitauri.
The Nova Corps: On top of a main antagonist and a new alien presence, we have what amounts to a space police force. Rather than overcomplicating things, they’re a great touch. The Guardians tend to be seen more as troublemakers than saviors, and it makes sense that a neutral party would come into play to keep things from going too crazy. As an aside, the practical costumes of the Nova Corps look a great deal better than anything the similar group on the DC side, the Green Lantern Corps, wore in their movie. Plus John C. Reilly, who is always excellent in supporting roles, is Rhomann Dey, one of the most famous Novas ever.
The Song: This is the cherry on top of everything. It’s catchy. It’s the sort of Earth tune Peter would carry in his Walkman – yes, that’s a Sony Walkman from the 80s. It’s funny. And if you’re anything like me, it does, in fact, get you hooked on a feeling.
Overall:Guardians of the Galaxy has always been Marvel’s answer to Farscape or Firefly. It’s a story about a far-flung group of misfits working together to go after nastiness pro-actively. The diverse characters, the outlandish locations, and the sheer oddity of deep space are a heady cocktail in and of themselves, and if this trailer is anything to go by, a hefty dash of sincere humor and splashes of frenetic, visceral action have been added. I, for one, can’t wait for August. I try not to get too optimistic about films before they come out, but for what it’s worth, I think this is going to be a fantastic time at the movies.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, particularly Hulu and Netflix, I’ve been able to start getting some television back in my life. I was already using Hulu for Supernatural and Law & Order: SVU, but I’ve started using it to watch newer shows, as well.
Agents of SHIELD
The first new show I broke into was the one I was looking forward to the most. Clark Gregg the actor and Phil Coulson the character are both draws to the show, as well as its promised tie-ins with the cinematic arm of the Marvel Universe. Joss Whedon got his start with television, and knowing his penchant for balanced group dynamics and tightly-plotted stories. All of these things had me set to tune in week to week from the outset.
Unfortunately, it’s also the one that’s taken the most time to get up and running. I like the characters and the premise, but the pacing and quality of stories has been somewhat inconsistent during the first season. It’s taken a couple episodes for the actors to get comfortable with their characters. It’s got plenty of potential and it’s improving with every episode, so I’m still on board.
This is not the Disney version of the classic tale of the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane. Nor is it anything like Tim Burton’s sumptuous adaptation. This time around, Ichabod Crane is a soldier fighting in America’s war against the British. He meets a particularly nasty Hessian mercenary on the battlefield, and the two come to blows. The Hessian deals a mortal wound to Ichabod, who responds by cutting off the hired gun’s head. Both of them fall, and that would be the end of it… except 250 years later, the Hessian rises from the dead, as does Ichabod. He’s picked up by the local police, and meets Lieutenant Abbie Mills, who’s lost her mentor to a redcoat on horseback minus his head. The question is, can she trust this seemingly insane Englishman who claims to have been a soldier under George Washington?
I’ve heard the premise of this show called ‘a bit silly’. And it is. The whole thing is a bit silly. But it’s no sillier than your standard set-up for an episode of Supernatural, and I watch the hell out of that show. What Sleepy Hollow has going for it is smart writing, deliciously old-school production values with practical effects and some wicked monster designs, and an excellent cast. I also like that Tom Mison, who plays the intelligent and determined but somewhat hapless Ichabod, is the only white male in the hero cast. Nicole Beharie and Orlando Jones are both phenomenal, portraying strong, smart, and interesting characters that don’t get relegated to spouting colloquialisms or falling into stereotypes. The pilot hits the ground running and it’s kept up a good pace since then. It’s definitely a new favorite.
The year is 2048. Technology has kind of exploded, and lead to all sorts of open and black market nastiness. To keep up, police have started using military-grade androids to supplement their human detectives. During a raid, Detective John Kennex is seriously injured, and spends a couple years in a coma, waking up to find his leg has been replaced with an advanced prosthesis. He doesn’t acclimate to work too well after that, and he keeps going through synthetic partners. Rudy, the lab technician and local android guru, pairs Kennex up with a DRN model, instead of the usual MX one. While MX models are designed to be purely logical and coldly calculating, ‘Dorian’ was created to be as close to human as possible, with all of the emotional unpredictability that entails. Everybody’s just crossing their fingers that Kennex doesn’t push this one into traffic.
From the start, the show gave me a very pleasant Blade Runner/Deus Ex vibe. I’m a fan of Karl Urban in most of his roles, and casting him as a law enforcement officer keeps reminding me of how good he is as Judge Dredd. Pairing him with Michael Ealy’s Dorian works extremely well. Dorian reminds me a bit of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but where Data was perplexed by the concept of emotions, Dorian struggles to deal with his while making observations on Kennex’s condition and behavior. The two have fantastic chemistry and, like Sleepy Hollow, the show has hit the ground running. The concepts and visuals of the near future have almost an ‘uncanny valley’ feel to them, as it feels like our world and yet is totally different. It’s well-realized, well-shot, and I’m eager to see more of it.
