Brief Thoughts: The Amazing Spiderman 2 & Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo 

Marvel Studios, apparently with another decade's worth of sequels and movies planned ahead, show no signs of letting up with the sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger. I can't split from the consensus where The Avengers and their offshoots are concerned; they are the most anticipated and arguably high-quality of all lighthearted superhero movies. This includes their outsider Marvel Universe cousins, Spiderman and X-Men, neither of whose respective studios, to date, have created a film to truly rival the enjoyment of Thor, Captain America, or Iron Man. Part of this is largely the approach taken in the screenwriting; it is snappier, more self-aware, willing to address its apparent silliness, yet never feels ironic or condescending toward its subject matter. It is happily referential to its roots without feeling overly self-serious.

The Winter Soldier takes place after the events of Loki's foiled Tesseract attack on New York. Steve Rogers is shown in Washington DC, working for SHIELD on various military assignments and attempting to come to terms with the seventy-something years he has lost. Literally a man out of time, Steve also struggles to adjust to the complexities and sliding moral scale that the modern government partakes in. Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, and Scarlett Johansson, as Natasha (The Black Widow) provides a more roguish counterpoint to Captain America's earnest righteousness.

The Russo Brothers intelligently blend the shadowy workings of Hydra with a criminal political conspiracy at the heart of SHIELD. As many other critics have mentioned, casting Robert Redford in the film undoubtedly alludes to the 70's political thriller, with his starring roles in All the President's Men and Three Days of the Condor. The Winter Soldier explores topical events, basing its twisty plot – and much of Captain America's indignation - around ideas of freedom vs. security and the questionable morality of pre-emptive military strikes. Most saliently, it seems to address the NSA and a right-wing conspiracy to spy on and eliminate potential political subversives.

Of course, all of this is oblique – but quite clearly there if you choose to scratch the surface. Ultimately The Winter Soldier is a brilliantly entertaining blockbuster, and like many such big-budget films, it toys with liberal ideas before reneging or simply forgetting about them in the excitement of the conclusion. After all, audiences want to see superheroes fight a villain, and it's too difficult to make the lovable, patriotic super-soldier into an emblem of anti-militarism. The Black Widow's speech near the end cleanly assures us, and the world at large, of the essential 'necessary evil' of SHIELD's existence. Politically muddled though it may be, it still manages to engage with some genuine concerns. 

Certainly, Marvel has done well to place Steve Rogers in a modern setting, while addressing the quaintness of his values. All heartfelt decency and loyalty, with straw-blond hair and a square jaw, it would have been easy for Chris Evans to have been a bore – the dated superhero better left on the page. Instead of attempting to modernize or update the character, a stumbling block is worked wonderfully into the plot. He writes lists of things he hears about and doesn't understand (The Berlin Wall? Rocky?) and is constantly the butt of other characters' jokes. The simplicity and essential goodness of his character seems charmingly old-fashioned rather than dull or obtuse, and allowing him to question and tackle his own superiors' decisions makes him more than a yes-man.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is enormously enjoyable, and finely tunes the balance of elements – self-awareness and silliness, vague philosophical notions and genre trappings – which make for an addition to Marvel Studio's list of fine superhero movies.  

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Dir. Marc Webb 

It's a shame to have to immediately mention The Amazing Spiderman 2 in comparison to Marvel Studios' output, but it is almost inevitable; this sequel to Marc Webb's re-boot of the Spiderman franchise really does pale in comparison. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, as the romantic leads, have an onscreen rapport and warmth that sweetens the film, and gives great flexibility to sometimes overwritten scenes. Nonetheless, Peter Parker's on-again-off-again romance with Gwen Stacy – combined with a revelation about his parents – leaves an otherwise unassuming and affable Garfield sniffling and teary-eyed much too frequently.

Spiderman, of course, is known for his wisecracking, kindly charm. It is something Webb captures in part, but there is simply too little of it, with jokes and antics cut out for an overabundance of villain origin stories. The narrative is weighed down by several unwieldy elements, including the dangerous downward spiral of Peter's old friend Harry Osborn (a reasonably sinister Dane DeHaan) and the freakish creation of Electro (Jamie Foxx) who for somewhat arbitrary reasons becomes hellbent on destroying Spiderman. Combined with the personal and family elements of Peter's life, there are simply too many threads and too few of them that are truly engaging. The best bits are when Spidey is at his witty, skyscraper-swinging finest, saving kids from harm and juggling bottles of uranium in the back of a gangster's speeding lorry.

It must be said that Garfield and Stone provide bolstering performances - they play off one another in such a lovestruck manner that the narrative seems to pause at any point to watch them banter. I just wish the real-life couple could display their charm in a better movie. As a matter of fact, I wish my friendly neighborhood Spiderman would be allowed the same opportunity.

Now showing at Cineworld Nottingham


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