Marvel will never top The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t just my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s one of my favorite films in recent memory. The sequel to the kitchy and genre-steeped The First Avenger transcends the superhero movie, succeeding as a taut thriller in the vein of 70s spy films and with the kinetic panache of the Bourne films. I don’t think that Marvel and the creative team behind The Winter Soldier will ever again capture that lightning in a bottle, but I’m very excited to see them try – first tonight at a screening of Captain America: Civil War, and then again in a few years for the third and fourth films in the Avengers series.
The film was helmed by the Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, and at first I could not reconcile their previous work with the action spectacular of The Winter Soldier. How could the guys best known for the incredible comedy Arrested Development (for which they won an Emmy) and the nerd-beloved Community transition so flawlessly into one of the biggest films of 2014? It took some research into their creative process and personalities to discover their secret was not only simple, but it was the same axiom that I believe personally and professionally: there is nothing more important than attention to detail.
I’d dive into some comparisons between the Russo’s penchant for the long-game of set-ups and pay-offs in comedy and how that easily translates to action and intrigue in a superhero-cum-spy movie, but that’s really worth another post (that I’ll doubtlessly never actually write). Suffice to say, the creative team behind The Winter Soldier had both the luxury of time to write, edit, revise, and polish every square inch of the film during pre production (and increasingly rare luxury in a Hollywood producing increasingly large amounts of drivel) and the passion to find the emotional core in every scene. There isn’t a wasted shot in the brisk 136 minute runtime.
(The brothers, who are self-proclaimed geeks of a high order, say that during the development of the film they constantly challenged themselves to create a film that was “Honest Trailers proof.”)
The Russos and their Director of Photography also carefully developed the visual impact of the film. The Winter Soldier is shot naturalistically and heavily leans on practical effects whenever possible. The lensing and framing (and the 2.35 aspect ratio) were designed to recall the same 70s espionage films that inspired the story with natural light reinforcing the realistic feel while handheld cameras are used extensively to add the kind of jittery documentarian texture that defined the Bourne films (especially the frenetic Paul Greengrass-directed installments).
While the story revolves around iconic comic book characters and includes a trio of floating battle stations, a Nazi scientist turned conspiratorial AI, and one of America’s most treasured living actors playing a power-hungry and homicidal politician, the core of the story is much more simple. The Winter Soldier is a dressed-up fish out of water story as two men out of time battle with the realities of a 21st century that they never wanted to be a part of. It isn’t man vs man, or even superman vs super villain, it’s Marvel’s everyman vs the system. And the film asks some tough questions along the way — questions without the easy answers common to comic book fare.
Of course, in that 136 minutes of man vs society The Winter Soldier features plenty of man v. man, man v. men, women v. man, and everything in between in the form of dazzling set-piece sequences. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereafter: MCU) contains no shortage of fun, tense, and well executed action sequences — from the desert ambush and subsequent introduction of the Mark 1 Iron Man suit in the film that kicked off this whole shared world, to the comic absurdity of Ant Man battling Yellow Jacket atop a speeding (toy) train. The Winter Soldier surpasses every other MCU film for both quantity and quality of of action.
Taking another cue from the 70s conspiracy films, The Winter Soldier doesn’t start off with an action sequence but rather the film opens with a slow and quiet scene that introduces the Washington D.C. setting as well as an important supporting hero. But just a few minutes later Cap is jumping out of a jet (sans parachute, naturally) onto a terrorist/pirate/hydra controlled ship, and nine minutes of action follow that shows Cap’s development into a total and ruthless badass, teases the villain-turn of not one but two of Cap’s allies, and gives Black Widow time to show off both her abilities and her wit while establishing an important emotional connection of the film (the relationship between Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanova — more on this shortly).
Three more set piece sequences follow, including Nick Cage getting a chance to show his own level of bad assitude (before he gets assassinated), the iconic elevator fight that turns Rogers into a fugitive, and the Michael Mann-influenced Winter Soldier ambush that tears Steve Rogers back down to a little kid from brooklyn. Each sequence is unique, imaginative and masterfully executed by everyone involved.
But the action, even as compelling as it is in the film, is secondary to the characters throwing the punches. It’s the relationships that drive the film, and this is where the Russo brothers are strongest. Years of crafting intricate and delicate relationships that reflect our own interpersonal foibles on Arrested Development and Community gave the Russos the chops to bring that kind of texture to characters born of four-color printing. The way Rogers bickers with Fury belies his begrudging respect for his boss the super-spy, and Roger’s frustrations with his lack of place in the modern world are at the center of every conflict in the film.
The acting chops of the ensemble further underwrites the emotional connections in the film., and the natural charisma of Anthony Mackie translates into an instantly likeable and believable Sam Wilson (Falcon). You buy the bond that he forgers with Rogers even though they only get two scenes together before unofficially teaming up. It’s the working relationship between Captain America and Black Widow that I find most compelling. Instead of a romantic entanglement adding stakes and drama to the film, a choice that’s expected and easy in a Hollywood tentpole, Steve and Nat act much more believably like “work spouses” — to quote the Russos. Sure, there are moments of flirtation and sexual tension, but that’s just texture in a complex professional relationship that has seen the soldier and the spy become friends.
In the real world where not every woman and man thrown together by circumstance fall in love, it is refreshing to see a positive portrayal of friendship between equals, and one so well executed and believable. Each side gets their licks in, and when tempers flair they know how to defuse the situation with a joke or an apology. Just like real friends do. And as in real friendships, they each feel comfortable showing weakness to the other. It’s a skillful example of how you “show don’t tell” a relationship built on respect and trust.
It is easily my favorite relationship in the MCU, and I wish that Joss Whedon had plumbed it further in Avengers 2. Even with all the promise of insane action spectacle that the Russo’s should bring to Civil War, it’s the confrontation between Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanova — each on different side of the #TeamCap and #TeamIronman divide — that I’m most excited to see tonight.
I don’t think that CIvil War will surpass The Winter Soldier as the best of the MCU, but I can’t wait to find out for sure.