An American Fantasy: Reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier

*blows dust off blog* Hello everyone! I’ve been awakened from grad school-induced Internet slumber to weigh in on the latest backpat-inducing cause for celebration in the geek/comic/cinema/genre community: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is the 41st movie in the marvel cinematic canon, but watching costumed good guys and bad guys earnestly punch each other feels as fresh as ever.

Weary sarcasm aside, I actually enjoyed The Winter Soldier a lot, for various reasons, which is saying a lot about a superhero-driven movie for me post-Man of Steel. It’s not perfect by any means, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be enjoyable and not stupid.

I did walk into the movie with fairly high expectations. The press on this one has reached mammoth proportions, with people calling it the best Marvel movie yet besides The Avengers. As it turns out, they’re right. It is easily the best non-Avengers movie Marvel has done yet, with the most relevant contemporary appeal and audiences going for it. It feels freshly made for our times (for better and worse, as I’ll explain later).

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Winter Soldier lends Captain America his knife, because that's what good friends do for each other.

Winter Soldier lends Captain America his knife, because that’s what good friends do for each other.

I’m not going to bother recapping the plot of the movie because the trailers more or less spell it out. If you need a recap, go here or here. Take the IGN review with a grain of salt, though. They’re in love with the movie to the point of calling it “the Terminator of superhero movies.” That sounds cool, but that analogy really only hinges on the fact that both the T-800 and the Winter Soldier are nigh-unstoppable badasses. I’m all for making strong points, but let’s not resort to euphoric geek hyperbole.

And now, to break down what worked for me on this one and what left me concerned:

GOOD: The action. This movie works best as a tightly choreographed and filmed deployment of linked action scenes and fights. I enjoyed the opening sequence of Cap and his squad liberating a ship hijacked by Batroc the Leaper (who totally works in this movie by the way, although he still gets his ass utterly handed to him once Cap takes the kid gloves off). It plays out with an interesting sense of cause-and-effect, with Cap’s actions allowing Black Widow’s acts allowing the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents allowing Cap and so on. It’s very meticulous and works wonderfully. That sense of intricate choreography carries through the rest of the action for the most part, though I think the high point of the movie is still the elevator fight between Cap and the various S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, which is teased often in the trailers for good reason. It. Is. BADASS. Other high points? Pretty much any time the Winter Soldier joins the action. More on him later, though…

GOOD: The stakes were high and relatable. I’m stressing that last part especially because that’s something the Marvel movies struggle with at times, in my opinion. It’s a problem with the Thor movies especially, just because the filmmakers don’t always succeed in making me care about the Asgardians and, strangely enough, the humans. It’s easy to pull off in The Winter Soldier though because the movie is, at its core, about us as Americans and our struggle to balance security and freedom, and where we should draw the line. I felt a palpable sense of dread and tension at times, especially once HYDRA shows its face in full view and takes over SHIELD. I actually felt a bit choked up watching still-loyal SHIELD agents try and stop the HYDRA goons, despite being obviously overmatched and outgunned. Which brings me to my next point…

GOOD: The filmmakers are aware of the ramifications of what they depict, and they care. This is the sole reason why I still detest Man of Steel: I don’t think Zack Snyder cared about the fact he was killing off swaths of innocent humans in the course of Superman and Zod’s imitation of a Dragon Ball Z fight through Metropolis, and the deaths of so many at the point of alien weapons. It was all there to make the movie feel epic and earth-shaking. And yet, Superman and other characters didn’t seem to give a damn about all that carnage. Hell, he made out with Lois Lane in the middle of a smoking gray crater, probably standing in the ashes of people he could have protected. Nothing even remotely like that happens in The Winter Soldier. Bad things happen to innocent people here, but it feels like the characters are not only aware of terrible things happening to these people, they also act in a manner that they hope directs the action away from innocent lives. They actively try to minimize damage when possible. Imagine that.

GOOD: Marvel is continuing to push their cinematic universe in cool directions. It’ll be interesting to see what Marvel does in their movies with SHIELD out of commission, and with Nick Fury seemingly burning all his tapes and going underground. It’s an impressive house cleaning, considering all the work they did to sell the presence of SHIELD through other movies. It’s also a little scary to think of HYDRA as an ongoing sleeper element in government and the army. And, if the stinger with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are an indication, they’re ready to introduce “Miracles” to the Marvel universe (because they’re not Mutants; Fox owns that word).

