In the opening minutes of the 1976 thriller classic Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman sprints around a massive circle. It’s a scenic running path that surrounds a full-bodied lake with a generous canopy of trees covering the path. He’s training, and thanks to a tragic history, he has something to prove. Hoffman is clearly struggling to keep his pace and, despite the picturesque setting, one of the best cinematographers who ever lived, Conrad Hall, made it look dirty. This opening scene is emblematic of the 1970s, where the prevailing paranoid tension of the post-Watergate era made even the beautiful parks look crooked. In the latest Marvel release, the first of two this year (the second being August’s much-anticipated and splendidly strange Guardians of the Galaxy), this scene is partially recreated, not just as a homage for fans of the 70s classic, but as an initiation.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins on a picture-perfect sunny day, ideally suited for barbecues and ballgames. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), or, as Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury calls him, Cap, runs around a glistening lake in Washington D.C. through the landmarks in our nation’s capital. In one of the movie’s only moments where his sheer size doesn’t overpower the cinema frame, a high angle wide shot from the point of view of inside the Lincoln Memorial reduces Captain America to ant-size, almost as though Lincoln himself gazes down upon him. Not even Marvel’s most patriotic superhero stands a chance against the mammoth iconography of the United States. The film begins with Rogers at his most sentimental and idealistic, and these early moments give us one last breath of association between Rogers and the classic aw-shucks we-can-do-it Americanism that characterized his first flick. Unlike Marathon Man, the opening setting is portrayed as all it can be. But, like that film, it isn’t long before the murky fog of war descends -- literally, in this case, as the film quickly switches from day to night and into a thick cluster of dark cloud which Rogers has to literally jump through. This is the film using contrast through visual storytelling to alert audiences to the tone and theme of the film, where noble patriotism starts out as set in stone but minutes later is gone in a puff of smoke.
One of the highest compliments to be paid to Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that discussing any of the plot beyond the opening fifteen minutes can be considered a spoiler. Samuel L. Jackson seems to agree, saying “I think this one’s the best one ‘cause this one actually has a plot.” Suffice it to say this is a conspiracy thriller of the 1970s variety, where Watergate left the country in a state of paranoid panic. Films from this time echo the sentiment, where the protagonist is abandoned by the structures that supported him or her, leading to a chase towards uncovering the truth. The Winter Soldier adopts this pattern and goes as far to borrow broad strokes of its plot from the 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor in which Robert Redford stars. Redford, a cinema icon who famously evaded films like Winter Soldier, plays against type as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. His presence enhances the allusion to the 70s era, and he gives another compelling performance in what appears to be a late career resurgence.
The plot, for a Marvel movie anyway, is densely drawn and always in motion. Unafraid to switch gears with frequency, it’s possible to lose track of every twist and turn in its web of political intrigue, which is an enthralling upgrade from the previous. Although I enjoyed The Dark World a lot, giving it a B+ in my review, the “story” was a nearly nonexistent sham to connect special effects with other special effects. Puzzlingly, both films feature largely the same writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. As a film nearly in need of saving, Tom Hiddleston boosted its value immeasurably. The Winter Soldier needs no such savior, and the script is strong enough that had this been just another 1970s conspiracy thriller, it would’ve been topnotch. If It isn’t the best standalone Marvel film, then it’s certainly close.
Truth be told, in many ways it is just another 70s style actioner, and other than the heightened action of its super-strength protagonist, most of the action plays like Bourne meets cocaine. The action is spectacular, if sometimes distant. Not in proximity to the action, since it’s largely shot with a surprisingly adept use of handheld shaky cam (that does a couple tricks you haven’t seen before), but in immersion. If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s in the lack of rhythm to some of the action scenes, where one gets the feeling of watching something electrifying without ever feeling the shock. Largely, however, the Russo brothers are a gripping duo when it comes to set pieces, and they embrace a forceful approach to violence Marvel and blockbusters in general have shied away from. The action can be startlingly vivid with tenacity for physical combat. Following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan and, again, Bourne, most of the action is intricately choreographed and executed in reality: Real props, real sets, real stunts -- at least as much as possible. Whether it’s a frantic fist fight or a high velocity car chase (one of which resembles the most dangerous round of bumper cars you’ve ever seen, only on the highway, and with a hailstorm of bullets), realism is conveyed. It gives The Winter Soldier a tangible sense of danger frustratingly absent in the rest of the franchise.
Eventually, the action does resort to the CGI fireworks expected in a superhero film, and it does fall into the problem of massive destruction seemingly glanced over by everyone interacting with it. This problem has been addressed widely, from The Avengers to Star Trek: Into Darkness. Despite this, even as the film becomes the product of a computer, the venerable cast grounds it. Along with Redford and Jackson, newcomer Anthony Mackie shares believable chemistry with his costars, and he’s never unwanted. Scarlett Johansson’s having a hell of a month in April. Along with her excellent performance in Under the Skin, she finally makes Black Widow convincing. Considering she did a karate chop with her hair in The Avengers, this is improvement. Chris Evans is perfect for Captain America, possibly because the role only demands the three facial expressions he’s mastered as an actor: earnest, confused, sad.
There is one major criticism towards The Winter Soldier, and that’s its visual design. It’s compositionally insulting and devours any sense of movie magic. Instead, The Winter Soldier feels oddly unresolved, as though it couldn’t decide on any particular look so it opted not to have one at all. The image is washed out, devoid of color and care. David Poland of Movie City News remarked in what he called his “review-ish” that Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks, and feels, like an expensive episode of the ABC series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It does. Other than the action and the stars, nothing about The Winter Soldier’s production looks alien to TV. No. That’s unfair. Even with the chaotic speed of a television show’s production schedule, almost every hit fiction series has a more distinct and attractive look than The Winter Soldier. Look to Game of Thrones, True Detective, Mad Men, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, and so, so many others for easy examples of gorgeous looking productions on TV. Or look to Scarlett Johansson’s other April release, Under the Skin. With a slight budget of around 7 million, the film features beautiful images and compositions. For a movie that reportedly cost ten times that number, 170 million, this is unacceptable and lazy. There’s no excuse. It isn’t merely an issue of wanting a prettier picture, it’s that these films go to the cinema with images repellent to whatever the word ‘cinematic’ has come to mean. The Russo brothers may have used the paranoia of the 1970s to draw a compelling parallel to today, but they failed to mimic the raw visual construction.
Luckily, the rest works, especially the title character. The plot revolves around an assassin from whom the film gets its title, and Winter Soldier is never more exciting than when watching him and Cap go toe to toe. One of their fight scenes exhibits the best fight choreography of the Marvel franchise, and I’ll relish in the opportunity to see it again. As a character, The Winter Soldier’s part of the story fails to cohere in a satisfying manner. But, as a villain, his screen presence is paralyzing. He is by far the best villain of the Marvel franchise, albeit due to Loki’s vexing misuse in Thor and The Avengers. He controls his body with chilling specificity, and every movement is of an exact design. He’s acutely skilled in all weapons, from his fists to the latest tech from Q Branch. An early fight scene shows Captain America struggling, if only slightly, to win a fight. It doesn’t occur to The Winter Soldier to struggle. He doesn’t see the point. He’s going to win.