Ladies and gentlemen, it’s official: Marvel has won the superhero film wars. Why is that? Because one of their least anticipated films has turned out to be one of their best, rivaled by only the original Iron Man and The Avengers in terms of quality. The first Captain America film was a mindless bit of camp fun, certainly a well-made and well-acted flick, but nothing to scream home at. It explored Captain America as more of a propaganda tool than an action hero, and had some interesting ideas, but didn’t quite get to the Cap film we were all waiting for.
As we know, however, the latest Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, is that Cap film. Made as a political thriller instead of pure action porn like some films (*cough cough* the ever entertaining yet predictable Thor: The Dark World), it not only has become the highest grossing film of the season, but also shows off the key factors needed for all future superhero films to be as well received and as successful. Now, to be fair, The Winter Soldier is extremely good, but it falls just below Dark Knight quality for a few minor hiccups, which we will not detail here (btw, our editor-in-chief disagrees wholeheartidly disagrees. Winter Soldier trumps The Dark Knight!). Think of it being Spider-Man 2 level of goodness, which is definitely a compliment on its own. It’s not a perfect film, but it isn’t trying to be. All it’s trying to do is tell its story the best way possible, and it does exactly that. Note: The Winter Soldier and all other Marvel films will be SPOILED at great length. Do not read this unless you like to tell children that Santa isn’t real.
All in all, very few films manage to have what is essentially the best cast for any given role. Even some of the best films of the last several years don’t have this. For the few flaws that it has, one of its flaws is not the casting. Both Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford are the perfect picks for The Falcon and Alexander Pierce, respectively. Mackie doesn’t portray Sam Wilson as a basic sidekick kind of character, and he’s definitely not a Robin or a Jimmy Olsen. Instead, he serves as Cap’s intellectual equal, and is certainly better than most at keeping up with him physically. The two are partners from the beginning, and Wilson may just be one of the most selfless characters of recent memory. He’s actually more of a saint than Steve Rogers himself.
Redford, on the other hand, brings the perfect kind of intensity to Pierce, and it’s not surprising. The man is a living legend, and he’s somehow here in a Marvel movie.
It’s also not just the new people doing great, the old crowd does even better this time around. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Sebastian Stan all turn in their best respective performances as their characters, and taking what initially were cliches and giving them far more depth. Evans in particular is the true standout, since he’s finally given an emotional arc this time around in dealing with being an old-fashioned man in a modern world. The film’s plot (which I will not be spoiling) lets him come to grips with his past and move on.
The lesson to be taken here is that it’s obvious that the Russo brothers and casting took their time to find the right people. They did not go for the flavor of the hour, they went for an established actor who’s been turning in great roles under the radar for years, and a living screen legend. Casting is integral to the success of a film, and casting in superhero films have gotten strangely lazy in some instances recently.
The Winter Soldier’s best quality is the sheer weight of the action. This isn’t discussed very often, but something registers in someone far more often if you can set the right tone. In a typical action porn film, let’s say Transformers, it’s all very pretty and explode-y, but it doesn’t register since you know for a fact that it’s not real. Filming action with as little special effects as needed, plus great sound design, is key for great action sequences. And The Winter Soldier has nailed this in a way that few other superhero flicks have gotten to. When the Winter Soldier punches Captain America’s shield, you not only see it, you feel it thanks to a distinctive gong noise that goes along with it. Chris Evans also contorts his face in pain instead of taking the hit and hitting back. Not only that, but the choreography, by James Young and Thomas Robinson Harper, is impeccable. Not since The Raid Redemption, an Indonesian action film, has the fight scenes been so visceral. Someone needs to hire them both for every film imaginable, and they alone make a case for why stunt work should be acknowledged at the Oscars.
This is the lesson folks like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder need to take from this: good CGI compliments the practical effects, not the other way around. You don’t use a bottle of mayonnaise as the main course, it serves as the dressing to your Captain America sandwich.
