AAR: Captain America, Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier
by Frank Landau
Before you lecture me, I know. I know. These movies were amazing and were worth seeing in the theater. You're right, they were. I wish I could have seen them in the theater. I ran into this strange Catch 22 with these movies: I didn't see the one proceeding so I didn't want to just jump in blind.
With the Avengers, especially Captain America, I had never been a HUGE fan. I'd say we were acquaintances. A nod, a handshake with Cap maybe...and then move on to talk to the X-Men or Batman at the Comic Book Character Party.
I became a Captain America fan, really by happenstance. It all happened because of cable network scheduling: I caught Captain America: The First Avenger on FX one night after my 6 year old and 16 year old relinquished control of the TV in the family room. For those of you who are parents, you'll understand this, for those who haven't started families...just you wait. Your movie/television watching will happen like this, too. (For those of you who are like "you don't have more than one TV? You don't have a computer? You don't have Netflix?" Yes, I have all of these things. But I like my kids and my wife. I enjoy spending time with them. I don't lock myself in a room to get away and hope the internet will raise my kids. My book on parenting will be out in October 2015. Pre-order it on Amazon!)
The movie sucked me in. I stayed up later than I normally do to watch skinny, sickly Steve Rogers' transformation. He became the zenith of human potential for strength, endurance, agility, speed, reflexes, durability, and healing. All of those attributes were cool in a fight, but what was really amazing about Captain America was his essence. At his core, he was still a skinny kid from Brooklyn who hated bullies. Even after he became the epitome of human perfection, he was still the same humble, loyal, duty driven, never-say-die person he always had been. He loved his country, he wanted to defend it and now had the means to do so. Now Pete Rogers would tell me that Captain America has always been awesome, I just didn't realize it. I figured Pete was biased because he and Cap share the same last name. That's right folks, Pete Rogers' real last name is America.
Now that I had seen Captain America: The First Avenger, I needed to see the movie everyone lost their collective minds over; The Avengers. Just like with Captain America, I was a passive fan of the Avengers. I LOVED Iron Man. That movie blew me away. Robert Downey, Jr. was the perfect fit for Tony Stark. Iron Man 2 was OK. I loved the fight between War Machine and Iron Man and, like the man child that I am, I loved all the robot explosions at the end of the movie. Thor was just some doofus from Asgard. I was never impressed with him or all the girls falling in love with that Hemsworth dude. Hulk was Hulk...I had watched Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno and was a fan of that show, but the Ang Lee movie soured me to computer generated Hulk. Ed Norton's version was watchable but still, something was missing. Then, I watched the Avengers and it all made sense.
The Avengers is the ultimate ensemble piece: all of the characters can exist in their own right, but they're better together. As Pete Rogers and I recently discussed and came up with, "everyone knows the Hulk but he's no one's favorite." No one is going to claim that the Hulk movies are their favorite Marvel movies, but many will say that he was their favorite character in The Avengers. He made that movie, but it wouldn't have been the same if the other Avengers were not there. Hawkeye and Black Widow really are secondary characters but because of The Avengers, they were showcased and put on the same pedestal as the "meta-humans."
Needless to say, I loved this movie. From start to finish it was amazing. I could find no flaw in the film. It made me feel like a little kid; I was all in for the entire ride. Every twist and turn had me captivated. I was rooting for them to win even though I knew they would. Tony Stark was his already established awesome self but something else happened; I really liked these other characters. Hulk/Bruce Banner was amazing. Mark Ruffalo was incredible! You felt awful for Dr. Banner's plight as the unstoppable green gamma irradiated monster. Thor was charming, funny, kind of clueless, but still loyal to the end. Being the Norse God of Thunder didn't hurt either. And Captain America...he was brave, loyal, and had no concept of surrender. We saw how hard it was for him to cope with being frozen for nearly 70 years and not knowing anyone around him. The only thing he has left is his sense of duty to defend America, and in this role, the world, from a bully. This time, the bully is Loki and his army of alien soldiers. It was pure fun and it left no room for the fan boys to say ANYTHING. It was almost like Director Joss Whedon finished the film and stood with his hands on his hips and said, "go ahead, nerds. Find something. I dare ya," and no one said anything. They just stood and started the slow clap.
I was all caught up just in time for the DVD release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I figured there really wasn't any way for a movie to top The Avengers. I was pleasantly proven wrong with Cap 2. When the comic book movie craze really took off, the movies were fun and exciting and the fans were pleased. Then The Dark Knight came out and set a new standard. Superhero movies could be AMAZING movies, too! They could be intricate stories with lots of moving parts and still keep the viewer, both loyal fanboy and newcomer, captivated with the story. Cap 2 followed in The Dark Knight's footsteps. It had a complex script, compelling characters and wasn't simply the standard good guy vs bad guy trope.
Captain America: The First Avenger had shown us that the Red Skull and HYDRA got taken to the wood shed by Cap and his cohorts but that supposed victory felt very empty when we saw what had happened while Cap took his 7 decade ice nap. Dr. Arnim Zola, one of the chief scientists responsible for HYDRA's advanced Tesseract-powered weaponry used during WWII, had been captured and used by SHIELD to help "keep the world safe." Zola, the ultimate evil do-er, subverted SHIELD's plans and destabilized peace throughout the world, showing that HYDRA was responsible for most of the bad things that happened the last 70 years. This was a gut punch for Cap as it made all that he fought for during World War II meaningless. HYDRA was everywhere, with agents throughout SHIELD and various places of power. Who can you trust? They had essentially kept the world in a constant state of war and it was right under SHIELD's nose. To top it off, the man solely responsible for the majority of the assassinations was none other than a brainwashed, re-programed James "Bucky" Barnes, Steve Roger's best friend. Bucky has no memory of his previous life and is now known as the Winter Soldier. SHIELD has been compromised, HYDRA is on the precipice of total victory and Steve Roger's best friend is the top HYDRA assassin. How's Cap going to get out of this quagmire?
All of this has little to no visible effect on Captain America and the few remaining agents of SHIELD he can trust; Black Widow, Falcon and Nick Fury. The four take on SHIELD/HYDRA to stop their master plan of world domination. When Captain America comes face to face with the Winter Soldier, he refuses to kill his oldest friend, but he also will not stop until he has ceased the HYDRA threat. After stopping the Helicarrier fleet from annihilating anyone deemed a threat, he must still deal with the Winter Soldier. He refuses to fight as Bucky was, and in Cap's eyes still is, his best friend. The Helicarrier explodes and Cap is sent flying into the Potomac River. He is grabbed by Bucky and dragged to the banks of the river. Pete Rogers and I were discussing this and he said "this is what the comics are like. This movie did a masterful job of capturing Captain America's essence." How can you not fall in love with a character who will not change who he is regardless of the circumstance? Wait...no...not love...LIKE. I LIKE Captain America....crap.