Sunday, April 6, 2014

Captain's Orders

Quick lesson - superhero movies are a particular sub-genre of the "action/adventure" movie category.  They are also notoriously easy to screw up, although you'd think that would not be the case.  However, it is not uncommon for filmmakers to lose sight of what makes a good movie when the modifier "superhero" is added in front of the noun "movie."  Good movies involve characters and plot - not just action sequences and VERY LOUD explosions.  All too often, filmmakers look at comic books, think "Aha! Built-in audience," and get lazy.

I am almost ridiculously pleased to announce that is not the case with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Not only do I recommend you go see this movie on the big screen as a great example of a superhero movie, I think Cap 2 (as I shall call it from here on) is just a great movie, period. As in "full stop."

Why?  Why did this one work and other big-budget attempts (Elektra, Catwoman, and Green Lantern spring to mind, but oh - there are others) thud so terribly?  Easy.  Story.  Character.  Relationships.  Dialogue.  Mind you, Cap's a tough character to sell in our cynical world, because he's just so good.  (In that regard, he's a little like Superman, another superhero that studios have had a hard time handling.)  Cap is us at our very best, only he's at that "the best" level all the time.  He's tough, yet kind and he can make the hard call, but isn't a bully.  He is the living embodiment of our highest ideals - including freedom, justice, and equality for all under the law.  How do you not make that a cardboard cutout do-gooder?

Well, you do it by casting Chris Evans, a decision that deserves to go down in history as a time when a casting director just flat-out got it right.  (You can read about how reluctant Evans was originally to sign a multi-picture deal here.  Makes sense, especially given his experience being Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four - a less than stellar two-picture outing. Also, he's got to stay in absolute top physical shape throughout this contract due to the grueling filming schedule.)  This movie demands that Evans be rock-solid in his principles, yet able to blithely quip with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who really needs her own franchise) about his lack of a dating life.  Cap is a man out of time and there's a heartbreaking scene with his "best girl" in which is brought to dazzling life.  To Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell, who is scheduled to have her own TV series as Peggy), the war was about 70 years ago.  To Cap, who could still model for a recruiting poster, the war was about three weeks ago.  His lovely Peggy is wrinkled, fragile, and her memory isn't what once it was - but she's still his "best girl."  Evans plays this scene with tenderness, heartbreak, and resolve.

Comic movies also can be (and this one is) quite subversive.  So many people don't expect anything aside from an entertaining shoot-em-up that you can slip some deeper ideas in.  In Cap 2, while Cap is literally the poster boy for the American way, he's got questions about things, and when he asks them, it's the audience who needs to answer them.  Do you know who your friends are?  How far will you go to save a friend from darkness?  What balance are you willing to strike between messy freedom and sterile order?  Is being safe better than being independent?  And just whose hand is on the switch? Do you trust that hand? This is not a simple "good guys win" movie.

There's much more to say, but I don't want to spoil the movie; this is one I want you to see. (Stay through the credits, even without Phil Coulson.) Cap 2 takes its inspiration from the "Winter Soldier" storyline scripted by Ed Brubaker (he has a tiny part in the film as "Scientist #2).  In this film, we meet Zola (Toby Jones) and learn that patience can be fertile soil for nefarious plots.  We see that threats can be candy-coated as well as armor-coated.  Robert Redford shows he still has chops and Samuel L. Jackson reminds us that he's never lost his.  Casting Anthony Mackie as the Falcon - brilliant!  (That reminds me - I've got to buy Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man . . .)  And we learn that, hopefully, we've all got the guts to be Launch Tech #1.  Captain's orders . . .

"Trouble Man," from the album of the same name, by Marvin Gaye

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