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 guess I’m saying that if you show a figure decelerating by shoving their paw into a surface, you have achieved comics

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.

 

8 Responses to “The Winter Soldier: Captain America 2, reviewed!”

  1. Matthew Craig Says:

    While I liked the ne plus Marvel emotional connection that having Bucky be the Winter Soldier gives to Cap’s story – if that’s even grammatical (I’m half-asleep, sorry) – I thought it undercut Steve’s themey-wemey to have the only other person he was friends with back in Dublya W 2 turn up in the dark, pierced future, all young and smoke-eyed. Like how Wolverine’s feral half-brother couldn’t just be left behind in the fucking Yukon with his napper smashed open because he was both evil and unMarvel, so he gets to be a time-travelling shitkicker bountyman, because aWeSoMe!!!!11. I remain unconvinced as to the value of bringing Bucky backy, even after all this, although yes, yer man Sebastian Stan is dreamy (and think about this: Rick Jones isn’t in any of these movies, and who does Rick Jones look like?).

    Even if Bucky had turned out to be Peggy’s pointlessly nameless husband (seriously, why have her in the story? Why not name her husband? Was it Dum Dum? Was it Tommy Lee Jones? Why play coy and See You Next Film with Agent Sharon’s surname? (Why not *let* the professional become personal twice over by having her play out the Widow’s story?) Why undercut the moment where Jenny Agutter kicks Robert Redford in the fuck by not having her be Peggy Carter’s daughter?), that would have been something.

    As it is, there’s an awful lot of redundancy in the movie – Steve gets three best friends, three non-love interests, fights three big bosses. He learns nothing about America beyond We Create Our Own Enemies (and hey, any evil we may commit in pursuit of our global agendas can be chalked up to Bad Apples, rather than a pishy barrel) – but yet and all, it manages to avoid feeling overstuffed, even though the driving MacGuffin of Drones or Sky-Lasers or Fuck Me, The Nartzys Won Anyway is as solid as a Pink Wafer in the rain. Compare to Amazing Spider-Man 2, which screws itself out of a decent ending and a far more interesting threequel by stuffing itself full of stupid shit like Special Guest-Star Paul Giamatti As Joel Schumacher’s Tracksuit Dracula, Cap2ain Ame2ica is tighter than Batroc’s tank-top.

    That’s not to say that the film doesn’t do stupid shit of its own. “Stephen Strange,” though? A “threat to Hydra?” Why, because they don’t like men in black pantyhose? And Sam Jackson’s Fury just seems tired. They can’t help themselves with these movies: each and every one of them has to strip a gear with pointless shout-outs and shouldabeentocamera grins.

    Plus it’s pretty ruddy weird that Falcon already had his superhero suit, isn’t it? I mean, that’s how they did it in the Ultimate Universe, I know, but still: way to rob Sam Wilson of his moment of revelation and (literal) elevation.

    I dunno, man. It wa’ good. I liked the regionalisation of his Book Of Lists (here in the UK, it read Diana/Bashir; Dirty Den; Eddy Grant; Tom, Not Colin Baker; Double Deckers (food/vehicle/TV show); Dead Parrot(?); Trigger Falls Through The Bar). I like that it was ballsy enough to subvert the militarised superhero thing by making that bAaabaaaAD-Azzz Special Ops Action Figure costume basically be a Hydra uniform in order to have The Real Superhero Costume be a symbol of…actually, he probably should have worn his USO suit, shouldn’t he? Salinger it up a notch.

    Did I ever tell you about the guy I saw walking along the street with his hand on his girlfriend’s jeany arse and his middle finger pressing up her arsecrack? That bit on the escalator made me think of that dirty brute, walking round Wolverhampton and handling the fruit (n the shops; that’s not a metaphor).

    //\Oo/\\

  2. jameswheeler Says:

    “an achievement of sensibility rather than a guarantee of quality” – Absolutely, part of the problem with blowing the best shot of the Avengers (and Marvel Movies thus far) in the trailer is that I spent the first 3 quarters of the film fidgeting – “a truck going over a speed-bump? Really?” And overall Winter Soldier does represent a slight visual slackening (the Never Fails shot aside, obviously).

    A very good review, even without my (cynical, sales-boosting) guest appearance.

    Matthew Craig – I liked all the things you highlight as stupid! Yes, even “Dr. Stephen”, though I should know better. Fury’s tiredness was definitely a plus – he hangs up the eye-patch! “There’s no reason this guy can’t be an actual character”, the Russos seem to say.

    “Trigger Falls Through The Bar” – A+

  3. jameswheeler Says:

    Oh! I also shared your Agutter disappointment, Matthew. Though I didn’t have the idea of her being a Carter – that would’ve been perfect.

    I also wanted Agent 13 to have the showdown with Crossbones, but I guess either her or Falcon were going to get short shrift there. Someone else said: it’s pretty cool that the whitest, malest Marvel superhero ended up in an ensemble with 2-3 ladies and 2 black guys.

  4. Matthew Craig Says:

    “blowing the best shot of the Avengers (and Marvel Movies thus far) in the trailer”

    I try to avoid as many trailers and promos as possible, but yeah, this is getting ridiculous. It spoils the story, or sets up plot expectations that they have no ability to fulfil, and worse it wastes the last best shot of the film – taking the thing that the audience should be carrying in their heads as they leave, and turning it into something they have seen before. Probably while waiting for the last Marvel movie to begin. I mean, imagine the London Philharmonic ending a performance of Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” with the Eastenders dumf-dumps and a raspberry. And then eight bars of Bizet as a preview of things to come. There’d be very polite riots!

