Is it merely very good, or is it the best of the MarvelVerse movies to be released thus far?
A lot of folks I respect have been arguing the latter (including MightyGodKing’s Chris Bird listing it as #1 in his ranking of all 32 Marvel-based live action movies to be released since 1998), and I’m not sure I’d go that far. The juxtaposition of Cap in what’s basically a spy movie doesn’t always work, and once you get past the Surprise Reveal of the villain’s identity (admittedly a whopper, and spoiled by a truly hilarious Internet meme), their scheme is … problematic, to say the least.
Granted, Avengers — which remains my favorite of the Marvels — had a similar problem. But this time there’s no Tony Stark to call-out the big bad and say “WTF? You know your plan is stupid, right?” Villain quality has been an issue throughout this otherwise excellent run of movies, with Loki and “The Mandarin” (heh) being the only ones coming close to solving it well. (I’m calling it now: if any of the Marvel movies luck into a bad guy anywhere near Heath Ledger’s Joker, we’ll have an instant contender for Best Superhero Movie EVAR.)
As somebody who largely doesn’t read comics, I remain delighted by the degree to which I’ve enjoyed the Captain America movies. An off-the-cuff description — all-American patriot and super-soldier battles America’s enemies — would have me expecting something at best schmaltzy, at worst insultingly jingoistic. Instead, both his own two movies and Avengers have shown a very human, remarkably relatable character who knows he’s striving for ideals his own side often falls short of. For me, the defining Cap moment remains “Put on your suit” in the Avengers. He’s so pissed-off at Tony that he’d like to kick his ass, but doing it mano-a-mano would be the kind of bullying Steve Rogers abhors. Tony may be a billionaire playboy genius, but outside of his suit, Steve will mop the floor with him. So, he tells him to put on the suit, even though that doesn’t so much level the playing field as reverse it — in an undamaged Iron Man suit, Tony can go toe-to-toe with gods.
Steve doesn’t care. He’d rather put himself at a whopping disadvantage than be a bully.
And that’s why sticking him in a spy movie is actually kind of genius.
The days of America’s most dangerous enemies being the obvious ones are well behind us — assuming they ever existed at all.* The latest Captain America movie doesn’t merely acknowledge this, it makes it central to the plot. Steve is uncompromised without being either haughty or weak, making him the perfect agent of change to rip the cover off secrets and apply the principle that sunlight makes the best disinfectant.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the action sequences, and honestly, I don’t see what the problem is. Sure, there’s nothing on the level of the artisanal bloodshed and limb-snapping of The Raid 2, but it’s not like we’re talking spastic, Michael-Bay-at-his-worst shaky-cam, either. I also liked the reminders that Steve is a SOLDIER, one who will use lethal force without hesitation when the situation calls for it; superheroes don’t normally toss grenades, or throw knives. I found the action setpieces clear enough to follow and engaging enough to advance the story, and well-grounded in who the characters were. Works for me.
In fact, I felt like there was considerably more at stake than in most of the Marvel movies. Cap’s tough, but he’s still only human; put enough bullets into him, and he’ll die. And his two fellow “superheroes” are even more vulnerable than he is; Black Widow is just a woman who’s damned good at a dangerous job, and Falcon is a dude with a “suit” that Tony Stark famously outclassed in a cave. (“With a box of scraps!!!”) And watching the eponymous Winter Soldier tear through a bunch of friendly mooks trying to answer Cap’s call to arms … yeeouch.
What surprised me, though, was how well the movie worked in the quieter moments. I completely bought the relationship between Steve and his new friend Sam; despite the vast gulf in time and experience between them, they were still brother soldiers and related to each other as such. When Steve gave Sam a hard time about how “slow” he runs, it felt like a friendly busting of chops when it could easily could have come off as massively dickish. When Sam decides to join the fight in earnest, his reasons, which could have felt completely hokey, feel well-earned.
Steve’s relationship with Natasha felt similarly real for completely different reasons; they’re nominally on the same side, but their differing world views mean a very natural lack of trust that the movie had to bridge. And the sexual tension, such as a it was, felt right for two attractive people who know damn well they’d be a horrific romantic mismatch. (If anything, Natasha tweaking Steve in those moments felt analogous to Steve teasing Sam, and our hero handles it with grace.)
And I loved how Steve’s lawful-good Army rules lawyering revealed a crucial plot element.
And, of course, we FINALLY get to see Samuel L. Jackson be a badass in one of these things.
Not all of the MarvelVerse movies have been great, but even at their worst (likely Iron Man 2), they’ve still been watchable and enjoyable. They’ve hit that Pixar stage where, until they shit their version of Cars 2 onto the screen, I’m going to be there for each and every one of them, no questions asked.
This is a comic book movie to its core, from the bloodless fight scenes to the grandiose villainy. If you don’t like that kind of movie, sit this one out. But if you do, this is damn near as good as it gets. Highly recommended.
* — Something the first Cap movie slyly acknowledges by making the scientist who buffs-out Steve German himself.