The Winter Soldier – product placements galore

There are a number of product endorsements in this summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In the opening sequence when Steve Rogers meets Sam Wilson, Chris Evans is wearing a prominently branded Under Armour Vent shirt. UA has really put together a strong marketing campaign for their Under Armour Alter Ego collection, targeting young adults who are a big superhero fans. Later in the film, Evans is wearing UA’s new Electric Blue Speedform Apollo running shoes (USD 99.99 only!).

Sam Wilson himself is more of a Nike man, with actor Anthony Mackie featuring the logo prominently on his T-shirt in one scene.

Then of course, there are a few scenes with Scarlett Johansson wearing a Tiffany Hearts® Arrow pendant. This is apparently a nod to her close relationship with Hawkeye from The Avengers. However, I haven’t really seen any promotional work done by Tiffany & Co. around this piece of product placement.

In terms of vehicles, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) drives a beautiful black Chevy C7 Corvette Stingray and there are a bunch of other Chevy vehicles (including the Tahoe SUV) in the movie’s chase sequences. In fact, Chevrolet got the movie’s directors to make this really cute TV commercial for the Chevy Traverse SUV which is a spoof on the movie trailer. Chevy also got the stars to arrive in their cars for the movie’s world premiere in mid-March.

Cap himself, being a down-to-earth regular guy and all, drives a Harley-Davidson Street 750 and the company has done a fair bit of PR around that in the US over the past few months, even running a contest with a custom Captain America themed Street 750 up for grabs.

I also noticed a HTC One being used in the film by Nick Fury; this is apparently the latest model of the HTC One – the M8 – which has just been launched last week and HTC is running a concurrent ad campaign in the US with the copy “only the best for the first Avenger”.

Steve Rogers and Black Widow also visit an Apple Store at one point and there’s a bit of fun with Rogers having to distract an overly helpful store employee while Black Widow tries to get hold of some information online.

Some of these are obvious placements with the brand putting in additional investments over and above to amplify the movie tie-up. Under Armour, Harley-Davidson, Chevrolet and HTC are the best examples of these. In the case of Tiffany & Co. and Nike, I couldn’t find any online activity related to the placements, so if they paid money for it, then I would say it was a dud investment.


Chris Evans shines in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Many of the best moments of this year’s Captain America sequel happen, I feel, before his nemesis The Winter Soldier even makes his appearance on screen. This is not to say that I have a problem with the film. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a worthy follow-up to the first Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and to the mega-blockbuster The Avengers (2012), driven by the undeniable star wattage of Chris Evans and excellent chemistry with his two main co-stars, Scarlett Johansson (returning as the Black Widow) and a very likable Anthony Mackie (as Cap’s new ‘sidekick’, Sam Wilson aka the Falcon).

What I mean by my opening line is that in the first half hour, the film is focused entirely on the charismatic Steve Rogers, running circles around Sam Wilson (literally), jumping off a plane without a parachute and taking down bad guys almost single-handed in an exhilarating action sequence on board a hijacked ship. Embodied by Chris Evans (looking more heroic with every successive movie in the franchise), Steve Rogers seems able to outwit and outhit anything the world can throw at him.

Once he returns to Washington DC, Rogers faces a much more difficult adversary. He has to deal with real and imagined conspiracies and the lack of transparency from his own superiors, Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce. I have mentioned earlier the delicious irony of having Alexander Pierce played by 70’s icon Robert Redford, who himself was at the receiving end of conspiracies in the thrillers Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. In fact, Redford was cast on purpose because of this connection.

My problem is with Cap’s chief nemesis, The Winter Soldier, who is just not a worthy counterweight to Captain America. Poor Sebastian Stan has a hopeless task; while he was endearing as Bucky Barnes in the first Captain America film, he just doesn’t have the physical presence or menacing aura to be effective as a bionic Russian-trained assassin. Especially, when his mask comes off during a fight sequence and we see his face, it’s quite the anti-climax. I actually thought that the computer-generated face of HYDRA villain Amin Zola in the warehouse scene had more menace than Sebastian Stan’s bionic assassin.

Nevertheless, the pace of the film, the chemistry between the stars, the action set-pieces and a couple of really strong emotion moments (Steve Rogers reunites with an aging Peggy Carter and the scene where Nick Fury is fighting for his life) result in a highly entertaining kick-off to the 2014 summer blockbuster season.

It’s worth making a special mention of Henry Jackman’s score which is very effective. His work on another Marvel film, X-Men First Class is among my favourites and although he hasn’t created anything as memorable in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the dramatic score delivered through the IMAX speakers is very effective.

