Let’s take a moment to check in with Marvel, shall we?

Though Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have both expressed interest in departing the MCU superfranchise as soon as they can, things are still trucking right along for Marvel. They have two films set for release in 2014, their “Agents of SHIELD” TV experiment has undergone an impressive recovery in the back half of its first season (though the first ten episodes couldn’t have gotten much worse), and production on the next Avengers is underway as I type this. Goodwill with the fans is still solid and the box office millions keep flowing in.

But of course, Marvel Studios isn’t the only name in superhero cinema right now. And I’m not even counting DC/WB, who are still hard at work configuring their Man of Steel sequel/Justice League prelude for a release in 2015. No, wait, I mean 2016, assuming it doesn’t get delayed again. Did I mention it doesn’t even have a name yet?

Though most of Marvel’s cinematic properties have gone home, there are still a few stragglers. Universal has somehow managed to keep hold of Namor through several years in development limbo, and Man-Thing is still at Lionsgate after a half-assed straight-to-Syfy atrocity in 2005 (sort of like the unreleased Roger Corman adaptation of Fantastic Four, a notoriously laughable stinker that was made solely to retain the rights).

This happened. Look it up.

Of course, neither property is cause for much concern and the rights are likely to relapse any day now. But over at Fox and Sony, it’s a different story.

In addition to Silver Surfer and Galactus, Fox still holds the rights to Fantastic Four, and coincidentally started developing a reboot of that franchise the day after Marvel announced its merger with Disney in 2009. More importantly, Fox continues to hold the mammoth X-Men franchise, the latest installment of which is set to come out next month. Also coming out next month is the newest film from Spider-Man, who still resides at Sony.

It’s so very tempting to think of Fox and Sony as bullies, keeping hold of the rights as long as they can purely out of spite. I know there are a lot of comic book and movie geeks out there who sympathize with Marvel in this conflict. That would be a mistake.

Remember, Marvel was going bankrupt when they sold the movie rights to various studios in perpetuity. Those movie deals yielded so much cash for Marvel that they didn’t just come back, they turned their royalties into a war chest and became the envy of every studio in Hollywood. Superhero films are hot right now, which means that Fox and Sony are obligated to cash in on the trend in any way they can. And as competitors, they’re duty-bound to deny Marvel any advantage possible.

In other words, they have to keep the rights from reverting, and the only way to do that is by making more movies. And per the deal that’s still in perpetuity, that means generating more royalties for Marvel.

Basically, if Fox and Sony let the rights relapse, then they’re out of the superhero game and Marvel gets to make the films with their reacquired franchises, taking on 100 percent of the risk and reward. But in the name of competition, that can’t be allowed to happen. Instead, they have to keep churning out superhero films and giving a sizable chunk of the income to Marvel, who didn’t have to lift a finger for it.

Pretty sweet deal for Marvel, no?

At this point, you may be wondering why Fox and Sony can’t just make films with their own original superheroes. The answer is obvious: Building an entirely new franchise and pitting it directly against a handful of established franchises with decades of name recognition would be such a colossally bad move that no studio would be dumb enough to risk it. Sure, Marvel adapts some properties so obscure that they might as well be original (such as Guardians of the Galaxy later this year), but those still have the powerful brand name of Marvel and years of comic book history to lend credibility. Whipping up a completely new superhero film franchise out of thin air and getting financially viable ticket sales is a feat that no one (except maybe Marvel or DC/WB) could possibly hope to accomplish.

But why not come up with original heroes and have them fight alongside Wolverine or Spider-Man? This is pure conjecture, but I’d guess that Marvel holds the intellectual rights for ALL of the characters who appear in film adaptations of their work, including the original characters. Case in point: In 2005, EA released “Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects.” EA helped create the Imperfects, an entirely new set of characters made just for the game. But Marvel walked away with all rights to the Imperfects, lock, stock, and barrel.

P.S. The game bombed hard.

If similar deals were given to Fox and Sony (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), then they would simply be handing a new inter-media franchise to Marvel on a silver platter if they ever came up with an original hero or villain.

There’s a lot more to say about Fox and Sony, of course, but there will be time for that next month. Right now, let’s turn our attention to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest entry in Marvel’s Phase 2. The ads for this one have long intrigued me for their Abrams/Nolan-like ability to show a lot without really saying anything. In all the months of post-Avengers afterglow, there’s been precious little information about who Robert Redford is playing, what the Winter Soldier’s agenda is, or who the antagonist is. Hell, going just from the ads, I would never have known that Sharon Carter was even in this picture.

Still, the hype for this film has been overpowering, and strengthened by glowing reviews. Critics have been singing this movie’s praises from all over the world, begging the question of why a Captain America movie didn’t premiere IN AMERICA. Anyway, I’m glad to join the consensus and agree that the movie is quite good.

