May 7th, 2014
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie, brought to you by the power vested in me by the great state of Wyoming
While I will surprise approximately no one by saying that the action in this movie was nowhere near as inventive and exciting as the violence that gives The Raid 2 its reason to exist, this movie still confounded my expectations by impressing me more with competence than raw thrillpower.
A lot of people feel differently, of course. Hazel Robinson has written extensively about the unusually tender professional relationships in the film, while Abhay’s review was pretty scathing about the movie’s political and aesthetic consistency.
I’d agree with Abhay that plot elements like “guy with a metal arm who’s an icy Russian super-soldier except maybe not” and “guy who likes jogging also has experience impersonating one of Flash Gordon‘s Hawkmen” are rarely well integrated in pseudo-realistic superhero movies like this, but these are the sort of allowances I made long ago so they don’t come back into play when I think of buying a ticket these days.
As my pal Scott likes to say, imagine sitting down to watch Batman Begins without ever having read or heard about a superhero story before: “Okay, there’s a rich guy with dead parents, he’s kind of fucked up, super angry, wants to become America’s next top ninja so he can kick fuck out of the local crime bosses, and… now he’s decided to dress up as a bat? And now the rich guy’s filing bits of metal so the look like bats so he can throw them at gangsters because? And his butler’s not even remotely phased by this?“
Since I’m apparently part of that mildly disparaged and overly pandered to percentage of the audience that’s learned to accept this sort of guff without worrying, this isn’t the aspect of Abhay’s critique that I disagree with. Instead, my argument is with his assertions about the way the movie handles its central theme – which is to say, the idea that a global spy agency like S.H.I.E.L.D. might actually be a pernicious threat to freedom rather than an tireless defender of it.
Let’s look at a couple of excerpts from Abhay’s complaint in more detail, in the hope of explaining the exact nature of my disagreement:
I don’t know I’m just sick of this fanboy shit where … Like, “Iron Man 3’s like a Shane Black movie.” No, it’s just set at Christmas. ”Captain America 2’s like Three Days of the Condor. It’s a political thriller” No, it’s just got Redford in it— that’s it; an examination of the politics of the fakey-fake-fake-fake Marvel Universe don’t make a movie a fucking political thriller. I don’t know. This fucking country used to be able to make a Die Hard or a Lethal Weapon. Or if you like Redford, we made Sneakers (SNEAKERS!!!). We used to be a country! We used to build things.
My gut instinct is to agree with this assessment, but tracking back a bit, what does it mean to say that The Winter Soldier isn’t a true political thriller? Presumably this means that instead of presenting a world which mirrors the complexity of our own political situation, it provides one in which the good guys and the bad guys tend to wear big signs identifying themselves as such, and in which the heroic actions of a few special men and women can still make everything better.
Sight and Sound‘s (which, sadly, is neither online nor close to hand as I write this) expanded on this idea, pointing out that a more traditional conspiracy thriller would feature a bunch of normal people struggling to deal with forces that were far beyond them instead of a gang of super soldiers stomping their way to victory.
All of this is true, but it doesn’t mean The Winter Soldier’s approach is poorly chosen or ineffective. At their simplest, superhero plots work like Roland Barthes’ description of wrestling, as spectacles in which justice becomes intelligible. Of course, the form of justice codified in these stories is rarely innocent, and so you end up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in which people are black bagged amidst the chirpy tones of Whedon-speak, or The Dark Knight Rises, where the politics of Batman and the politics of post 9/11 America overlap in a way that is unsatisfying in pretty much every direction simultaneously.
The complexity of The Winter Soldier, then, is of a kind that is most easily integrated into a superhero narrative. By letting two different fantasy visions of America fight it out on screen, and by implicating the movies that preceded it in the more pernicious vision, The Winter Soldier calls into question what it’s selling without ever breaking to suggest that it won’t close the sale.
This brings us to another point of Abhay’s, this time regarding the ending:
…any kind of story that’s being told gets all shot to shit by Scarlet Johanensen at the end— the whole movie is about, “Oh, maybe a paramilitary spy agency like SHIELD is inconsistent with the idea of freedom”. But then at the end, if I understood what she was saying (???? god only knows; she’s a terrible actress and the script was no good), ScarJo’s like “Nope— extralegal spies are necessary evils that will remain active and oblivious to Congressional oversight IE any vestige of democracy. Haha the fascist surveillance state wins.” And then it’s her walking out of a room grinning in slow-mo, and that’s the ending! Fanboy politics are always so fascist….
