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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

America. As American as apple pie cooling on a window sill,
skinned knees and spelling bees, entrenched racism and
unaffordable health care.

dirs: Anthony and Joe Russo

Finally. A decent action movie based on a comic book. Wonders will never cease.

Sorry. Forgot to use the sarcasm html tags around the intro. Yes, we’re all sick of superhero movies. We still look forward to the entertaining ones, the ones that will make it easier to grit our teeth through the shittier ones.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not completely terrible. It’s definitely better than that last Thor flick, and it’s probably better than the first Captain America flick. It works as an action flick, and it works, for Marvel’s purposes, as an extension of their franchise, pushing the overall story in some kind of direction, which is good.

It’s also the only one of this recent crop of the Marvel renaissance that has anything to say about the actual contemporary world we live in, with its all pervasive surveillance and drone/targeted killings and such. Okay, so it doesn’t say anything useful about these issues, like the fact that you can’t send a text or have a conversation on the phone without Google, various governments and Obama knowing about it, and what should be done about it, but at least it reminds us of stuff we are perfectly well aware of.

Chris Evans is solid as this most stolid of heroes, and any issue you could come up with about his ‘chapters’ in the franchise don’t come down to performance. He’s a noble and melancholy (without being maudlin) character who misses a simpler world when he knew what he wanted to fight for. Now, he’s got no idea what’s going on. Sure, they still want to use him to beat various people up or find stolen stuff, but you could use anyone to do that errand boy type stuff.

Yes, they keep belabouring the ‘man out of time’ stuff, but at least it sets him apart from all the other Avenger dudes, so it’s not all cookie-cutter stuff. You could barely argue that anything comprehensible or credible motivates the other ones, but at least this one is humanly relatable.

Speaking of cookie-cutter, there is a template for superhero flicks, and especially these Marvel ones, but I don’t think you could say this one follows it. At all. In fact, in terms of its premise, this one makes me queasier than all the other ones combined.

The last Marvel Franchise flick had a stupid elf wanting to wipe out the universe because he hates light. It’s a threat so overblown you can’t care about it, and you just want to yell out, “Dude, just get yourself one of those sleep masks or a good pair of sunnies!” Avengers had Loki and a bunch of enemies wanting to enslave humanity. Everybody wants to rule the world. The Iron Man flicks has people wanting… I don’t know, some kinds of corporate shenanigans, defence contracts or something.

But The Winter Soldier has, as its threat, pretty much the Nazis resurrected wanting to kill everyone they think might be a problem in one fell swoop of brutal genocide. In one fell swoop, or stroke, or hail of leaden fire, all the people those in power want exterminated would die instantly and brutally, and the ones left behind would think it was for their own good. And applaud you for it.

That’s chilling to me. I know it’s overblown and absurd, but the notion of any government body, whether it’s SHIELD or the CIA or the NSA or anyone else having the power to do this kind of stuff beyond what they already possess (let’s face it, they already do, just not on the scale threatened here) seems all too possible. And that on the whims and impulses of people in power who answer to no one, that the bete noir of the day, whether it’s Muslims or Jews or African-Americans or hypochondriac neurotic Caucasians with bad skin and questionable hygiene could be expunged at a button press seems like a possible power (unlike all the other ones on display) that you never want to see exist.

The villains in this are the same villains humankind has dealt endlessly within our own, non-comic book history. They are the calm, sober people who want power over other people, and they have no qualms killing many if not most of the people they want to rule to achieve it. They will kill people they think are threats. They will kill people they fear will become threats. They will kill people to make other people never think of becoming a threat. And they won’t lose a moment’s sleep over it.

Sure, satellites and Mobile Oppression Palaces in the sky are far-fetched tech, but tell me there aren’t already genocidal tyrants who aren’t dreaming of their own versions of this. Tell me Syria’s murderous dictator Bashar Assad isn’t drawing up plans for these monstrous flying guillotines as we speak. Tell me Vladimir Putin wouldn’t give the left nut of everyone in the Ukraine to be able to kill everyone who doesn’t agree with him and his reign of misrule at just a flex of one of his unclad pecs in the direction of a quivering underling.

Tell me even seemingly benevolent ‘democratic’ leaders could be trusted with something like this.

Well, they can’t be trusted with it. No-one could. Not even a virtual saint that walks among us like you. Yes, You! Captain America knows that, and he’s going to indulge in old-fashioned derring-do and fisticuffs in order to save the day, and most of humanity in the bargain. But to do it, he’s going to have to punch a bunch of people, get shot at thousands of times, cowering behind that almost magical shield of his, and he’s going to have to have some help from his friends.

Not his ‘super’ ones, but the all-too-human ones, like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who have various skills and abilities, who says they don’t? Sure, they don’t turn green or have a superheroic level of arrogance to go with their powered suits, or shoot lightning out of their magic hammers, but they can do stuff.

