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April 17, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The Good Old Days (Part 1)

So can we all collectively agree to stop asking where the other Marvel superheroes are in solo movies?

I know I brought this up in light of Iron Man 3, but I think it bears repeating.  There seems to be this constant complaint that “Captain America isn’t in this movie!” or people asking “Where’s Thor?  He should be here fighting the bad guys, too!”  Okay, that’s kind of a legitimate complaint, but it shouldn’t matter in the long run.  The solo outings are solo for a reason.  If you put every Avenger in every movie, then the inevitable crossover battle is just going to end up being less special.  More to the point, the solo movies put the focus back on the individual superheroes, and develop them so that they don’t get diluted in the crossover.  That was pretty much the entire point of the “Phase One” movies, so why would that change with Phase Two?  And that’s all setting aside the real-world, out-of-universe issues; actors need to be paid, stories need to be written, schedules for shooting need to be set up…the list goes on.

Personally, I think we should just be thankful we even have superhero movies, let alone such high quality ones on a regular basis.  By now I’d assume that the world knows how bad those movies can get, so it’s good to know that in most cases, we can trust the bigwigs and background-toilers to make a product that entertains us.  A movie we can count on.  A hero we’ll gladly follow to hell and back.

I sure hope it doesn’t come to that.  Hell doesn’t strike me as a pleasant place -- but either way, betting on Cap is probably the best move you could ever make.

When Captain America throws his mighty SPOILERS
All those who chose to oppose his SPOILERS must…uh…BOILERS?  Aw, screw it.  There are spoilers incoming, so watch your back.  Also, did anyone get a solid count on the number of Charging Stars in the movie?  It’s at least eight, I bet.


If for some inexplicable reason you’re reading this and you haven’t seen the movie, then let’s see if I can give a primer on the plot in a paragraph or two.  With The Battle of New York (The Avengers) over and done, the other big blue Boy Scout Captain America has become a full-on operative for SHIELD -- in a modified version of his Secret Avengers costume, no less -- and taking on missions for Nick Fury and the other organization heads.  But Cap and Fury show that (as you’d expect) their worldviews and methodologies aren’t compatible.  Not that it matters, seeing as how Fury and the rest of SHIELD have set up “Project Insight” -- AKA a trio of automated helicarriers set to eliminate threats from above before they even happen.

It doesn’t take long for the plan to go awry before the project even gets off the ground (har de har har).  A conspiracy begins to unfold within the ranks of SHIELD, leaving Nick Fury on the ropes, the organization’s secrets compromised, and Cap caught in a struggle to find the truth/stop the bad guys before the helicarriers can get taken over and used as weapons by a malicious force.  Compounding matters, the first Avenger is forced to go on the run as he’s labeled a fugitive by SHIELD -- and on top of all that, the deadly Winter Soldier is on the move and ready to complete his mission ruin everything for everybody.  He’s kind of a jerk like that.


So I guess I should start by recognizing the humpback whale in the room: Is The Winter Soldier smart enough to warrant a watch?

This is important.  Superhero movies, you’d think, are dumb by nature.  Men in colorful suits?  Explosions and fights and CG every which way?  A recipe for stupidity -- but if you’ve been reading this blog, you should know by now that even a movie that’s got an inherently stupid setup can be made incredible because of its execution.   

If it optimizes certain ideas and concepts, and makes an effort to be the best damn movie it can, then it can go beyond just being a big dumb action movie.  With an effort like that, the creators and craftsmen don’t have to act like they’re “ashamed” to put a colorful hero on display, or try to make it arbitrarily darker just to lay claim to some imaginary sense of legitimacy.  You can be legitimate without going down that road, and it’s certainly a safeguard against making your work ass-backwards.


That’s what makes the Marvel movies so airtight, if you ask me -- especially now that Phase Two is in full swing.  Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and now TWS have proven that you can be dark without being dark -- or rather, you can explore ideas and themes without caving in to arbitrary aesthetics or demands.  So I wouldn’t say that these latest movies are dark; they’re more introspective -- and that’s the way it should be.  

Iron Man has to deal with the mistakes of the past and make a push for the future, but his foibles and vices have threatened to substitute one issue for another.  Thor has to deal with his newfound dual appreciation of the realms, bound by tradition and duty, but also yearning for and a sense of responsibility to a land filled with people well below him.  Those make for compelling movies, and develop characters we’ve already been sold on even further.

