Not Quite A Mea Culpa

Yesterday I expressed skepticism about Scott Foundas‘s rave review of Anthony and Joe Russo‘s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I just feel he’s been a little too generous and obliging with CG fanboy crap. But not this time. Foundas was right on the money. I saw Winter Soldier last night at Disney and I have to give praise where due. This is one sharp, well-written (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), rock-solid, mega-efficient, super-expensive something or other, and with a certain humanist empathy that seeps through from time to time. It’s going to be a huge hit.

Speaking as a confirmed hater of comic-book movies, I was really and truly okay with this thing. It’s way, way above the level of The Avengers (which I mostly despised) and the second and third Iron Man movies. If you’re going to shell out your hard-earned coin for a comic-book movie, this is the way to go. Smart and swift and clean. The Russo brothers have been working on TV productions and M.I.A. from theatrical features since You and Me Dupree, but now they’re the new champs. And they have another Disney-distributed Captain America film due in May 2016.

I also admired Joe Johnston’s Captain America (2011), and I can shower the same praise upon Winter Soldier — “It speeds right along, cuts to the chase, does it right…it moves, mad-dashes, soars, whooshes, runs, delights and barrel-asses.” The CG is super grade-A (five VFX companies contributed) and the $175 million budget is all on the screen. It’s almost on the level of a James Cameron film…almost. Every line, every scene, every frame exudes shrewd judgment and tip-top craft.

And the entire cast gets it right. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, Samuel L. Jackson are right in the groove, but the stand-out (for me anyway) is Robert Redford in bad-guy mode — a career first if you don’t count Indecent Proposal. As Alexander Pierce, a corporate governmental smoothie, Redford plays it straight and grounded — a completely cool, pragmatic, self-aware, bullshit-averse man of substance and conviction as far as that goes. And he’s been given more than a few choice lines. (There’s one about Iron Man that’s hilarious.)

This is a genre film so you can’t get too excited, but the focus, craft and general efficiency that have gone into Winter Soldier are truly exceptional and top-of-the-line. If you’re going to do this kind of crap, this is how you do it.

Comic-book movies are always trying to top the last one and so they pour on that much more money and edge and excitement and technology and CG wallop, and this one certainly does that. How is JJ Abrams going to compete with his forthcoming Star Wars sequel? He delivered a similar type of whammo super-colossal climax in his last Star Trek film, and I was asking myself as I sat there last night, “How much bigger, faster, romp-stompier and more FX-persuasive can movies like this get? And to what end when they reach the next level?”

The humanity and true-blue character issues in Johnston’s version aren’t quite as pronounced in Winter Soldier, but they’re certainly tangible. This is a film about delivering the CG comic-book package with extra kapow and a current of ’70s-style paranoia, but a portion (at least in the third act) is about humanity and compassion and…well, let’s not get carried away. But in the context of a big superhero film, soul and empathy ain’t hay.