I’m afraid I have to continue the trend of describing the plot in vague generalities for this review. The film was very clearly built as a kind of spy thriller, such that discovering the various secrets and learning who’s responsible for the grander scheme is a huge part of the fun. Still, I’ll try to avoid any spoilers as best I can.

The last time we saw Captain America (Chris Evans, of course), he was struggling to find his place after waking up in the 21st century. When we catch up with him in this film, he appears to have resolved that problem by burying himself in work. Cap is still acting as a soldier, right on the frontlines for SHIELD operations all over the world.

We see early on that Steve is trying to put the past behind him, but that’s not going particularly well. This is made especially obvious in a very poignant sequence when Steve visits a Smithsonian exhibit about the history of Captain America and the Howling Commandos. Not only does this serve as a convenient recap of the previous film’s events, but it also shows that Steve has a powerful guilt over being the last one alive, to say nothing of his nostalgia for a simpler time.

(Side note: Keep an ear out for Gary Sinise, who makes a voice cameo as the Smithsonian’s narrator.)

Cap was an icon borne of a war with a strictly black-and-white morality, now transplanted into a time and place that only exists in shades of gray. He’s a soldier working for a spy organization, so he naturally has some very strong disagreements with the way SHIELD does business. Specifically, SHIELD works by way of secrets and surveillance, which doesn’t remotely mesh with Cap’s concept of freedom. It’s very clearly designed as a commentary on the modern practices of warrantless wiretapping, holding prisoners without trial, pretty much anything to do with the NSA, and other reasons why Americans are generally upset with Homeland Security right now. The way things unfold, you could even bring unmanned drones into the equation if you wanted to.


Pictured: A really big fucking drone.

Getting back to the story, every single entry in the MCU so far has established SHIELD as one of the most powerful organizations on the planet. They have some degree of influence on nearly every country in the world, they’re running on a borderline-unlimited budget, they have the most advanced technology in the world, and they hold secrets that could potentially end the world as we know it if they were ever divulged. So what happens when all of that power gets put into the wrong hands?

When you get right down to it, there’s simply no denying that this isn’t a Captain America movie so much as it’s a SHIELD movie. Sure, Captain America is in there, and he does fight a character named the Winter Soldier, and both characters play central roles in the narrative. Even so, their conflict is only a small part of a greater fight between two massive, faceless, amorphous organizations with complex philosophies. This isn’t a clear-cut conflict between a good guy and a bad guy, it’s a complex tug-of-war between opposing ideas of what it means to be protected. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing — heaven knows it’s far and away more intellectual than anything else Marvel has put to celluloid — it’s not exactly what you come to a superhero movie expecting to see. For better or worse.

No, you come to a superhero film expecting to see action, and this film delivers it very nicely. The opening sequence is fantastic, especially as it requires Captain America to be stealthy. You wouldn’t expect a super-soldier with a big metal shield to be swift or quiet when taking out two dozen armed guards, which makes it all the more surprising and satisfying to see how he fares. On the other hand, Cap’s fight scenes with Winter Soldier don’t look nearly as good. Though they’re very neatly choreographed, the camerawork and editing are often way too frantic to make much of anything out.

Aside from that, the film shows a clear preference for vehicular mayhem. Cars get chased down, trucks get flipped over and used for cover, armored cars get shot to hell with bullets and RPGs, aircraft get blown out of the sky, the list goes on and on. You know how action scenes set in a warehouse will use boxes and crates as props? That’s how this movie uses cars and planes. The action scenes are that huge.

This is a set pic, but it gets the point across.

And what of the film’s “comic book” aspect? Well, the film uses some of the greatest callbacks I’ve ever seen in this superfranchise. Iron Man’s repulsor technology and Bruce Banner’s methods for staying calm both play especially crucial roles in making this plot work. There are also a lot of moments and cameos that are guaranteed to make any Marvel fan smile, and the mid-credits epilogue provides the strongest connection yet between the two Avengers films.

Also, if you’ve been stupid and loyal enough to keep watching “Agents of SHIELD” through its first-season slump, then you’ll be watching an entirely different movie from everyone else. The rest of the audience will only be hearing about some algorithm, and they’ll still enjoy the movie just fine. But the TV fans will be going “Wait, did they just reveal the Clairvoyant? Son of a bitch!”

Getting back to the main character, I’m sorry to say that the last two films developed Iron Man and Thor far more effectively than this movie develops Captain America. It bears remembering that the plot was far more focused on developing SHIELD, and Cap’s growth as a character takes a noticeable hit because of it. Then again, Steve Rogers is a notoriously static character, such a perfect boy scout that he doesn’t really need much growth from where he is at the start. Still, it’s a character that Evans continues to play well, and he has some wonderful interactions with the other characters.