So what does Cap have to deal with?  Take a wild guess.


That explains much less than I intended.

There’s an unshakeable sense of predictability to TWS.  I doubt there was anyone who didn’t IMMEDIATELY finger Secretary Pierce as the story’s main villain, because -- much like Agents of SHIELD -- he was a new guy who suddenly got a name and a position of power.  I thought it was pretty much a given that the Winter Soldier turned out to be Bucky Barnes, even before the movie came out (though that didn’t stop people at my screening from gasping).  

Admittedly I expected the movie to have some earth-shattering revelation, seeing as how it was hyped to “change the Marvel movieverse forever” -- but instead of setting the stage for a galactic struggle with Thanos, it just had the fall of SHIELD…which incidentally I was already privy to, seeing as how I’m apparently one of the only eight people that tunes in to Agents of SHIELD…sometimes.  I don’t know about that show -- I think I like the idea of it more than the show itself.  Coulson's cool, though.


But anyway, being predictable isn’t automatically a bad thing.  The fall of SHIELD is ultimately a pretty big event, even if it’s not exactly calling the team into the ring for a punch-up with Ultron -- not directly, at least.  And while the story beats aren’t OMGWTFBBQ shocking, I’d like to think that audiences aren’t in it for some big reveal.  (I’d hope that’s not what the moviemakers were banking on either, because going “BIG REVEAL, GUYS!” sets up some problems for a story…but I’ll get to that another day.)

If they’re looking for superpowered punch-ups, they’ll get ‘em.  If they want to see their favorite superhero prove why he’s almost unreasonably cool, they’ll get that, too.  But contextually speaking, in order to get what they want, they have to go through some political elements…by which I mean you can barely turn your head without coming upon those themes.

How does the movie handle them?  Well…I think they did a pretty good job.  It’s a hell of a lot more successful than the ’14 model of RoboCop, that’s for sure.


There are plenty of topics brought up in this movie (though it’s hardly the first, and won’t be the last).  Are drones a good idea?  How far should we go to ensure security?  What secrets should be kept?  How much should we trust one another?  Those are all topics that have to be handled VERY carefully, lest a movie risks turning into a block-headed farce.  Even beyond that, I have to wonder: is a movie starring a shield-flinging super soldier the best place to have a political discussion?  And before you answer that, keep in mind that inevitably there are going to be -- and have been -- children watching the movie.  Hell, they’re probably well within the parameters of the target audience, given that there are Avengers lunchboxes and Captain America costumes available at this very moment.

The simplicity -- and predictability -- of the movie comes from the characters.  Just as you’d expect, Cap is the bang-up guy who’s all about freedom and doing the right thing through human effort, while Fury is the more pragmatic of the two and pushing toward a regimented future in response to a changing world and blooming threats that “boots on the ground” can’t always fix.  Like Pacific Rim, it’s got a bit of that Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Movie mentality, pitting one ideology against the other…except the key difference is that Fury actually gets taken out of the action for the better part of the movie.  So who’s the opponent here, if not Fury and his ideals?

Well…in a sense, nobody slots in.  And that might actually have been the best move the movie could make.  Besides this one, of course.


Okay, let me back up a bit.  It’s worth noting that Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, has a HUGE presence in the movie; I have my doubts that the world’s greatest spy will ever have the luxury of her own movie (as sad and as messed-up as that is), but TWS at least does its best to give her the respect she deserves.  So she steps in as a foil to Cap, playing the blue oni to his red at points and aligning more with Fury’s ideals.  But as the movie goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that she respects Cap and what he’s selling, old-fashioned as it might be.  That’s the magic of character development, I suppose. 

Meanwhile, Pierce is a distorted version of Fury; with the reveal that SHIELD has long since been compromised by HYDRA, the secretary reveals the big whompin’ plan: they’re going to use the helicarriers not just to take over/destroy the world, but to control it.  Or to be more precise, have the people “give up their freedom by choice”.  By using an algorithm based on people’s personal data, they’ll enact death from above on anyone who betrays their parameters.  I suppose the intent was to strike the fear of God into others -- to create order by removing the will to create chaos.  It’s extreme, sure, but…you know, Pierce and the rest of HYDRA have a point.  Why not stop a thief by taking away his desire to steal?  If they think they can get away with it, why not remove that confidence, and thus their drive to commit the crime?