GOOD: Steve Rogers is interesting, along with the other characters. Chris Evans really makes me like Cap. He sells him as a considerate, ethically minded, genuine hero in a field full of anti-heroes and sinister jerks. It’s pretty obvious now that he was the man to play Cap all along. Black Widow gets a great workout in this movie, and I’m pretty much ready to see her solo film now. They also introduced the Falcon in a manner that I considered both believable and compelling. Samuel L. Jackson also gets his biggest badass moment in any of the movies yet as Nick Fury versus a squadron of HYDRA agents early in the movie. You know what? Just give him his own movie now too.

They made Falcon's wings rather cool in the movie too. Big props there.

They made Falcon’s wings rather cool in the movie too. Big props there.

GOOD: The villains are legit baddies. Fact: the Winter Soldier – Bucky Barnes – is a damn cool character. He was one of the best characters in the contemporary revamp of Captain America in the comics, thanks to the genius rewriting of Barnes as a wetworks agent during WWII even before he was resurrected in the modern era by the Russians as a brainwashed assassin. He’s a fantastic foil for Cap, and this totally comes through in the movie. He’s a dark mirror of Steve Rogers, which actually bends back and makes Rogers a better character in the process, much like the Joker does for Batman. Also, the movie absolutely comes alive when he’s on screen because he’s such a wild card, even if he’s working at the bidding of Robert Redford’s sinister politico, Alexander Pierce. Pierce, however, is not the next best villain in the movie (he’s actually one of the movie’s weaker points, in fact). That honor goes to the entirety of SHIELD itself. The best part about making HYDRA take over SHIELD unawares is the general paranoia generated by realizing that you’ve been working for the bad guys all along. Narratologically, that’s a great turn. Plain old logically, though, it’s a hard sell. Special bad guy notice must go to Frank Grillo’s depiction of Brock Rumlow, aka the future Crossbones, a classic Cap villain. The guy is such a jerk in this movie, and he clearly relishes playing such an unapologetically brutal person. He’s so easy to hate; you keep wishing one of the heroes would punch his lights out. Can’t wait to see him come back in future movies.

Hell of a way to disguise a cold sore.

Hell of a way to disguise a cold sore.

GOOD: This movie is absolutely, 100% science fiction. And I will fight anyone who claims otherwise. “But Adam, there’s no aliens, or lightspeed travel, or telekinesis, or blah blah blah.” Yeah, well there’s futuristic technology yet-to-be realized by our current progress in the fields of unmanned warfare and computers. They have yet to make superpowered prosthetic metal limbs for people. Armin Zola comes back from the dead as a program of himself logged in old SHIELD computers. And, lest we forget, super serums. Just saying. The fact is, this is plausible future fiction. I suspect that the reason I feel more tension watching Winter Soldier than any of the other Marvel movies is that this one is simply more plausible in relation to our current world than any of the other movies so far. I love it when people can pull science fiction off so sneakily that you don’t even realize it’s sci-fi until later.

GOOD: Cool callbacks to the first Captain. Welcome back, Peggy Carter. The scene with the now elderly Peggy and modern day Cap is an emotional highlight of the movie. I will admit to feeling twinges of emotion while Cap visits the museum exhibits of his old adventures with the Howling Commandoes as well. And, of course, Armin Zola. His special appearance in this movie was totally unexpected for me, and I loved every second of it. (The other reason I loved that scene? Zola is the character who gets to break it to Cap that HYDRA has spread its tentacles through all of SHIELD.)

NOT SO GOOD: Steve Rogers is still simplistic at his core. Cap is basically a big ol’ wish fulfillment character. He’s a harbinger of “older, simpler times” for America which, quite frankly, were not as simple and clear-cut as people think they were. In her review for io9, Charlie Jane Anders is dead-on when she claims that Cap’s main superpower is making other people’s worldviews simpler, because his own worldview is black and white. This works within the parameters of an escapist superhero movie, but when extrapolated to a real world setting beyond the movie, it crumbles pretty easily. The bigger issue here is that because of his simplicity, Cap’s potential character development in this cinematic universe is ultimately limited, which is why they have to keep surrounding him with more dynamic characters like Black Widow and Nick Fury.

I rather like this outfit more than the regular Cap costume, to be honest.

I rather like this outfit more than the regular Cap costume, to be honest.

NOT SO GOOD: The subtext, at times. I feel like some more die-hard libertarians will try to politicize this movie for their own purposes, and honestly it would fit pretty easily. It’s about a small group of superpowered/ultra-talented rebellious American fighters striking back against a big government organization with scary-huge overreach and a lack of transparency and citizen oversight, using only the meager resources they can gather on their own. The scene at the end with Black Widow daring the military-government tribunal to sentence her for her crimes and then calling their bluff because they need her and her abilities really cements the possibility for a libertarian reading in my mind (it’s also a slight rip-off of a similar scene from Iron Man 2).

