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April 21, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The Good Old Days (Part 2)

Sometimes I wonder if my head’s screwed on straight -- and then I remember that it isn’t, so I start thinking about other stuff.

I may be opinionated to a fault, but I’d like to think that I can be respectful of the opinions of others; I don’t think there’s been a point where I’ve said “You’re wrong!”  And I hope it never gets to that point, implied or not.  That said, I can still disagree -- and STRONGLY -- with the opinions of others.   Or if not that, then I’ll make my confusion pretty well known.  At least, I hope I have.  If I haven’t, then I’ll go ahead and do that now.

I just don’t understand why people consider Captain America boring or lame.  And not just Cap, either; Superman, and Cyclops, and pretty much anyone who qualifies as being a “cape”.  Okay, those characters aren’t automatically perfect or amazing, and they can go off the rails.  Fair enough.  But rejecting them just because they’re good guys?  That doesn’t sit right with me.  It’s like the detractors are saying “Man, you know what I hate?  Heroism, nobility, and common decency!  Screw all that noise!”  Heroes and anti-heroes have their place, and their uses; they can offer up something that can make a story great, independent of their ability to kick ass.  Batman is not the famous character he is because he punches dudes or “can do anything as long as he has time to prepare first”.  He’s a famous character because of his character.

The particulars might be different, but that same general concept applies to Captain America.  And by extension, it applies to every main character in this movie…because of Captain America.

So.  Let’s go right down the list, shall we?       

Final…JUSTICE!  Here it comes!  Hyeah!  Hwoah!  Fall in!  HYPER COMBO K.O.!   
Player 2 Wins!

Uh…I mean, SPOILERS.

THE WINTER SOLDIER!!

Before I saw the movie, I’d heard complaints that for a movie subtitled The Winter Soldier, said Winter Soldier is barely in it.  And when he IS in it, he’s not as big a presence as he could have been -- not developed enough, not given a backstory, etc.  Those complaints have some merit, but it’s a ways away from being a game-breaker.  At a glance you’d think that it’s a signal that (in light of Thor 2 and its less-than-stellar villain) the Marvel movies in Phase Two and beyond don’t really have an interest in making good villains.  But there’s a saving grace here.  Like Metal Gear Rising before it, there’s a question that needs to be asked: do we really NEED to know every last detail about an enemy soldier?  And the answer to that, in this case, is no.  No, we don’t need to know everything. 

Given the focus on the main plot and character development, trying to shove in details on the Winter Soldier would have run the risk of weighing the movie down.  But even beyond that, you have to remember that this is about one soldier going up against another.  One fighter -- damn near a hitman -- going up against another, for the sake of a mission.   And that’s where the Winter Soldier’s characterization comes from, both in his own right and as a foil to Cap; he doesn’t question orders, and as a fighter for HYDRA he’s long since caved and given up his freedom (relatively speaking, considering that he’s pretty much been brainwashed).  He’s become the very best soldier possible, but he had his humanity removed to make that happen -- and that’s the one thing a soldier needs most.  And when they don't have it...well...


What really makes the Winter Soldier shine is the fact that he’s easily one of the most terrifying Marvel enemies yet.  By now I’d assume that at the very least you’ve seen the commercial where he catches Cap’s flung shield (SHIELD SLASH!) and stops it cold -- a harrowing moment, no question.  But that’s only one of many instances where the Winter Soldier gets to show why he’s got his name in the title.  He proves he’s a silent menace just by standing in the middle of a street -- then proves he’s a super-duper menace by busting out all manner of guns, a grenade launcher, or just plain putting those fists of his to work...along with casually flinging an agent into a jet turbine.  Considering the impact factor behind each punch in this movie, and the overall excellence of the fight scenes in general, there’s visual splendor as well as horror; the Winter Soldier is as terrible as Cap is great.  But then again, his theme (and persistent leitmotif) should tell you that in an instant.

Inevitably, Cap manages to bring the Winter Soldier -- his old buddy Bucky, transformed -- back to his senses.  Not by beating him an inch away from death (though that’s probably what any normal person would do if they were fighting a humanoid, cyborg-armed version of Resident Evil’s Nemesis), but by doing everything in his power to restore Bucky’s lost humanity.  It’s a move that ends up saving both their lives, meaning that for once -- and thankfully -- the movie didn’t kill off a villain/key character so they can use him again later.  I would say more about the thematic merit, but I have to check under my everything in case the Winter Soldier’s got his sights on me.