Once again, on the face of it the man’s not wrong! The scene is question is presented as a moment of mild triumph, but while this might play discordantly against the main progression of the movie, just think about the way Natasha’s address to Congress is phrased. “You’ll always need us” - these words sit uneasily in context (is it really that much better to pay people to kill foreigns with their bare hands than to let them do it using Nick Fury’s superdrones?), but they’re perfectly appropriate if addressed to either the audience or the film makers themselves.
Movies like this are premised on the idea that you will get to see heroic characters act decisively and towards a good end; drawing attention to the dubious structure behind this sort of fantasy might not make The Winter Soldier a traditionally satisfying political thriller, but it does ensure that the movie resonates beyond its own “fakey-fake” politics and into our own.
What to make, then, of the emotional aspect of the movie? As I’ve already said, I found myself unmoved by The Winter Soldier, largely because the central performances provoked responses of a different kind from me. Chris Evans is at his best when he’s likeably bewildered, but his blank-faced action hero routine is less compelling, and having showcased a previously undetected talent for looking ill at ease in her own body in Under the Skin, ScarJo falls back on her teenage pouting presets to little effect here. As for Anthony Mackie, well, the internet doesn’t need me to tell it that his enthusiasm is contagious, but he also has a good line in concerned glances, and it’s probably easy to overlook that in favour of his more energetic moments:
Who else is there? Oh, aye – the plot calls for a degree of physical frailty that forces Samuel Jackson to leave self-parody behind, and Robert Redford performs a convincing impersonation of himself.
In short, the faces that dominate the screen throughout this movie made for generally engaging company, but none of them exactly stayed to haunt me after the credits rolled. The script doesn’t exactly help – gags and exposition make their presence felt, but their details are rarely worthy of your attention.
Hazel Robinson’s write-up – which, you might recall, I mentioned about a thousand words ago – ends with a rhapsody for the emotional connection between Steve Rogers and Bucky, a relationship that’s only fleetingly glimpsed in The Winter Soldier itself. I can’t pretend that I’m anywhere near as excited about this pairing as Hazel is, but her review flags up the way the film renders the awkward vulnerability of its character relationships vivid without going down the traditional Hollywood romance route:
Black Widow and Cap have a really intimate relationship in the film- they grab the front of each other’s shirts to snarl at each other, shield each other, care for and comfort each other, tend their wounds together. And it could have gone there, sure. But it didn’t.
There’s lots of mentions of romance- Black Widow even explicitly brings up the idea that Steve should ask out his neighbour, who turns out to be Agent 13, his long-term on/off girlfriend in the comics. But he doesn’t. They have an important moment but it’s as allies, as acknowledging each other as being on the right side in a secret war.
This same clarity extends to and is developed by the action scenes, which while rarely spectacular in terms of the effects or choreography involved are always careful to ensure that both the physical environment and emotional stakes are in full view at any given moment.
Both of these elements are linked together in The Winter Soldier. In the early battle between Captain America and Batroc, there’s nothing on the line except Captain America’s ability to win the fight, and so the conflict plays out almost like a traditional, side-on beat-em-up showdown:
The later action sequence where Captain America, Black Widow and The Falcon take on The Winter Soldier and his goons on a busy highway has more moving parts, more cuts, and a fully fledged three dimensional environment. All of this corresponds to the amount of emotional connections involved in the scene – with the bond between our protagonists and the previous the Widow and the Soldier dominating the fight until the deeper connection between Cap and his enemy is revealed – but the Russo’s and their crew are careful not to loose track of the individual impacts in the bustle.
Legibility may seem like a low bar to set for this sort of movie, so trust that I don’t mean to damn Cap2 with faint praise here: punches hit harder when you can keep track of who’s throwing them, and some scenes – the one in the lift, say – achieve a frantic grace that’s rare in superhero spectacle films.
The overall aesthetic of the Marvel movies is still in place, of course, and despite the post-Avengers competence of the Marvels Studios product, it’s this aspect of the film that’s least inspiring. The Winter Soldier himself is a perfect example of the limited vision of these films, looking as he does like a Power Ranger who’s not had a good wash since his 90s heyday:
Of course, when I stated this opinion on twitter it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t shared amongst my peer group. Jumpin James Wheeler popped up to flag moments that he thought reached the level of a good Ditko/Kirby comic, before summing up his opinions like this:
I can’t say that I disagree, but I’d probably qualify that statement by saying that this is an achievement of sensibility rather than a guarantee of quality. Still, The Winter Soldier is a unexpectedly clever and admirable movie, both in terms of how it conducts its own business and in the way it re-frames the movies that come before and after it.
Like the man said, The Winter Soldier achieves comics. More than that, it almost achieves good filmmaking in the process.