Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital.
The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie.
The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less).
Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain.
Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile.
But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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You may recognize him from The Boondock Saints, but his latest undertaking is a little something you’d find a hard time escaping these days: AMC’s The Walking Dead. Norman Reedus plays Daryl, one of the remaining Atlanta survivors. We had a chance to chat with Reedus during New York Comic Con about his character’s past, the series after creator Frank Darabont’s departure and what we can expect in Season 2.
First, we’re likely to see a bit more to Daryl than the fact that he’s a skilled hunter who’s rough around the edges. Reedus said, “He’s kind of a side-winder snake. He doesn’t come directly at you. He kind of weasels past in sort of an S pattern and then strikes…I kind of play him like that because he’s an antsy, perturbed, emotionally-challenged dude.” But why is he like that? We have very little explanation of Daryl’s character available to us since he was created just for the series (unlike most of the characters who were born out of Robert Kirkman’s comic books); apparently, Season Two will uncover some of that mystery.
“You’re going to see some things revealed about Daryl’s childhood, about what sort of relationships he had that are really depressing,” said Reedus. He also mentioned that his attachment to his unpleasant (and still at-large) older brother Merle will be explained as well as “some elements of abuse he had growing up that he’s dealing with.”
In the first episode of Season Two, we can already see a somewhat softer side of Daryl compared to last season; his gruff exterior and grudges fall by the wayside a bit when he saves T Dogg and throws such vigor into finding young Sophia. Reedus said there’s a reason for that, “I think what’s happening is as the group is showing that they value him and they rely on him too, he’s starting to feel a sense of self-worth…his attitude is changing a bit in the fact that he feels wanted, when he didn’t feel wanted before – probably even when he was hanging out with his brother [Merle].”
And it seems that Reedus character is in-demand in the real world too. He shared a story about picking his son up from school shortly after Season One began airing: “I go to pick him up from school and he has this huge smile on his face…He said some of the big kids from the upper grade came up to him and said, ‘Hey, is your dad Daryl on The Walking Dead?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah,’ and they go, ‘Sweet! So cool! We really love Daryl!’” Reedus proudly stated that his son now has credit with “the big kids at school,” but other than that Reedus seems fairly nonplussed by the incredible response audiences have to his character – he said he’s just incredibly grateful for the opportunity to play Daryl.
And moving into the second season, his character isn’t the only thing shifting. We’re headed for ground-breaking zombies, like one that Reedus found particularly disgusting. “I can’t really tell you what that zombie is other than that is was extra-large and it was wet [Laughs]. That’s all I can tell you, but it had parts on it that moved in ways it shouldn’t be moving. Pretty disgusting.” I can’t even imagine what he could be talking about, but it seems that producer and zombie makeup guru Greg Nicotero doesn’t plan on slowing down his zombie rampage anytime soon, and that’s good news if you ask me.
Though Season Two is “always moving about 200 miles an hour, even when we’re standing still,” the production did hit a bit of a snag when it lost the man who started it all. With Darabont out of the picture, a new showrunner, Glen Mazzara, stepped in. Reedus assured us that the show isn’t suffering, and won’t suffer, the consequences. In fact, the shakeup may have yielded positive results for the group – which is a steep claim, so bear with me. Reedus said, “Glen didn’t just pop out of thin air, we’d already known him.” He says that Mazzara was very collaborative with the cast from the start, asking for their input constantly. “I’ll probably never know what really happened, but the result of it just made us all form a tighter circle…We never really slowed down to be honest. We sort of picked up speed and it’s been that way ever since,” he said.
We may not have Papa Frank on the team anymore, but if Reedus’ characterization is accurate (and we’re guessing it is) the team of actors, writers, crewmembers and zombie enthusiasts on the show are so dedicated to the series and Darabont’s original vision, that we’ll continue to see fantastic episodes come our way.