Out of the new characters to the Cinematic Universe, perhaps one of the most surprising is Silver Age stalwart The Falcon. Originally introduced as a racial sterotype back in the days of yore, comic book Falcon was a distinctly odd character, being able to telepathically communicate with falcons and essentially serving as the token black character on the Avengers for several years. This was before comic book writers learned that just because a superhero wasn’t the same skin color as you, didn’t mean that he talked or acted in stereotyped ways. You could almost wonder how such a one-note character could ever work in a film. Except the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely found a way: by using him as a counterpoint to Cap’s old school nationalism.
While Cap served in World War II, this Falcon served in the War on Terror, and lives his life with the trauma of being a war veteran in the modern day. The second time we see him, he’s in a support group, and seems to be dedicating his life to others who fought for their country. This and the somewhat dark sense of humor he adopts to cope with this gives him some surprisingly sensitive moments. Not to mention that he gets to live out every common fellow on the street’s dream: meeting one of the world’s greatest superheroes on a jog, and eventually getting to become one yourself. It’s a distinctive niche that hasn’t been explored yet, and Falcon takes on serious subject matter with aplomb. We also have one of the worst Silver Age villains in this film: Batroc the Leaper.
Serving originally as a bundle of French stereotypes, with no superpowers to speak of and a really stupid goatee, Batroc was one of those half-assed villains pulled out of a hat, who inexplicably stayed around for decades. But somehow, the Russos and Markus and McFeely somehow gave him a credible role here too. Batroc initially seems like the villain of the week, kidnapping SHIELD agents and keeping them hostage, but it’s eventually revealed that he’s a double agent all along, and the agents he captured actually belonged to HYDRA. Ironically, Batroc and Cap were on the same side all along. So we see here a willingness to take old ideas, and redesign them for what is necessary. However, Falcon and Batroc aren’t changed for the hell of it; they’re changed to complement the story. If an old character is re-purposed successfully like these two, you’ll immediately see the results. If the change suits the story, go for it.
As we have learned from other studios’ attempts to make superhero movies, it’s not nearly enough to just throw a bunch of fan favorite characters into the mix and hope something happens with it (hello X-Men Origins, you sly dog), you also have to create a story that is not only relevant to the time you’re filming in, but also something that can be watched later without too much confusion. Iron Man and The Dark Knight both looked at the superhero from a post-9/11 perspective, using the War on Terror and paranoia to create stories in which no one’s identity was certain. Tony Stark discovered that the weapons his company were making were in fact being sold to terrorist groups across the Middle East to perpetuate their sales. Bruce Wayne actually resorted to wiretapping and invading people’s privacy, breaking the law in order to catch the Joker.
An earlier example of a relevant story is in X-Men 2, where mutants are exterminated and persecuted the way homosexuals have been for years, and can even serve as a Holocaust reference. X-Men 2 is as much about gay rights as Iron Man is about the War on Terror, and both are enriched for it. The Winter Soldier uses the recent revelation that our own government has been spying on us and taking our information without our knowledge, and substituting HYDRA for the NSA. Both are functionally identical in some ways, both have no value for human life, and both are supposedly working for the greater good. Granted, HYDRA is naturally worse since their plan is to start another Holocaust using three Helicarriers, but the similarities are obvious. We are currently living in a paranoid time when no one can be trusted, and The Winter Soldier is a political thriller where no one’s allegiance is certain. Having stories revolving around people beating the crap out of each other just because is no longer enough. The best superhero films are the ones that take on an actual issue we’re dealing with in society, and using our fictional heroes as a mouthpiece for what we’d do if we had their kind of power and their morality. We want heroes who will always do the right thing to help us lead better lives (except Chris Nolan’s Batman, of course). Since no one that empathetic will ever exist in the real world, all we have left is them. That’s the way to go about it.
So there you have it, Captain America’s second film serves in many ways as a great template for future superhero flicks to take advantage of. It didn’t do everything right, but it certainly made an effort at doing so, and that’s all we can really ask for in most cases.