By R. David

Viewed April, 4 2014

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major disappointment.  Not only has it garnered rather exceptional notices from critics, but I thought the first “Captain America” film, while not without its flaws, had a refreshingly old fashioned matinee-style energy and Indiana Jones-esque spirit.  If only it could have been a bit less silly and attempt to avoid the tired conventions of the typical Marvel film, I complained.

Well, be careful what you wish for, I guess, because “Winter Soldier” spends so much time trying to convince the audience it is more than a mere comic book film – rather a complex and serious mystery; a James Bond-style action film with something topical to say about the state of the world in which we live, rather than the rabble-rousing cinematic throwback that the first film aspired to be – it loses any sense of fun in the bargain.

Directors (and brothers) Joe and Anthony Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, deserve kudos for their ambitious attempt to present a grounded superhero film as opposed to the usual outlandish offerings that populate the Marvel stable (“Thor”, “Spider-Man”, etc.).  But the fact remains that “Winter Soldier” is only “grounded” in its plotting.  The action sequences and convoluted character tie-in agenda is pure, generic Marvel .  The studio is simply far too invested in the universal appeal of these films and characters to allow any director to really go for broke.  At least while they are still raking in billions of dollars at the box office each year, that is.  Thus, the filmmakers can’t attempt anything nearly as radical and realistically complex as say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.  So instead we get an awkward compromise:  a movie with all the usual outlandish, comic book FX sequences clumsily blended with a dreary, overly complex and intrusive story that strives to give the film weight, but instead renders it nothing but tedious.

For a while though things are looking up.  Chris Evens reveals he hasn’t lost a step as Steve Rogers/“Cap”, who is still trying to assimilate into 2014 America after being cryogenically frozen since WWII.  The script gets some solid mileage (and chuckles) from his naiveté and lack of pop culture awareness, but these simple pleasures are constantly overshadowed by the film’s outrageous action sequences (from the generic shoot-out opening, to the silly and exhausting finale – only a SUV chase around the nation’s capital raises an excitement).  And the freewheeling spirit of the original film is only captured in fleetingly brief asides (Cap dispatching an elevator full of thugs).  The rest of the film hinges on lots of plot exposition courtesy of Robert Redford as a SHIELD higher-up spearheading a suspicious satellite ant-terrorism project and various supporting cast members who pop up and spout some inane revelatory dialog simply to tell the audience what’s going on and move the story along to the next beat. 

Oh, and about the story; it’s preposterous.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sends Cap and Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), to free a bunch of SHIELD hostages, but Cap discovers mid-mission Romanoff has a secret agenda that involves extracting data for Fury.  Furious, Cap confronts Fury (see what I did there?) who informs Cap about Project Insight, the aforementioned spy satellite program designed to preemptively neutralize foreign threats (if you’re worried that there might be a none-too-subtle commentary on real life military policies afoot, you should be).

But who’s this titular Winter Soldier, you ask?  Well, he kidnaps and presumably executes Fury over the data Romanoff secured.  Cap digs into WS’ true identity and discovers they may be old acquaintances from Rogers’ WWII, HYDRA-battling heyday.

That’s enough plot, you say?  Oh no, no, dear reader.  It keeps going.  There are supercomputers containing this and that discovered.  Romanoff isn’t even Cap’s intended partner in this movie.  There’s a whole other parallel arc with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as Caps partner and best friend and his “Falcon” wingpack (I wonder if he’ll spend about 20 minutes of the finale showing that thing off?).  Data-mining algorithms are discovered and created, data bases and classified information are jeopardized, double-crosses ensue and moles are revealed.  Ships collide.   Stuff happens at the Potomac River.  A HYDRA test facility is discovered.  There’s WikiLeaks paranoia parallels, Guantanamo parallels, talk of telekinesis…  This movie is completely exhausting.  And if the unnecessarily overstuffed plot wasn’t enough, the action sequences are just as bludgeoning.  They all go the generic and obnoxious shaky-cam route; except for the finale, which is standard-issue Marvel CGI everything. 

There are plenty of good things in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.  As stated, Evan’s finds just the right appealing tone for Cap; and he is surrounded by good performers, particularly Jackson and Redford who are both ideally cast and each seem to be relishing their respective roles (though Jackson can by now play this part in his sleep, he’s still always fun to have around).  And I do admire the filmmakers’ attempts to ground these characters in a real-world espionage potboiler.  The Russo brothers’ directing style suggests a “Bourne” film, while Marcus and McFeely’s script aspires to be a later day kin to 1970s conspiracy thrillers like “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Jackal”.  They even took care to make Cap’s suit more real-life military-esque, and whenever possible the script eschews the heroes’ monikers (Johansson is rarely referred to as Black Widow).  All good stuff.

But the movie just isn’t as complex or interesting as it thinks it is, and it has no idea when to quit – both where the plot and the action sequences are concerned.  It’s all too much – and ultimately, it’s all much ado about nothing.

2 Stars (Out of 4)