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Near-Perfect ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Defies Common Sequel Disappointment

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CHICAGO – If the original is anything to applaud, the sequel usually isn’t. And even more rarely is the sequel actually better.

While it’s aggressive to market “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as one of the “best superhero movies of all time” and more realistic to pitch it as “better than ‘The Avengers,’” it most certainly is 2014’s best action flick yet and it definitely defies common sequel disappointment.

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.
Photo credit: Marvel Studios

When I think back on “Captain America: The First Avenger” three years ago, I recall it being just fine. I snoozed through a bit of it, I was somewhat underwhelmed by a lot of it. I remember leaving and thinking I just got more of the same Hollywood blockbuster formula. I wasn’t surprised, blown away or boldly thrown off-guard by twists and turns I couldn’t have expected. A scrawny nobody gets a high-tech government serum and it’s just like Popeye eating his spinach. Fine. We got it.

But three years later, it drops its initial director Joe Johnston. He has a dartboard of directorial credits including “Hidalgo,” “Jurassic Park III,” “Jumanji,” “The Rocketeer” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”. Instead, it brings on an even more surprising choice: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. These guys are known for directing TV comedies including “Community” and “Arrested Development” along with lighthearted films such as “You, Me and Dupree”.

They’ve certainly never taken on a comic-book blockbuster. But with the same two screenwriters inking the sequel (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) from the same two comic-book guys (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) and the addition of Ed Brubaker’s concept and story, the Russo boys are in good hands.

Anthony Mackie and Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Anthony Mackie (left) and Chris Evans in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.
Photo credit: Marvel Studios

Their mission? Drop our frozen-in-time Captain America into the modern world to battle a new threat from old history. The final product? They mold their well-formed clay with all of the fun, drama, story, action and special effects you can ask for from Marvel and a Hollywood blockbuster.

For starters, we enjoyably feast our eyes on some memorable hero vs. villain battles. They’re made more interesting when we learn the underlying truth that our hero (Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America) used to be best friends with his new enemy (Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes and the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier).

Our bad guy, though, is somehow drugged-up to not remember their friendly past. While writing in this Alzheimer’s part is sketchy – because Bucky sometimes does remember and sometimes doesn’t, whereas Captain America doesn’t have this same problem – I’m willing to overlook it because it’s so fun to watch them square off against each other. Bucky’s forgetfulness as a side effect to his super steroids reminds us of what happened to Jason Bourne when he powered up, or even more recently with Theo James as Four in “Divergent”.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.
Photo credit: Marvel Studios

But the star sequence of the film unexpectedly goes to a supporting (albeit quite crucial) character: the “what’s in your wallet?” man Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Always shrouded in secrecy and intrigue as the head of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Fury has his own enemies, too. You don’t initially know why, but the film pits him against the city’s brutal cops. It’s a car chase for the Hollywood history books where his tricked-out SUV is armed with ultra “shield” technology that mostly wards off even the heaviest of government artillery.

The already-incredible action sequence culminates into the perfect climax: Fury’s badassmobile finally falls while serving as an introduction to our villain. While our Winter Soldier still doesn’t snatch his target and Fury eludes his evil captor by burning through the ground, the end of the scene sets the stage for challenging battles later on with Captain America and everyone else this metal-armed, long-haired guy gets pissed off by.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.
Photo credit: Marvel Studios

We even get a sneak peek inside his power from a scene that reveals Hydra – the underlying evil force battling S.H.I.E.L.D. that claims credit for much of the world’s worst moments – and the gaggle of bad guys who are medically controlling him. I’m left with questions from this sketchy scene – again, you’re supposed to just believe it but you don’t really do – and in it I’m reminded of one of the worst decisions made by the film.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” certainly isn’t devoid of its flaws and foibles, but its standout sore thumb is Robert Redford. Now 77 years old while looking like he’s 120, he’s moving like a turtle. As an actor, he no longer holds the power as his Alexander Pierce role is supposed to. Sure, focusing the camera on him and him alone in “All is Lost” works, but his ship has sailed with “Captain America”. I’d much rather have gotten behind someone like an 83-year-old Sean Connery here.

I have no complaints with bringing back Scarlett Johansson as the Russian world-class spy Natasha Romanoff (codename: Black Widow). After first seeing this agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in “Iron Man 2” when she assessed the suitability of Tony Stark for the Avenger Initiative, Black Widow has all the elements of an estrogen-driven action star. She’s confident, provocative, dressed in form-fitting black and armed with every James Bond weapon your everyday lady fantasizes about manning.

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.
Photo credit: Marvel Studios

Now the sequel introduction of Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson or the Falcon nailed it. Loyal to Captain America through thick and thin, I enjoy his fragility. Once he steps foot in Falcon, you get a sense that he’s wearing a temporary high-tech joy ride and this fun gadgetry can easily lose a wing or two. Not every action star can or should be invulnerable. This guy gives us just enough to feel good about getting on Captain America’s team.

The film takes an unexpected turn with Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola. After seeing the Marvel supervillain and master of biochemistry in the first “Captain America” and figuring him for dead, the Swiss/Nazi genetic engineer from World War II gets the same treatment as Johnny Depp will later this month in “Transcendence” (executive produced by Christopher Nolan from “The Dark Knight”).

That reminds us why “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” succeeds on so many levels: we don’t see so much of it coming, we enjoy nearly all of it and we can’t ask for very much more. In the end, the film even gives us renewed faith in the Hollywood blockbuster machine that has so often become stale and formulaic. Perhaps there’s hope yet for 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which will be directed by Joss Whedon (who also directs this film’s post-credit Easter egg scene).

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” stars Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwel, Frank Grillo and the typical cameo by Stan Lee. It is directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo with the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, concept and story by Ed Brubaker and comic book by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The 136-minute film, which is rated “PG-13” for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout, opened on April 4, 2014.

HollywoodChicago.com publisher Adam Fendelman

By ADAM FENDELMAN
Publisher
HollywoodChicago.com
adam@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com LLC

Kristeng's picture

The reason Bucky has memory

The reason Bucky has memory loss is because it’s intentionally inflicted by Hydra. They unfreeze him when he’s got a job to do, and then freeze him again; the movie implied that they wipe his memory in between jobs to prevent his past from resurfacing. They literally say “We don’t have time to wipe his memory again” when he is undergoing electric shock therapy. I think the film does a fine job explaining this discrepancy.

HollywoodChicago.com's picture

Memory fragments

It’s gray, and even so, he still has memory fragments (as people always do in films that use memory wiping).

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