    My favourite Nick Fury is the one in the Sky Broadband adverts, who seems more concerned about Shield agents watching their own movie on a camcord torrent than saving the world. You know that one agent has a Superfamily Tumblr on the go. All The Feels!

    //\Oo/\\

  5. Brendan Says:

    I was pretty disappointed to see Hydra return as the baddies, them being incredibly redundant in the first Captain America film. What was WWII missing– a charismatic and recognizable face of evil? A terrible weapon of a new technology that can also be used for efficient energy?

    In The Winter Soldier, Hydra served to dumb down and ultimately undermine the political thrill. Why can’t SHIELD alone be a quagmire that does more harm than good in the name of freedom and justice? They had that premise sold to the audience well before they introduced Hydra to the plot.

    The movie feels uneasy because it regresses from start to finish. They tried to make a Cap story where he defends his country from a less authentic patriotism than his own, but instead he yet again fights knock-off Nazis. Making the right decision in the face of a complex enemy would be more heroic than fighting a still-born Nazi movement in the 21st century. Cap goes from being an altruist out of his time to being right back in his comfort zone, old pajamas and all.

  6. Illogical Volume Says:

    Lads lads lads, gonnae lay off it with the Kwality Comments for a bit? I’ve been too busy waffling on about this movie elsewhere so now I’m struggling to keep up!

    Something both Matthew and Brendan have homed in on is the fact that The Winter Soldier trashes the ending of the first Captain America movie, which – as Joe McCulloch noted at the time – had a horror movie feel to it, with the hero crashing into a continuity where everything he knew and loved was dead.

    This seemed like a potentially promising story to me, but it’s one that they already skipped around in order to do The Avengers – as I said in that Tumblr post I linked to above, The Winter Soldier is possibly the first Marvel movie to make its continuity work for the story rather than vice versa.

    So, again, I find myself coming at this stuff from the opposite angle from the one that’s presented to me. The story of Steve’s alienated altruism already having been slightly spaffed up the wall in the name of battering space orcs in Manhattan, I actually quite enjoyed watching Cap square off against modern threats that look a lot like what he must see in the mirror every morning.

    Brendan’s still right that there’s an element of cop-out here, of course – it might be a commercial limitation but it’s a limitation all the same. The film wants to make a critique that Mouse Muscle can’t allow to be made explicit, so… sure, the movie gets to riff on Operation Paperclip (and to steal Johnnie Depp’s new movie right out from under him*), but at the end of the day everyone’s wearing the right costumes and we know where they stand.

    And yet, on the levels of form and franchise, that critique’s still in place, right? Shield were perfectly happy to build those superdrones, and tired faced good apple Fury seemed pretty enthusiastic about the realpolitik he spouted to Cap at the start of the movie, so – these guys are going to be played as heroes because that’s how it goes when you’ve got your own Sky Broadband advert, no one gets to question your credentials without receiving a Mighty Marvel MouseSlap, but I think the film makes it obvious that the form of the movies we’ve been enjoying is in conducive to everything that’s horrific about the villains’ plot.

    Like the Inglorious Basterds, the great cinema going public still like their Nazis to wear uniforms, and for all my so called politics I can’t front like I’m any different. That we enjoy our heroes to be similarly clad and to indulge in actions that follow the same logic as cinema Nazis is not a novel observation, but I’m glad that they made it part of the story anyway.

    I’m less completely sold on the necessity of the Bucky plot, but… hmm, again, The Winter Soldier’s a mess of different mandates, and I think the way they play this reveal works quite well with my reading of the Nazi business. So: it turns out that not everything that Cap knew is gone, in fact a surprising amount of it is still there, but he has to squint to recognise it, dressed up as it is in 80s office gear, 90s Power Ranger add-ons, and 2000s comic book costumes. More troublingly, the clear distinctions that defined him – between his team and Hydra’s, between good super soldiers and bad ones, between people with whom he shares memories and those who have no memories to share – turn out to have plenty of space between them in which confusion can lurk. And sure, that confusion will be cleared out via punching before Chris Evans’ contract is up, but I still think it played out pretty well in The Winter Soldier.

    Like I said, it was almost a movie!

    Love that arse crack anecdote Matthew, and yeah, the line about Steve Strange being a threat to Shield/tourists who’re just a little bit too credulous about his mystic powers was funny as fuck!

  7. Illogical Volume Says:

    *Speaking of which: the Lawnmower Man 2.0 stylings of Transcendence were almost enough to distract me from the fact that it was directed by the tremendously named directed by Wally Pfister, who has worked on a number of Christopher Nolan’s movies, including the Batman triology.

    Now I know that I’m slightly overplaying this idea, that the timelines don’t fit, and that the concepts in question aren’t original, etc.

    Still, given that The Winter Soldier definitely had its eye on Nolan’s contributions to the genre, the Techbound Nazi Consciousness made me laugh all the same, like: “Take that, Nolan: we’re doing your pal’s crappy movies a month earlier, with Scarlett Johansson, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

  8. jameswheeler Says:

    It would make sense, Pfister made the mistake of crossing MouseMuscle before: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/17/wally-pfister-the-avengers-dark-knight-rises_n_1973113.html

    It was funny to watch that awful trailer before a movie that glosses over its entire hook in one scene.

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