Christ.  Maybe I’d make a good recruit for HYDRA.


If there’s one point that sets TWS above RoboCop ’14, it’s the fact that no one is 100% right.  There’s an obvious lean towards Cap and his mindset, of course (and the implication is, once more, that drones are bad and you should feel bad about them), but the movie plays things smarter than just making things black and white.  At the start of the movie, Cap gives Fury crap over the things that he’s planning on doing, and justifiably so; using such extreme measures ventures into some dangerous territory.

But here’s the thing: before he gets shot the hell up, Fury brings up some legitimate points.  For one thing, he mentions that even if Cap was Good Guy Soldier Extreme back in the day, he also had to do some nasty things to try and end the war…and that is 100% true, if you’ve read up on World War II.  More to the point, Fury argues that times have changed (as you’d expect), and they have to push harder to protect the transforming world.

In that sense, Fury is right -- and Cap’s shortsightedness very nearly makes him the wrong man for the job.


Let’s set aside the fact that this is a canon that’s long since included alien invaders (and will probably include them again), and how immensely useful an orbital offense from SHIELD might be.  Think about the kind of person Cap is -- not just a bang-up guy, but a soldier who’s content with following orders (as long as they’re noble enough).  He’s powerful, no question, but he’s never been in a seat of power; he still isn’t, arguably, but given that he’s a member of the planet’s last line of defense, he kind of is. 

Is he ready for that responsibility?  Sure, he’s got the moral character for it, but things aren’t as simple as they were back in the good old days.  He has to be responsible for the protection of the human race, and do what’s best no matter what.  Fury gets that.  But does Cap?  To some extent, he does.  But his conflict goes beyond him just being a “man out of time”; he has to reconcile the past and present, but more importantly make compromises to a view that once seemed so simple and straightforward.

How do I know all this?  Easy.  Because the movie let me come to those conclusions.  BECAUSE IT’S NOT JUST A BLACK AND WHITE CONFLICT.


Cap has to adopt some of Fury’s ideals and practices not just to save the day, but to survive in general; he starts the movie chewing Fury out because he believes in trusting his comrades, but well before movie’s end he finds himself unable (and unwilling) to trust fellow SHIELD agents, effectively going AWOL, withholding and damn near stealing secret intel, and indirectly putting other people -- civilians, well among them -- in danger.  You know he’s trying to do the right thing every step of the way, but he has to get his hands dirty to do so.

Conversely, Fury ends up taking on some of Cap’s ideals.  His last words before (faking) his death are “Don’t trust anyone”, and it’s hard to forget that this is a man who -- as far back as The Avengers, and even earlier than that -- made it clear that he wanted to use technology/SHIELD’s weight to protect the world in a way it’s never been before.  But he realizes that the one person he should trust is…you know, the man with a version of the American flag emblazoned on his stomach. 


And he learns to not only trust in others, but decides that maybe somewhere along the line, he made a mistake in his methodology.  He doesn’t exactly cave to Cap’s worldview, even by movie’s end (he had plans to recover whatever he could from the new helicarriers), but he’s got a more balanced view.  Same goes for Cap.  And the same goes to Black Widow, maybe more than either of them; you could make the argument that A) she’s the wisest of the bunch and does what’s necessary regardless of alignment, as a spy should, or B) she’s able to stay aligned with Fury because of her trust in the SHIELD system, but ALSO stay aligned with Cap because…he’s freakin’ Captain America.

Maybe she should get her own movie.  Though to be frank, I’m kinda pulling for Wasp to get her time to shine.


All told, it doesn’t feel like TWS has anything truly thoughtful to say -- that is, it’s not exactly making a statement, or boldly proclaiming “This is what we need to do, people”.  So while I’m thankful that it keeps things from being too black and white, it feels like it banks too heavily on being a healthy shade of gray.  It’s waffling, and impresses no one in its efforts to avoid offending anyone.  You could argue that that’s the best possible outcome, especially when the message is being carried in a fanciful superhero movie -- and I doubt it’s the only story out there that’s opted to claim that the middle road/a balanced approach is best.  So in the end, I think I pretty much have to give TWS a gold star.  Given how bad it could have been, the fact that it made its peace without completely crapping itself is a miracle in its own right.