The villains are a mixed bag. The main concept of ‘villain’ is an organisation that really shouldn’t exist, but completely does, and it’s so diffuse and ‘big’ an idea that it’s almost as if the real villain is an idea. There’s also an ‘algorithm’ which is a villain of sorts, because the bad ‘idea’ is using it to justify wiping out 20 or so million people. Beneath that, there’s stuff like an ancient Nazi AI saved on old-fashioned computers, with magnetic tape reels and monochrome screens, there are traitors within that hallowed organisation known as SHIELD, and there are stuffy bureaucrats and prim scientists who’ve never met a horrible idea they didn’t like.

Oh, and there’s some Soviet era super soldier with a metal arm who’s very good at killing people and glowering. His superpower is glowering at people until they just want to slink away and die.

Samuel L. Jackson reprises his Nick Fury role and gets to do way more than just yell at people. He even shoots a whole bunch of them too, but he does do a fair amount of yelling as well. His long-standing friendship with Secretary Pierce (Robert Redford) exists for us as a link between the world as we know it, our actual world, and this horribly dystopian Marvel world that keeps being conjured up in these films. Redford deliberately reminds us of the 1970s, and I don’t just mean the films of the 1970s (although that helps too). It’s impossible to think of Redford playing a bureaucrat apparatchik without thinking of Watergate, or of the CIA as depicted in 3 Days of the Condor: a CIA that runs around killing people just because they heard the bare outline of an idea.

He reminds us, with his leathery features and old Hollywood charm, of what people with power will do to retain and magnify that power. They’ll do everything, whether it’s for themselves or their evil organisation, they’ll do it all, and they’ll never apologise for it, the fuckers.

Sure, the whole premise sounds overstuffed, and it is. They cram a lot in to an already long running time. I’m not sure a lot of it will make a whole lot of sense to the audience (regardless of whether they’re turning out in droves or not). Perhaps they think they’re not insulting our intelligence by underlining the set up for many of the last-second escapes Our Heroes perpetrate, but a lot of times it’s hard to know exactly how different they are from a Batman with a tool for every situation in his utility belt.

It does lead to a moment, though, that made me groan out loud in pain, which kind of took me out of the film, when a certain character jumps out of a building into a helicopter. It looked so, so cheesy, that I was surprised Jason Statham or Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t driving the helicopter.

And what helicopter? Who got where how? What, you mean what just happened? I’m surprised they didn’t have a scene where someone survives a nuclear explosion by jumping into a fridge. I’m going to have to knock off a point for that, sorry.

I’m not goddamn sorry.

They take the time to make it seem like Cap and his new veteran soldier buddy, or Cap and Natasha, and Cap and the Winter Soldier, with whom he shares a deep, old connection, that these relationships matter. That’s all well and good. I don’t know if people care, they just want to watch shit blow up and people kill each other.

I cared, though, I care a lot.

The action, well, I would argue that the whole premise is well set up, and a fair bit gutsy, and the action is brutally in the service of it, but the way the action scenes are filmed are a bit annoying. This is just a personal preference, but when two or more people are attacking each other, it’s not enhanced by having the camera jitter around. I like to see what is connecting where and how, no matter how fast or how unlikely. Shaking the camera around needlessly doesn’t convince me an action scene is any better than it actually is. They even do this in scenes where the action is entirely CGI, which means the “camera” they’re shaking around isn’t even real, nor the action depicted, so what’s the need for that?

I contrast that with that most excellent set piece scene where Cap gets into an elevator after a fruitless discussion with Secretary Pierce. Couple of guys get in. Couple more. Couple more. And then hell is unleashed. That was a superlative scene, well edited, built tension nicely, and there are touches of that throughout the film, just not, alas, during many of the brawls. They are speedy, though, and propulsive, and it’s certainly never boring.

You can colour me a fan of where they went with this one, and I even liked the touches from Cap’s backstory, and his touching meeting with an old, old friend. It exists well enough on its own, and cataclysmically (I hope) changes the Marvel universe where these stories are transpiring. I just wish that at the end of every one of these Marvel flicks, we weren’t being teased for the next adventure. Credits start, and yes, I really dug those excellent credits at the end, but then there’s a scene telling us “Well, you thought this story was a big deal? Well, here’s something even more dangerous and awesome that your heroes didn’t even have a clue about!”

You know, if that ‘next’ story is so goddamn important and awesome, why didn’t you tell that one instead? I don’t watch movies like a television series. I want them to be discrete, finite experiences with beginnings and endings. When you make it feel like it’s just another blip on a production line, I feel like jumping off screaming from the conveyor belt.

Cap, you’re America’s only hope. Keep the faith, blue boy, keep the faith.

7 times Scarlett Johansson I think is playing an alien in this film too out of 10

“Captain, to build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down” – yes, sometimes you’ve got to destroy the village to save the village, don’t you – Captain America: The Winter Soldier.