That’s why Midlife Crisis Crossover includes end-credits coverage in its consumer-reporting movie coverage. If we see a movie, we’re there till the bitter end whether there’s a treat waiting for us or not. My wife and I are sticklers for getting our money’s worth for the ticket price, even if it means skimming past listings for quasi-participants such as Production Babies, legal counsel, and caterers’ gofers. Imagine the pride they’ll feel, knowing there’s a remote chance that someone besides their parents spotted their names at the end.
…what were we talking about? Oh, yeah — Captain America: the Winter Soldier, my new favorite 2014 movie so far.
Short version for the unfamiliar: There’s no reason to complete this section for a Marvel movie, but I’m in a mood for typing. Chris Evans is Captain America, Real American Hero, not yet adjusted to the strange new world of Today after seven decades in post-WWII cryogenic suspension. When secret insurrection threatens to tear S.H.I.E.L.D. apart and destroy the very fabric of Life As We Know It, the day can only be saved by Cap’s Crew, his own team of de facto Avengers — grouchy old Colonel Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, seeing more front-line action than ever), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson in her best showing yet), the Falcon (The Hurt Locker‘s Anthony Mackie, a welcome party-crasher at the superhero-movie country club), old cohort Maria Hill (Cobie “Your Mother” Smulders), and newcomer Emily Van Camp from ABC’s Revenge as a neighbor who’s no mere nurse.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Sebastian Stan (Once Upon a Time‘s Mad Hatter) is the Winter Soldier, a mostly silent super-assassin with a dark connection to Cap’s past. Anyone who’s read Marvel comics in the last ten years, or who saw The First Avenger, should know who the Winter Soldier is. Judging by several gasps I heard in our screening at the big reveal, apparently to some people his identity is a surprise and counts as a spoiler.
Also in the house: Academy Award Winner Robert Redford as a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official, lending tremendous weight to the backroom political machinations that echo some of his most famous post-Vietnam dramas; Frank Grillo (frequently a heavy on TV) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent who’s allowed just enough dialogue and charisma to let you know he’s kind of important; one jarring cameo by a cast member from TV’s Community, which is fitting when you know Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo directed many of that series’ best-of-the-best episodes; a few key characters you’ll recognize from other Marvel films that I’ll let you discover for yourself; and, as always, Stan “The Man” Lee.
Super-special extra credit goes to the Russo brothers for their amazing use of MMA welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre as an overhauled Batroc the Leaper. In the comics he’s a walking French stereotype clad in eye-gouging purple and orange; here, he’s one of the most formidable sparring partners Cap has had to date. Truly an uncanny transformation.
Bonus bit part for MCC followers: as the head of an angry committee hearing near the film’s end, there’s Steven Culp, a.k.a. Patriot tool Ed Truman from NBC’s Revolution!
Nitpicking? The Smithsonian’s official Captain America exhibit is on display at Washington D.C.’s Air and Space Museum, even though the available memorabilia — Cap’s old motorcycle and uniforms — are neither Air nor Space. You’d think Cap’s story would be more at home inside the American History Museum. I can think of two reasons the filmmakers chose otherwise: because the Air and Space Museum has more interesting backgrounds; and because the Air and Space Museum is just cooler in general.
Fair warning to parents of wee tykes: this movie puts the “soldier” in both “super-soldier” and “Winter Soldier”. The central villains are essentially terrorist threats, and altercations are escalated to that appropriate intensity. One of the movie’s more remarkable achievements is fight scenes that flow from action to action without relying on jump-cuts to mask sloppy footwork, destructive cause-and-effect that shows the effects of Newton’s Laws from full-on superhuman punches, realistic throwbacks that cut across scenery at skewed angles instead of opting for perfectly perpendicular setups, and, naturally, the requisite EXPLOSIONS. But the warfare is far from bloodless, and nearly every character takes their share of lacerations, bullets, and broken bones before the day is done.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Look, I just said. Cap’s shield alone is like a supporting player that’s bitter about its small part in the previous installment and wants to make up for lost fame by showing off and getting all the best scenes in the sequel, like Halle Berry in X-Men 2 except successful. It helps that, whereas The First Avenger was largely a collection of fight-scene montages with some Indiana Jones stuntwork and maybe one or two useful shield-tosses, this time the shield has enough space and scenes to prove it’s a dangerous weapon that knows how to play to the cameras, scares the audience a few times with its ferocity, knows which is its best side, and hopes you’ll remember it when you’re casting your ballots for next year’s MTV Movie Awards.
But there’s more here than fight-ballet and giant crashing airships. Cap remains the most honest, forthright man in the room, unsure of his place in a world where every government and nearly every character think heinous subterfuge is one of the key Activities of Daily Living. The closer the conspiracies hit home, and the more secrets his quote-unquote “friends” cover up or divulge, the harder Cap has to concentrate on what’s important and what can or can’t be compromised, eventually demonstrating once and for all why he’s the hero all the other heroes look up to. Partly because that’s because he has nothing to hide and almost nothing to lose…well, except friends, freedom, and country.
So did I like it or not? I would need to see it a second time to confirm, but this may be the best Avengers-series movie to date. You’ve got old-fashioned heroics, newfangled effects improvements, meaty roles for all the supporting heroes (Widow and Falcon are ready for their solo spotlights now), villains who hold their own onscreen, a plot that’s gnarled but makes sinister sense in a chilling ripped-from-the-headlines way, and the chance to watch all your favorite actors taking turns bouncing off Academy Award Winner Robert Redford. I dare any other 2014 movie to top this.
At the very least, seeing it ASAP may become mandatory for anyone who’s been keeping tabs on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which swears the grave consequences of The Winter Soldier will send ripples through the show’s status quo. So if it becomes watchable starting this week, you may want to know exactly what brought that on.
How about those end credits? Yes, there are two scenes during and after the Captain America: the Winter Soldier end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want an idea of what they missed…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
During the end credits: Hydra may be unwell, but they’re hardly toppled. Keeping that Hydra banner flying high in his underground lair is longtime Cap foe Baron Strucker (prolific German tough guy Thomas Kretschmann), who’s got a few secret projects in the works. One involves Loki’s staff, forgotten in the chaos at the end of The Avengers, now secured on an evil workbench. Another project: a brother and sister, kept in separate cages and exhibiting strange powers. The brother (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is speeding around his cell in wide-eyed incredulity; the sister (Elizabeth Olsen) is floating a few toys in midair with the power of her mind…one of which she appears to detonate.
After the end credits: A beaten-down old soldier, lost in time and struggling to remember who he is, pays a visit to the Air & Space Museum. He walks up to a display honoring the only member of the Howling Commandos we saw die in The First Avenger. He gazes into the photo, into the eyes of the late James “Bucky” Barnes. And vice versa. But does he really see?
To be continued.
In case you had any doubt, the end credits also promise in James Bond style, “Captain America will return in Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Good to know.