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The Marvel Franchise Universe of highly entertaining comic book movies is the E- Ticket blockbuster machine of our present moment, delivering polished entertainment for millions. Vast numbers of kids and young men appear to allocate a percentage of their brain power and life energy to the assimilation and appreciation of Marvel's interlocking adventures. Sony got the ball rolling around 2001 with the first Spiderman movie; already we're on the first re-boot of that famous name, while seemingly dozens of Marvel characters are interacting in an expanding array of feature films. Thirty years ago Spiderman was seemingly bogged down forever in legal snarls -- with the lowly Cannon Group holding the rights (or so it claimed) to produce the first live-action feature. Would you believe Michael Dudikoff as Peter Parker?
This second Captain America adventure Captain America: The Winter Soldier is really the third, as the Steve Rogers / Captain America character also appeared in the mega-hit The Avengers. That 2012 deal-changer proved conclusively that audiences were willing to accept Marvel Franchise films conceived as 'multi-dimensional sequels'. Each picture tells a part of an interlocking saga on a larger timeline, with full continuity for not only the leading character but others as well. For example, if Iron Man should drop in for a scene or two, he doesn't just appear out of the blue; whatever struggles he's experiencing in his own series are referenced as well.
The writers and organizers of the Greater Marvel Master Plan (GMMP) have so far done a fine job -- one would think that computers are necessary to keep all of it straight. It's not easy to keep a superhero franchise alive and interesting. Superheroes tend to be weak or strong depending on the situation they're in. Their combat often creates terrible destruction, but no superhero ever seems to inflict casualties on civilians, unless it's to establish a personal, traumatic character point. Although the extended super family of super talent (the Avengers and beyond) is always out there, the heroes in individual movies seem to be isolated and on their own. The problem came up in old Superman comic books that felt compelled to backtrack, with editorial comments: "Superman can't help out Wonder Woman this time because he's off on some other task in another cosmic dimension."
In this show, Cap has Black Widow, Nick Fury, Maria Hill and The Falcon to pal around with. Bruce Banner is in hiding. Tony Stark retired from the Iron Man business at the end of Iron Man 3. Steve Rogers may be unaware that Thor has relocated to Earth. Early plans for Hawkeye to appear in the film were reportedly scrapped; maybe he's in rehab.
Of course, there's always the old problem with the way superheroes duke it out with ordinary mortals. Do we really expect Guard #4 to get the best of Steve Rogers? Actually, Steve is merely a recipient of the Army's super soldier serum, and performs a limited number of notches above his combat foes. He can't shoot rays from his eyes, or transform into fire or ice. These limitations make the Captain America series more interesting.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees S.H.I.E.L.D. under siege from within by a long-dormant Nazi conspiracy called HYDRA. Secret S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is ambushed and apparently assassinated. After they're framed as traitors, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and agent Natasha Romanaoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) must team up to ferret out the truth. They're opposed by their former S.H.I.E.L.D. comrade Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) and his STRIKE team. Along they way they pick up Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), another 'special' soldier who uses a flying rig to become a hero called The Falcon. Trying to keep things coordinated back in Washington is the sober, morally concerned Defense Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).
It seems that S.H.I.E.L.D. is secretly building 'Insight', a huge orbital offensive weapons capability to be used to suppress Terrorism. But the program is actually being run by HYDRA, in a vast scheme to conquer and subjugate the planet. Did we expect anything less?
The Winter Soldier succeeds in keeping its complicated, tech-heavy concept afloat. A 1940s nice guy who has been Rip Van Winkled into the present, Steve Rogers' special status is sketched with some amusing anachronisms. Steve's situation is also made poignant when he visits the sickbed of his old sweetheart Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). The business oriented but seductive Natasha teases Steve with possible romantic overtures, but both she and we know that he's dedicated to another potential love interest. All of the characters are presented with good humor and their dialogue is smart and occasionally witty. A small boy in the Smithsonian recognizes Steve Rogers, yet knows not to call out and blow his cover. Thus Captain America continues to inspire right-thinking kids everywhere.
Ex- Johnny Storm of the "Fantastic Four" Chris Evans is a handsome and charismatic Steve Rogers, even if we have a hard time believing that he grew up in the 1930s -- he seems a Millennial at heart. Scarlett Johansson has been in a lot of movies lately without showing signs of overexposure. She has already played Black Widow / Romanoff twice in the last three years. Johansson is a long way from her origins back with Ghost World. Anybody remember Eight Legged Freaks?
Rogers' main nemesis The Winter Soldier is another modified soldier from the past, who was experimented on by HYDRA and Dr. Zola. The Winter Soldier has been used on other missions previously, thus his status as a myth or legend within S.H.I.E.L.D.. Also returning is Rogers' old buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). How he survived that fatal fall in the first film in this series, would be too much of a spoiler to detail here. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) works with master spy Nick Fury, and is connected as a guest star to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.
We're told that the likeable actor Anthony Mackie petitioned Marvel to play a franchise character. Mackie's IMDB record shows credits in movies like Million Dollar Baby, amid numerous 'paying dues' pictures.
Robert Redford now averages less than one acting assignment a year, and is instead big into production, especially of documentaries. His role isn't a particularly good fit, as he tries to be a levelheaded villain and comes off as merely bland. The filmmakers stated that they wanted the movie to be like a 70's conspiracy thriller, and Redford is of course known for his parts in Three Days of the Condor and All The President's Men. A government sellout to HYDRA is the amusing Garry Shandling, a member of congress caught bragging about his sordid sex exploits. He was seen earlier in Iron Man 2. The Marvel formula avoids politics on one level, while affirming a cynical political bias on another. The average politician is now considered a sleazy bad guy, it seems.
The outrageous superhero action gives us a major effects set piece in every reel, from the capture of a pirate vessel to car chases on major highways and city centers, to a fantastic sci-fi battle between our heroes and Insight's just-launched flying aircraft carriers. When the actors claim that less CGI than usual was used for The Winter Soldier, they must be talking about human figures. The show is packed with high quality digital effects consistent with the rest of the Marvel franchise.
This show's vehicles all seem to be Chevrolets, a product placement arrangement that reminds us of the omnipresence of Fords in some older 007 Bond movies. The Winter Soldier carries two separate post-credit teasers, reminding us that Steve Rogers will have little time to soak up more 2014 culture before getting back in harness to once again save the world.
Disney's Blu-ray of Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a gorgeous rendering of a show modified for 3-D for the big screen. It goes without saying that the image is flawless and the multi-channel audio tracks with music by Henry Jackman are crystal clear. I was sent a Blu-ray screener without packaging. The show can be bought in a number of versions, including a slightly pricier 3D disc.
Marvel's vendors make sure that all the expected extras are present, from filmmaker commentaries to production featurettes, deleteds scenes and bloopers. The franchise leaves no fan unfulfilled.
Post-credits sneak peeks this time give us images of the characters Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch, soon to be seen in another Avengers movie. Also hinted at is a proposed 'Doctor Strange' movie in two or three years. Look online and you'll see that the Marvel movies have generated enough trivia and insider detail to match the Bible -- a Marvel fan staying current with all the available info could forget his own life entirely. We're told that the company's slate of productions has already been projected five years into the future. It's not a film series, it's an alternate universe!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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