What TV have you been tuning into lately? Will you check out these shows?
If you look over Norse myths in their original forms, you can see why Marvel pulled ideas from its pantheon. The bombastic, fiery personalities of the gods of Asgard fit the hyperbole and spectacle of comic books very well. Jack Kirby’s imagination brought these characters to vibrant life, making their designs colorful and outlandish. The film adaptation of Thor transitioned Jack’s vision to the big screen for modern audiences, The Avengers brought these demi-gods into contact with the more grounded aspects of the interconnected narrative, and now Thor: The Dark World aims to expand the scope of its own ambition to make both its own stage and that of the Marvel cinematic universe that much wider.
Thor’s appearance alongside Iron Man and Captain America was no accident. Having reclaimed his birthright and gained a sense of humility and perspective, the son of Odin set about bringing peace to the Nine Realms, defeating forces set on destruction and trying to bring peace instead of the war he sought with Jotunheim. In Asgard’s past, this initiative often took a darker form, and Svartalfheim, former home of the dark elves, was rendered nearly lifeless after the war that raged there centuries ago. However, the dark elf king Malekith survived with some of his followers, and awakens to seek a deadly force known as the Aether to help him have his revenge on Asgard. The perfect time for this is a convergence of the Nine Realms, which begins to play with primordial forces like gravity on Earth, bringing it to the attention of astrophysicist Jane Foster, who still anticipates the return of Thor. To defeat Malekith and save all of the worlds he knows, Thor must forge an alliance with one of most treacherous creatures ever known: his adopted half-brother, Loki.
It’s pretty obvious from the outset that Thor: The Dark World has a story to tell, and wishes to waste no time doing it. The film is front-loaded with a depiction of the ancient war with the dark elves, and much of the first half of the film is filled with dialog that is largely expository. Only the barest of connections is drawn to the previous films, and one gets the impression that the film’s writers just assume that anybody seeing this one has already seen everything leading up to it. While it’s not an unfair assumption to make, anybody new to the universe in the audience may end up a little bit lost. Still, it’s good to be back in Asgard, and as much as there’s a lot of ground to cover story-wise, the story that we get isn’t necessarily bad. It just suffers from a little bit of a pacing problem.
You’d think they’d be more reluctant to turn their backs on Loki.
The other drawback to being so concerned with checking off story points to make sure nobody’s lost or confused is that character moments take a back seat. This is a shame, because this is a very talented cast with interesting characters to portray. Thor and Loki, in particular, have both grown and changed since the previous films. Thor is much more agreeable and humane, acting a great deal more like DC’s Superman than Superman did in Man of Steel. When Asgard is attacked and the damage severe, it is Thor who argues with Odin for a solution that doesn’t lead to more war and destruction, which is a clever reversal of their roles from the first film. As for Loki, his defeats have left him frustrated and malicious, but not in a monomaniacal myopic sort of way. Even moreso than before, he’s a calculating and conniving character, deceptively charming and absolutely deadly, especially when underestimated. It’s clear that Marvel knows how much he’s admired by fans, even though he’s clearly still an ambitious and traitorous creature. I would have liked to see more of these two, but what we get is pretty good.
Once the story gets done setting up all of its dominoes, though, the resulting spectacle is undeniably fun. Thor: The Dark World feels even more like something lifted from the likes of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon than the previous film, and it hits all of the right chords to provide that surge of excitement and adventure from exotic new worlds and epic battles. It continues the Marvel tradition of eschewing darker, more brooding takes on comic book characters, and maintains the bright and vibrant palette of the first film. Unlike Iron Man 2, this movie is more concerned with taking us for a pretty wild ride all its own rather than pulling together threads from elsewhere in the Marvel Universe. Oh, the pulling together does happen here and there, it’s just mostly contained to the first few scenes of the film, and one of the stingers at the end of the credits, which incidentally makes me more jazzed than ever for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy.
Maybe if he’d had some coffee after his 5000 year nap, Malekith would’ve been less cranky.
In the end, Thor: The Dark World is a success. It builds on the established worlds and characters of the first film, but does much more with them in various ways to expand the scope and raise the stakes. I would have liked more character moments and a bit less up-front exposition, and there was so much character-building and so little compelling story in the first film it almost feel like this one’s overcompensating. However, this won’t keep me from recommending the film. It’s most definitely a great time at the movies, and especially after the story setup is done, feels more grand and exciting than the original. It ranks highly among the Marvel movies, and I definitely believe it’s worth your time and money.