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Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2014
by Kevin Conner
IMDB Entry and source image credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1843866/
images are copyright their respective owners, and are used under fair use.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” more or less picks up several years after the point where “Captain America: the First Avenger” left off. The very basic plot revolves around a megalomaniacal agency called H.Y.D.R.A. (the same villains from the first movie), trying to continue their efforts for world domination, leaving Captain America to fight a character named “the Winter Soldier”, while preventing H.Y.D.R.A. from realizing its dream. Normally I would warn people of spoilers, because I discuss who “the Winter Soldier” is, but the problem is, his identity is not treated as much of a secret toward the audience. You are basically informed who he is within the first few minutes. In fact, this “reveal” is so poorly executed, I had to explain who he was even after the reveal to family members (who are typically good at following these movies, but hadn’t seen the first movie in over two years).
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Marvel’s plan, the entire concept of their current movie releases is they are all part of a massive media staged event called ‘phases’. Each ‘phase’ links each of their Non-Sony produced movies up together in a complex web of lightly interlocking storylines. This web leaves each hero to explore their own stories in their movies, while maintaining references to other movies in a way where you can choose to enjoy the movies as stand alone, or as a much larger theatrical experience. This is where some of the stand alone movies have failed, and unfortunately, this is where this movie has found some shaky ground; as it feels as if the lengthy action sequences were inserted for the sole purpose of filling a great void where there should be a bit more story development.
Now, I won’t say this movie has failed, because many aspects are excellent – acting, editing and production are top notch. As the previous movie demonstrated, Chris Evans is Captain America. Place him with Avengers co-stars Scarlet Johansson (reprising her role as Black Widow from The Avengers), Samuel L. Jackson (reprising his role as Nick Fury from The Avengers), and topping that with Robert Redford, gives us a powerhouse of actors at the directors’ disposal. Unfortunately, this powerhouse of theatrical might is tempered with a script adapted from a series of comics largely considered to be one of the weaker Captain America storylines, and shoehorned into a 136 minute running time.
What non-comic book readers may not know is “the Winter Soldier” is a longtime mercenary of the Marvel Comics. When the new head of Marvel Comics took over, he decided that he would eventually bring back a character from the dead – a character who was meant to die to give Captain America a lamenting storyline that would help shape his approach to sidekicks and partners in the Marvel Universe – this character was named Bucky Barnes. Before the 2011 movie opened, the head of Marvel Comics had already decided to turn “the Winter Soldier” into Bucky Barnes, claiming Bucky never died, and so we have an adult Bucky Barnes in 2011 preparing for his appearance as 2014’s “the Winter Soldier”.
Everyone who was a reader of the comics had been waiting for this movie, because everyone who was a reader of the comics wanted to see a verbal and psychological standoff point between a brainwashed Bucky and Captain America: two men who had fought and seemingly died for their country, with the latter trying to save the soul and mind of his best friend after he reappears. This is something they barely accomplished in the comics, and utterly failed to accomplish in this movie.
Bucky Barnes had more lines of motivation laced dialogue in the first movie than in this one. He was nothing in this movie except a showpiece mannequin. This movie, instead, chose to concentrate on H.Y.D.R.A. (the Nazi spin off resurrected from the first movie), while leaving Bucky (the Winter Soldier) in a position of providing the only menacing threat in the action scenes. While we are thus granted some great scenes between most of the S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. characters, we are given nothing between Captain America and Bucky Barnes. There are easily 70 minutes of straight up, pure action in this film, therefore I cannot buy the excuse there wasn’t enough time, or paper available, to give Bucky some more lines, including a serious confrontation between him and Captain America. The lack of this kind of dialogue based confrontation does not increase the mystique of the Winter Soldier, because he’s in so many of the action scenes, you can’t feel any kind of mystique about the character. There are also some problems with character holes in the script (people not shooting other people when they know they need to, a lead bad guy leaving his front door unlocked… etc..). This isn’t to say the script is horrible, it’s only to say that the lack of a more meatier interaction between Cap and Barnes is a missed opportunity, and some of the other issues should’ve been more finely tuned.
As I said before, Robert Redford, Samuel Jackson, Scarlet Johansson and Chris Evans provide us with an excellent display of acting. Another well done aspect about this production is, that even with a star studded cast, the writers were able to give us the largely underused Black Superhero called “FALCON” without making him a bland stereotype. Anthony Mackie gives us an excellent performance as a “recovering PTSD suffering high-tech soldier”, who befriends Captain America (in a very believable way); all while maintaining a soldieresque presence on screen, without resorting to the “Violently Angry Black Man” stereotype. For this, I applaud Marvel Comics, and the script writer… they gave us a HUMAN and NOT A MARKETING GIMMICK!