It’s true that there’s subtext, implications, and depth (and setup for future plotlines; SHIELD’s info has been 100% leaked, so we’ll see what consequences come from that, either in Agents of SHIELD or a future movie).  But a part of me thinks that even if the movie included that stuff, it wasn’t supposed to be the focus.  Like I said, Cap gets his “rival” Fury removed from the action for the better part of the movie, so it’s not like the super soldier is stepping up to the podium to preach.  That’s a good thing, basically.   The politics shouldn’t be the focus in a superhero movie.  An undercurrent, sure -- but when the movie is subtitled The Winter Soldier, it’s probably a good idea to give him just a tiny bit of screen time.

So that’s enough gabbing about smarty-pants stuff.  Let’s move into gushing mode.


You know, Kamen Rider has pretty much built an entire franchise on guys in suits beating up other guys in suits.  (Same goes for other toku shows, Super Sentai/Power Rangers well among them.)  But in my viewings of the show and its installments, I’ve noticed a certain preference of mine.  See, as much as I like seeing two guys in suits go at it, I’ve found the moments that got me the most hyped were when untransformed characters fight it out.  There’s a certain level of rawness to the fights when there are no suits, no powers, and no tricks -- just two guys doing their best to beat the other into submission.

TWS is like that, but almost constantly.  Granted Cap is in his suit -- though he’s out of it or unmasked for an unexpectedly-high percentage of the movie -- but the rawness is still there.  He may be faster, stronger, and tougher than most, but he’s still just a man.  No powers, no tech, no tricks; his only moves are punching, kicking, jumping, tackling, shield-tackling (CHARGING STAR!), and throwing his shield.  That’s it.  Okay, sure, that’s still a LOT of moves, but they could potentially be done by a human.


Yep.  That's a winnable fight.

So there’s a sense of reality -- however tweaked -- to each fight.  There’s a sense of vulnerability.  When Cap gets blown off a bridge and into a bus, he doesn’t get right back up; he stays down for a while.  Likewise, when he takes a big fall, even though he lands on his shield, he has to struggle to get back to his feet.  He’s carrying that shield with him for a reason; he knows that if he gets shot, it’s gonna hurt like hell.  The tradeoff, of course, is that he can hurt anyone else just as much.

And on that note, I have to mention the sound design.  I don’t know if it was because the theater got upgraded speakers or if my hearing suddenly reached superhuman levels, but I’m happy to report that the impact factor is in full effect here.  Cap’s attacks pack more power than the average storm; one punch is enough to rattle God’s bones.

Now.  Imagine what happens when he meets the Winter Soldier.



Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelp.  We're all screwed.

In all seriousness, though...you’d better keep on imagining, because this post is already long enough.  So I’m going to cut it off here, and finish up next time.  But don’t you worry; this is probably the best you could have hoped for.  I can’t explain why this movie works so well without going into its most crucial points -- and that’s something I planned on doing anyway, whether or not I said everything needed in this post.  And if you’re familiar with this blog, you can probably already guess what that crucial point is.  Or who that is.


Also, I need to talk about Falcon.  He’s preeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetty sick.

2 comments:

  1. When cap was chasing the Winter Soldier after he capped Fury, I was giggling to myself as well. I'm pretty sure I said "Charging Star" under my breath each time. Brick Walls? Reinforced Doors? "Hyper... Charging Star!"


    The neat thing about this Cap versus comic book Cap is he's well... not a cantankerous old man. The freeze did wonders to keep cap likable and innocent rather than a jerkface soldier that calls everyone 'Son'. He's a young veteran, which is awesome.


    I'm looking forward to this Steve Rogers slapping around Tony Stark. Here's to hoping they do the Superhero Civil War at some point. Chris Evans' Cap would be sick in that.

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  2. Well, I was about to ask if Civil War was the event where Cap lost the fight and died, but apparently a quick look at Wikipedia says that's not the case (thank the stars and stripes). Matters of comic knowledge -- or lack thereof -- aside, a Civil War movie might not be such a bad idea. Considering how The Winter Soldier played out, and considering how there's probably a law somewhere demanding that superhero allies must eventually fight at some point to prove who's the strongest/coolest/makes the best action figures, it might be more of an inevitability than a possibility.


    Who's to say, really? If Ant-Man can get a movie, and Rocket Raccoon can appear in ANYTHING, then the sky's the limit.

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