So let’s get one thing out of the way—I love summer blockbusters. Love them. They’re honestly my favourite kind of film. The best ones have it all: compelling characters, memorable set-pieces, a plot that builds to an exciting third act climax—and still makes sense—and, overall, a respect for their audience. In a great blockbuster, everything serves the story, and just because something is escapist entertainment doesn’t mean it has to be dumb.
I believe there’s no reason a blockbuster can’t also be an intelligent film. I fear that that opinion simply doesn’t matter to the corporations that make blockbusters though. They’re much more concerned with: How will this scene sell lunchboxes? Can our hero change outfits a few more times? We need more action figure designs. How can we nsubtly plant the seeds for six spin-off films? More often than not, blockbusters in this modern era come out as blatant cash cows, not as compelling stories in their own right.
Which brings me to the point of this little ramble: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I’ve been to see pretty much every blockbuster that’s come out this summer and Captain America is the best. More than being an entertaining spectacle, it’s a fine film.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a great protagonist. Steve is moral without being preachy, confident without being cocky (that’s Iron Man’s deal), and compassionate while also remaining totally hardcore. The writers wisely chose to develop his character so that instead of being a gag, his old-fashioned values are integral to the story and have real emotional weight. The genuinely moving scene between Steve and his dementia-laden former-girlfriend Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is an excellent example of Cap’s emotional development.
Furthermore, Steve is far from the only compelling character in the film. Every hero gets a chance to shine, from Cap’s work-buddy Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), to his soldierly camaraderie with Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and to his uneasy trust with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
And the villains! I was blown away by how well this film handled the multiple villain concept—better than any other superhero film I’ve seen to date. C-list villains such as Crossbones and Batroc the Leaper are played as action-movie sub-bosses, while Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) gives us a dose of over-the-top evil Nazi supercomputer. But of course the most important villain is the titular Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who is a formidable physical threat, but, more importantly, has some genuine emotional conflict with Cap.
The Winter Soldier is a taut, coherent espionage action thriller. The action is well-structured. From the opening stealth raid on the hijacked S.H.I.E.L.D. ship to the exciting takedown of the three flying aircraft carriers, the directors Joe and Anthony Russo masterfully deliver creative set pieces that build upon each other effectively, so that each piece is more exhilarating and dynamic than the last. Not once did I sit there thinking, “that’s a plot hole, why couldn’t they just do x.” That’s not to say you couldn’t find holes in the film if you looked hard enough, but I was so invested in the journey of the characters, and in what was at stake, that I didn’t care to.
Most importantly, Captain America respects its audience. We are never asked to root for characters who are pandering(Transformers), or to swallow a story stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster (Amazing Spider-Man 2). Our lead character has an emotional journey (try again Thor: The Dark World), and the stakes of the film feel important (sorry Guardians of the Galaxy).
On top of that, Captain America actually has something to say about the modern world—a world where seemingly everyone is being spied on, where satellite targeting and smart-bombs mean that anyone, anywhere, could conceivably be a target. But just because it’s about something doesn’t mean it can’t also be a super-soldier-sized dose of entertainment.
It seems fitting to say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of a dying breed—a movie that cares about telling a story that demands that we care and is an entertaining action spectacle. I hope Marvel Studios continues to learn from its successes. If they keep making movies this good, I’ll have a ticket in hand for every single one.
-contributed by Jeremy Large