This isn’t exactly the movie’s fault; I just think that superhero narratives lend themselves rather naturally to libertarian fantasies of individual power and collective evil. (This is the exact same reason why I will always be a little wary of The Incredibles, despite how much I enjoy that movie.) The oversimplification of the central theme of the movie – Freedom vs. Security – and the direction the movie falls in that conflict don’t help either. It eliminates a lot of compelling gray space as it proceeds towards the end; this is a necessary part of the story as spectacle, but it’s a loss I found slightly disappointing given my own preferences in political conflict.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that Cap himself is tailor-made for nationalistic allegories. He has a long history of being used as a form of both political support and protest, and given the movie’s take on drone warfare, he’s following in that tradition to this day. Ultimately, Winter Soldier is a perfect American fantasy built for fulfilling inner wishes and fears we might have about the direction of our country in the War on Terror era. Also, by and large I still think this is a more socially positive depiction of a superhero narrative than Man of Steel, for instance.

NOT SO GOOD: The plot twists, while fun, stretch credulity, even by comic book movie standards. As cool as it is that the real villain of this movie is HYDRA – the title of the movie probably should’ve been Captain America: Hail HYDRA – the actual logistics of this happening are fairly unwieldy. The more the movie tries to explain how HYDRA pulled off its systematic poisoning of SHIELD’s well, the more it falters because more questions keep popping up of exactly how and why people didn’t notice this shit sooner. As the movie goes on, too, the central conflict becomes oversimplified to broad strokes of Order vs. Freedom, which technically makes this an unsanctioned installment of Assassin’s Creed. It’s surprisingly easy; just replace HYDRA with the Templars. Now, you could handwave this all away by saying “It’s a superhero movie, relax,” but the fact is Marvel has consistently upped their own game through all their movies, leading up to Winter Soldier. The excuse of being a comic book adaptation is no longer, or will soon no longer be, a justification for questionable logic in a story.

Marvel's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER - Teaser Poster

FINAL CALL: It’s not perfect, but it’s a ton of fun. The good here far outweighs the bad. As escapist fantasy action, it’s absolutely fantastic and well worth seeing. It also features the most mature and civic-minded writing of any of the Marvel movies so far, including Avengers. In fact, I like this movie better than Avengers.  I stand by my feelings about how non-ambiguously the movie paints its central conflict and how plausible the logistics of the various twists actually are, but those may say more about myself and my own tastes than the movie itself.

Some other quick thoughts, perhaps unrelated, based on the movie and the previews before the movie, and pretty much anything else on my mind:

  • Abed has a cameo! So glad to see the Russo brothers drop one of their Community actors in the movie. And if there’s anyone that needs to cameo in a comic book movie, it’s Danny Pudi. So, going forward: Donald Glover as Luke Cage? Maybe?
  • I’m psyched about Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s one of my fave Marvel comics, and I hope the movie is just as fun and bizarre as the actual comics were. It looks like straight-up sci-fi funny action, and I believe in James Gunn as the director for this project. Also, ROCKET RACCOON. AND GROOT.
  • I do fear that Chris Pratt — who I think will be good as Star-Lord in GotG — is going to become the next Ryan Reynolds: funny dude develops abs and starts getting recruited for increasingly mediocre action-oriented roles. Think of the last good Ryan Reynolds action movie you saw besides Blade Trinity. Yeah. Thought so. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Pratt will fare better.
  • Speaking of Chris Pratt: he’s the main voice protagonist in The LEGO Movie, and if you haven’t seen that yet, go see it in theaters NOW. It’s the best, most inventive, most moving film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s Toy Story-quality goodness.
  • Back to Marvel: please make that Dr. Strange movie soon, with Jon Hamm as the good doctor. I need it.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past looks increasingly good to me. I will wind up watching it once it comes out, if only to see if they can pull it off. Amazing Spider-Man 2 concerns me, though. It looks like it’s going to be a collection of CGI video game boss fights. I really hope I’m wrong, because I want to see that movie if only for Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne.
  • Angelina Jolie was born to play Malificent in live action. I could tell that ten seconds into the trailer. The movie Malificent looks like it could be good, although I wonder if it will suffer from the bloat of making all fantasy-related movies “epics” in some fashion.
  • Of all the previews I saw, Marvel-related and otherwise, I am by far the most excited for the new Godzilla movie. Every preview I see makes it look more and more awesome. It’s hard not to let my expectations get worked up.
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One response to “An American Fantasy: Reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier

  1. Pingback: Captain America: Metal Gear Soldier (A Review) | The L. Palmer Chronicles

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