Onto the action scenes – there are problems, serious problems, with the action scenes. While there are only two main directors listed on this film, there are multiple unit directors who were part of the filming. This isn’t news to anyone who has read some of my other reviews, let alone anyone who knows about how Hollywood works. The problem is, the quality of direction between each of these sub-unit directors is made painfully apparent in the action sequences. The best scene to use in order to point this out is the opening scene on the boat. Captain America is sent to clear out some hostage takers with the Black Widow. At the end there is a showdown between Cap and the leader of the Terrorists. In this fight scene, you can see four separate camera angles edited together… I would say seamlessly edited, because the edits are crisp, but the problem with that statement is the direction is NOT crisp. Of the four angles you are given, the worst angle is the hand held angle. The director of the hand held piece gave us heavily shaky camera angles, while blurring the action to such a degree that you cannot make out the beautifully choreographed martial arts scene. This is horrendous.
The key to any good action scene is that you are given an emotional rollercoaster to follow – the highs and lows of each punch, each kick and each movement. When you blur the camera, you cannot emotionally follow the punches, the kicks or the movements. If you can’t follow those things, then you can’t feel the emotional connection to the action. If you can’t feel the emotional connection to the action, then all you’re doing is waiting for the plot to pick up from the nonsense of images that are flashing across your screen. If you’re waiting and not enjoying the action, then the millions of dollars of money, and hard work the actors and choreographers put into making that scene, are all wasted effort.
This problem persists throughout the movie, making most of the action scenes, otherwise wonderful action scenes, worthless, meaningless, boring and tedious. This isn’t to say that all of the action scenes are horrible. They are not. This is to say, however, that the director who personally made the decision to blur and shake some of those action scenes to a point where the images were illegible should never be allowed in the director’s chair – not until he or she learns how to direct. I cannot give more than 2 3/4 for direction because of this. When the majority of the movie and financial backing centers around the action, you have to provide well directed action.
The sound is worse than the first movie. That is to say the distance between decibels of “softest whisper” to “loudest explosion” is even greater than the first movie. The first movie was already so difficult to follow, sound wise, that many critics failed in understanding the plot (as more than a few whispers took place during a loud event). While they “kinda fixed that” by making sure nobody whispered during a loud moment, they actually made the sound deafeningly worse by increasing the loudness of the explosions, and reducing the loudness of the whispers.
I checked the sound levels on the recording, and found that if any theater had it loud enough for the average person to flawlessly hear all of the whispers, they would have to have their sound up so high the explosive parts of the movie would be violating legal limits on public displays. This is a problem I’ve had in the past with certain movie theaters, to a point of reporting them. This is not an exaggeration, we’re talking about sustained exposure to illegal decibel levels if they chose to make it so all the audience members could hear the whispers. Given the fact that few movie theaters like to receive citations or fines for doing so, I can only imagine that these recent reviewers who claimed they couldn’t follow the plot were reviewers who couldn’t hear whispers that were set too low. The sound mixing, therefore, is sub-par. Nobody who mixed the sound for this movie should be hired again. I am giving 1 1/2 stars for sound.
Overall, the movie is enjoyable. The problems do cause a disconnect, however, and that disconnect cannot be ignored. Still, for a superhero movie that promises a good Captain America story, it’s worth seeing at least once. It is a good superhero movie. Unfortunately, I can’t say it’s as rewatchable as the first Captain America movie. Your view may vary, granted, and it may vary depending on how much you enjoy action filled superhero movies and Captain America himself.
Direction: 2 3/4*
Acting: 3 3/4
Editing: 3 3/4
Sound: 1 1/2*
Overall (rounded up) 3 1/2* out of 4
*Great music and sound effects; but the cost of TERRIBLE sound mixing overshadows all achievements in sound, and should cost someone their job. While character direction is superb, the camera direction of the action scenes painfully hurts the movie in a number of ways, but can’t be used as an excuse to say the movie is unwatchable. Let’s hope some future releases include a technical revisiting of the sound, but I am afraid there is no way to salvage the botched action sequences.
Cast and Production Information
Samuel L. Jackson
(with many more)
Winter Soldier concept and Story:
Marvel Entertainment (presents)
Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI)