Captain America vs. the NSA

Captain 2

I am a member of the strong minority that believes that Captain America: The First Avenger is the best of the recent crop of Marvel movies. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is great fun, but the Captain America story is much more emotionally rich. During World War II, an incredibly scrawny, sickly Steve Rogers tries over and over again to enlist in army, but he’s repeatedly rejected. Finally, his verve and bravery catch the eye of the right general, and he’s injected with a serum, bombarded with a lot of electricity, and he grows a foot and some absurd muscles. He becomes Captain America and leads a special team of heroes and spies to fight the Nazis and an evil offshoot called HYDRA. During a major battle, the Captain is in a plane that crashes into the Arctic Ocean. He is thought dead for 70 years, but then his body is found in a block of ice and – because it’s a comic book world – thawed and brought back to life.

The sequel, the fun and surprisingly political thrill-ride Captain America: The Winter Soldier, takes place in the present day. Now, the Captain (Chris Evans, a fine, if not terribly exciting, square jawed hero) is a member of the superhero team the Avengers and he works for SHIELD, the Marvel Universe’s combo of the CIA, NSA, and every New World Order black helicopter fantasy. Unlike his extremely cynical boss Nick Fury (the increasingly creaky Samuel L. Jackson), the Captain still embodies the World War II morality, in which the ends justifies the means, but only if the end is “freedom.” He’s appalled that SHIELD will be creating a massive flying machines to take out threats before they fulfill their nefarious goals. Fury counters, saying, “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be!” The Captain: “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”

The Captain, of course, is both right and prescient, because Fury doesn’t realize that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, whose goal is not to just take out plotting terrorists but anyone in the world who is capable of disrupting the perfect orderly world they want to create. Using three airborne aircraft carriers – think boxier versions of Imperial Star Destroyers from Star Wars – they plans to slaughter 20 million potential. Led by the dastardly Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, doing evil just fine), HYDRA first must get rid of Fury, the Captain, his new sidekick the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Black Widow, better down as Agent Romanov (Scarlett Johansson, having the time of her life). HYDRA’s greatest asset is a mysterious superhuman assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan); he has big guns, a mechanical arm, no fear, and a shocking secret identity.

The requisite fight scenes are surprisingly well choreographed and thrilling, especially since the directors, Joe and Anthony Rosso, have never directed anything but sitcoms. I loved the Captain’s physically impossible acrobatic slugfests with the Winter Soldier, and Agent Romanov kicks a great deal of ass while becoming late-night fantasy fodder for a lot of straight fanboys and lesbian fangirls. The Russos also do a laudable job with the extensive CGI, which is as clear as Whedon’s and James Cameron’s and thankfully not in 3D.

This is the first Marvel film since X-Men United (2003) that makes a political point, and it’s first ever to make that point explicitly. The second X-Men compared the plight of mutants with that of real-world gays and lesbians, though only metaphorically. The Winter Solider, however, is an explicit attack on the American government’s security overreach, tapping phones, tracking Internet usage, and watching everyone on video. The argument is the Captain’s: This is not the freedom we fought for. There’s a certain irony here, of course, since like all of the big movie studios, Disney, which owns Marvel, is part of the problem, pushing for more restrictive copyright laws that will be used to throttle the free flow of information and to track anonymous file sharers they claim are eating at Disney’s enormous profits. That said, I was impressed that Marvel made a superhero film that is also an old-style spy thriller, complete with a critique of the methods of war. Well, some of the methods. Killing is pretty much okay, and the body count in The Winter Soldier is so high as to be uncountable.

Captain America: The Winter Solider
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson
Rated PG-13 for tons of violence

An avenging assemblage of superheroes

Despite the enraging experience of having to see the film a promotional screening — at which they tagged and bagged my phone out of the absurd fear that I would use it to record the whole movie and then sell it, even though the movie has been out in international markets for a week — I loved The Avengers.

I just saw a headline online that asked, “Is The Avengers the greatest comic book movie ever?” It’s the one of the click-here-and-argue-in-the comments sort of headlines that websites love because it gets readers to stick around and earn the site advertising revenue. I don’t know what the writer’s answer was, since I do my best not to read reviews before I write mine. But I know what my response to the question would be: No, it’s not the greatest comic book movie ever. I think there’s a case for The Dark Knight and possibly the original Superman; those are profound films that are also fabulous popcorn movies. The Avengers is about as deep as its superfluous 3-D effects, but it is the most entertaining, and most expertly made, big-budget action movie of the year. It’s a great way to start the summer movie season. Continue…

I meant to post these reviews, but I forgot.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spaced on posting my movie review here, even though I’d been writing them and they kept appearing in print. In reverse chronological order of the movies that haven’t been blogged.

I really wanted to like Cowboys & Aliens. Oh, well.

When I first saw the poster for Cowboys & Aliens,I got excited. These are two great tastes that haven’t yet gone together, but should. Five years ago, that’s what I said about chocolate and bacon. Now you can buy bacon chocolate bars everywhere. (Well, maybe not everywhere. But soon, I hope.)

Two of the great American film genres, the Western and the sci-fi action film, seem incongruous, even odd together, but they have a great deal in common. Both the Western and the sci-fi action film are, often, about honorable underdogs who must fight evil in the form of the corrupt (evil cattle barons or the Galactic Empire), the criminal (bank robbers or super-corporations of the future) or the racial other (Indians or green reptilian monsters from a distant solar system). Mixing the two genres would give the filmmakers all sorts of interesting material to work with, crazy juxtapositions and surprising plot twists. Or not. [Read the rest here.]

I was dumbfounded by how much I loved — by how good — Captain America was.

Captain America: The First Avengerdebuted in San Diego last week at a screening full of both comic book geeks here for Comic-Con and local soldiers, sailors and pilots in fatigues and pressed blues. Both groups were thrilled when a troupe of dancing girls decked out like Rockettes from the 1940s performed at the front of the theater; they got a lot more cheers than Chris Evans, who plays the Captain and who showed up to tell everyone how much he loves the movie.

With that much fanfare, anything less than an exciting, enjoyable, morally simple and beautifully shot action film would have been a disappointment. No one was disappointed; I certainly wasn’t. [Read the rest here.]

Tabloid really disturbed me, and I’m one of the maybe three people who had a lot of issues with the movie.

Tabloid, the latest documentary from Oscar-winner Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), couldn’t have arrived at a more appropriate moment. While Britain is immersed in an epic scandal involving the relentless, creepy and illegal overreach of its most popular tabloid newspaper The News of theWorld,Morris’ film showcases a sex scandal that provided cannon fodder for Britain’s tabloid wars almost 35 years ago.

The unintentional irony of Morris’ film is that he focuses on the tabloidy, if amazing and hilarious, aspects of the story – its protagonist’s delusions, the almost impossible-to-believe details and the sex, sex, sex – while glossing over the enormously shady ways that the tabloids used and abused the people involved in the scandal. Joyce McKinney, the colorful, charismatic, sexy and maybe a little crazy center of it all, ends up as fodder for Morris, too. As she was in 1977, McKinney is an expendable casualty in the service of a story told for profit. [Read the rest here.]

Transformers: Dark of the Moon was ridiculous.

I’m not sure why anyone needs to watch, let along make, 157 minutes of a third movie based on Hasbro’s popular toys known as Transformers. But Transformers: Dark of the Moon,the latest in the series of action movies about morphing robots from outer space, is more than two and a half hours long. With a reported budget of $195 million, director Michael Bay and executive producer Steven Spielberg have spent $805,000 for each minute of computer generated robots attacking each other, chunks of the Chicago skyline and the various humans unlucky or dumb enough to get in the way.

If you are the kind of moviegoer who is happy, even gleeful, about paying $16 to see Michael Bay’s special effects bonanzas in 3-D, then you will need to see, and may love, Dark of the Moon. It is by far the best of the three movies, and yes, that is damning it with faint praise. If you don’t compare it to other Bay movies, but rather to the work of his genre-mates like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Spielberg, Dark of the Moon is a bombastic, occasionally fun to look at, but still craven piece of schlock. [Read the rest here.]

The next movie review post will be early