To start with, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, pre-pregnancy) gets almost as much screentime as Cap does, and they foil each other brilliantly. Captain America is very straightforward, pure and honest to a fault, while Black Widow uses sexuality and misdirection to get the job done. Still, though Natasha Romanoff is more open to the SHIELD way of operating, her shady background in the KGB has left her sensitive to corruption. She’s every bit as eager as Steve Rogers to clean SHIELD up, and their conflicting methods get incredible results when they work together.

Perhaps even more impressive is that Cap and Widow play off each other without ever coming anywhere near romance. Though their relationship is very trusting and even affectionate, they’re still both professional lone wolves who are too far buried in their work. They’re partners without becoming love interests, and that’s very refreshing to see. And anyway, Natasha goes through most of the film suggesting potential girlfriends for Steve. It’s a running gag that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but the actors play it in a way that’s very quippy and funny without getting too intrusive or mushy. More like office gossip than anything else, really.

Then we have Anthony Mackie. His Falcon persona handles some flying stunts and action scenes, basically serving as an Iron Man Lite. But his Sam Wilson persona is far more interesting. See, Sam is a worker at the VA, running support groups there after losing a partner in Afghanistan. This makes him uniquely qualified to talk with a displaced WWII veteran like Steve Rogers, especially since they’re both former soldiers at roughly the same age. Of course, it also helps that Sam has nothing to do with SHIELD, which makes him unusually trustworthy in this situation. Though there are times when Sam shows a disconcerting level of unconditional loyalty, his status as a worthy peer to Steve does the title character all kinds of good.

Conversely, we have the Winter Soldier. Through the vast majority of this picture, he’s just a bogeyman. He gets maybe a handful of lines, and his face is hardly ever seen. He’s just muscle, plain and simple. Some efforts are made to present Winter Soldier as a symbol of memories best left forgotten — Winter Soldier himself seems quite determined to forget where he came from — but he has so little screen time that any symbolic importance to himself or to Cap feels completely unearned.

Moving right along, I completely understood why we knew so little about Robert Redford’s character going in. Alexander Pierce is a longtime friend and mentor to Nick Fury, which means that he’s privy to even more secrets than the head of SHIELD. Moreover, Pierce has been around for so many years that he knows things about the past and present of SHIELD and everyone in it. Basically put, Pierce is guarding all the doors and holding all the keys. Everything that happens in this movie goes through him. He plays a pivotal role in a narrative that’s all about twists and turns, so of course every effort would be made to keep Pierce shrouded in secrecy for as long as possible. It’s a damn shame, because that means underplaying Redford’s effortlessly charismatic presence and all the great work he brings to this picture.

On the other hand, we have Emily VanCamp as Sharon “Agent 13” Carter. The woman who could have and should have been the newest love interest for Captain America. She was barely ever seen in any of the ads because she was barely ever seen in the movie. She could’ve been cut from the film entirely and nothing would’ve been lost. This is extremely disappointing, as the character’s few appearances make it clear that Agent 13 is a highly competent officer who might have been quite useful to keep around. Better luck in the sequel, I suppose.

Instead, we have Maria Hill to act as the wild card support character for Cap and his teammates. I’m not complaining. Any chance to see Cobie Smulders kick ass and look good in a Marvel film is A-OK by me.

And speaking of actors who thoroughly own their tough-ass roles, Samuel L. Jackson. What do I need to say about Nick Fury that you don’t already know? Guy works through his action scenes like a boss, he’s charismatic enough to make an ethical discussion about SHIELD interesting, and he even gets to show some new facets of the character here. Great job as always.

Finally, I have to talk about the score. Though Alan Silvestri does receive credit for his work in the previous Captain America film, I’m sad to say that I didn’t hear the Captain America theme once through the whole running time. But I’m not holding that against the film. You have no idea how hard that is for me to say. For years now, I’ve been saying what a travesty it would be if Alan Silvestri’s iconic Captain America March wasn’t used to represent the character in any future movies. But here’s the thing: Silvestri’s score was composed for an entirely different movie.

The Captain America March evokes the image of Captain America in his element. An incorruptible force for good standing against an evil empire. That’s not what this movie is about. Henry Jackman’s score is much better-suited for a spy thriller, with its shaky allegiances, shady characters, and ambiguous moralities. Which goes back to my original point about this picture.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t really a Captain America movie. It’s a SHIELD movie. There are plenty of opportunities to see Captain America throw his mighty shield for truth, justice, and the American way, but anyone who came expecting more of the Golden Age fun from The First Avenger will come away disappointed. Even so, SHIELD has been the linchpin of the MCU from day one, and tinkering with it as this film does was a very bold move.

This movie is a powerful game-changer for the Marvel superfranchise, and that alone makes it worth viewing. More importantly, this is the smartest movie Marvel has yet released. It comments on modern anti-authoritarian fears by showing them through a comic-book lens, exploring the concepts in new and serious ways while keeping the movie fun. Throw in some enjoyable performances and some wonderful action scenes, and there’s no reason not to go out and see this one right now.

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