The film is directed by TV series regulars Joe and Anthony Russo, who have apparently been signed on for Captain America 3 just on the strength of audience reactions during preview screenings. Given their TV/ comedy background, I was surprised they went in for so much shaky cam/ quick cutting in this film. I preferred the more conventional framing with combinations of wide shots and zoom used by Joss Whedon in The Avengers and Joe Johnston in Captain America: The First Avenger; it was much easier with that approach to enjoy the complex action sequences.

I have no doubt this will be a very lucrative entry in the franchise and of course the end of the film (don’t forget to stay back for the now famous mid-credis and post-credis ‘stingers’) sets up very nicely for Avengers: Age of Ultron which releases in 13 months’ time.

If the 33 year old Evans goes through with his recent announcement that he is ready to leave acting behind once he finishes his Captain America commitments (that would be with Cap 3 in May 2016), we may not get too many more chances to see this natural born movie star on the big screen. If you are a big fan of his like I am, be sure to check out his other recent release, the dystopian scifi thriller Snowpiercer, which has been receiving rave reviews and is slowly being released in markets across the world.

Whither the successful action movie?

Just taking a look at the top movies for 2014 so far, there’s a bunch from well known action directors and/or high profile actors, which have either under-performed at the worldwide box-office or will at best break even. Films typically need to make twice as much as their production budget at the box office to recoup the studio investment, not accounting for marketing costs which can sometimes come close to the production cost. The first two months of the year have ended up being a graveyard of high profile action films and studios are starting to worry that young men are just not interested in going to theaters to watch action films any more, unless they are based on comic books.

Renny Harlin who was big for a few years in the early ’90s with hits like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, but never recovered from the box office failure of Cutthroat Island in 1995, released The Legend of Hercules starring Twilight alum Kellan Lutz. The movie has made a pathetic USD 18 mn in the US so far and another USD 25 mn elsewhere in the world; nowhere near recouping its production cost of USD 70 mn, let alone marketing costs. Dwayne Johnson may have more luck playing this character in Hercules, to be released later this year. The only problem is that the 2nd Hercules movie is directed by another ‘once hotshot, not anymore’ action movie director, Brett Ratner, who after his first two Rush Hour movies, managed to ruin an X-Men film and hasn’t been trusted by studios since.

Getting back to the present, British B-movie maestro Paul W.S. Anderson, famous for turning games like Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil into escapist action-horror fare, was entrusted with big budget tentpole Pompeii. The USD 100 mn production is another failure arriving DOA at the US box office and not faring much better in other global markets.

Australian Stuart Beattie who helped write the screen story for the first Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 and also directed the well regarded adaptation of the young adult novel Tomorrow, When the War Began has had a disastrous release with I, Frankenstein. This action vehicle for Aaron Eckhart, hoping to create an Underworld-type franchise is also far from recouping its USD 65 mn production budget.

American director McG made the commercially successful but critically panned Charlie’s Angels films in the early 2000’s and then ruined attempts to bring the Terminator franchise back to life with the forgettable Terminator Salvation in 2009. He has now been reduced to directing the low-budget action drama 3 Days to Kill featuring one-time silver screen heartthrob Kevin Costner. In this case, the film only cost USD 28 mn to produce (credit to producer Luc Besson) and has made that money back in the US already, so hopefully will break even once it releases in other international markets.

The usually reliable ‘thinking man’s action hero’ Liam Neeson has hit a speed bump (or should that be an air pocket) with his latest action flick Non-Stop. Produced for just USD 50 mn, this should have been an easy win, but so far the film has made just USD 78 mn, although with China yet to come there may be hope yet. Having said that, with the recent Malaysia Airlines incident featuring many Chinese passengers, studios may want to delay the release of the film in that market.

There are a couple of success stories, however.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise targeting a younger audience with Chris Pine and directed by the thinking man’s director, Kenneth Brannagh. This film cost a sensible USD 65 mn and seems to be on its way to profitability with a worldwide take of USD 133 mn so far.

Similarly, the RoboCop remake from Brazilian director Jose Padilha while under-performing in the US (only USD 55 mn) had international markets save the day with USD 165 mn for a global take of USD 220 mn and a jump into profitability.

Lastly, 300: Rise of An Empire has already made USD 147 mn globally in its first one week so it should be on its way to recovering its USD 110 mn production budget and substantial marketing costs. This movie is made by newbie director Noam Murro (but produced by Zack Snyder who shot to fame with the original 300 back in 2006.

I enjoyed both Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 300: Rise of An Empire; the first for its intelligent script and under-played but tense and realistic action sequences, the 2nd for exactly the opposite – its outlandish digital sets and over-the-top histrionics. I haven’t seen RoboCop yet, so cannot comment on the reasons for its success (I was not impressed with the trailer which indicated that all the black humor which made the first film an instant cult classic was missing).

But certainly, based on the scorecard so far, the ‘established’ action-movie veterans (both directors and actors) are finding it difficult to repeat their success formula from the past.