To be fair, though, that threat is kind of diffuse when the unmasked Winter Soldier kind of looks like an irritated, sleep-deprived version of Arin “Hey I’m Grump” Hanson.


ALEXANDER PIERCE!!

Like I said last time, I doubt there was a single person out there (except maybe the dullest in the room) who didn’t immediately peg Pierce as the movie’s main villain and traitor the moment he got his name.  You can pretty much count the seconds before his sudden turnabout, but thankfully the movie doesn’t make his allegiance the central mystery; that honor goes to the reveal that SHIELD and HYDRA are pretty much one and the same.  (In hindsight, that’s more than a little on the nose in terms of reinforcing the movie’s themes, but I’ll let it slide.  This time.)    He’s there to be the key villain of the movie, even if the most he can do when caught off-guard is pull out a gun. 

But Pierce doesn’t need superpowers or a metal suit to be a threat to Cap and the rest of the good guys.  His power in-universe comes from his standing in SHIELD, allowing him to manipulate the world and the people around him for HYDRA’s sake.  Even the movie’s brains -- Nick Fury and Black Widow, chiefly -- end up getting thrown off their game thanks to a few words here, or a few button presses there.   In that sense, he’s a lot deadlier than the Winter Soldier could ever be; he could win a war without even throwing a single punch.


Regrettably, I can’t help but think back to RoboCop ’14, because its villains are remarkably similar -- two suited guys in a seat of power who use their influence to push others around and make the title characters’ lives that much harder.  One key difference, of course (besides the fact that RoboCop’s Sellars could be outwitted by a bowl of cereal) is that Pierce has something no character, hero or villain, should be without: CHARISMA.  Pierce has a style, class, and dare I say it charm about him that makes his antics, however heinous, worth watching.  He’s not the sort to rage when things don’t go his way, or be even half as cartoonish as Sellars was; he’s calm, collected, and focused.  In a way, he’s kind of a bureaucratic version of the Winter Soldier -- he carries out his plans with scary efficiency, even if he is a lot more willing to crack jokes and -- on the surface -- act like everyone’s old friend.

When you can actually respect Pierce as a character, you can come at least a little closer to respecting his ideas.  And that feeds into the second key difference; Pierce isn’t automatically painted as wrong.  There’s room for debate on the matter.  It’s true that he crossed the line by being willing to sacrifice twenty million people in the helicarriers’ inaugural sweep -- and teaming up with fantasy Nazis doesn’t say good things about his moral fiber -- but who knows?  Maybe HYDRA had the right idea; given that they masqueraded as and effectively controlled SHIELD, they had to have at least believed in the idea of protecting the world, not necessarily wrecking it outright.  Maybe HYDRA’s ideal future will end up becoming ours someday.  Or maybe their future is our present.

This is getting into seedy territory.  Let’s move on to a man who’s built a career on yelling and swearing.


NICK FURY!!

Insert your Samuel L. Jackson quote of choice here.  I’m going with “hold onto your butts”.

You know, I can’t imagine life being easy for Fury.  Setting aside the fact that he’s a high-ranking figure in an organization that -- even before the HYDRA reveal -- was shady and secretive as all get out, he’s had to deal with a bunch of knuckleheads like The Avengers on a regular basis.  So basically, he’s playing babysitter to a laser-firing alcoholic (now with bonus PTSD action!), a galactic Viking with family issues every waking moment, and a scientist who could turn into an atomic mutant if his favorite sports team misses a field goal.  Oh, and Hawkeye, I guess.  So I don’t blame him for being testy.

You can’t blame him for that much, really.  As I said last time, Fury and the superheroes live in a world that’s JUST gotten over an alien invasion, and beyond that is still at risk by way of the squabbles, screw-ups, and scraps left by space deities.  If he wants to level up mankind’s defensive game, then you kind of have to at least listen to him, no matter what your beliefs.  And then there’s the nasty little fact that Fury might have the right idea, however accidentally.  If Project Insight had gone through as intended -- minus interference from malcontents -- then maybe guys like HYDRA could get stopped cold long before they could even do their salutes.  Presumably, wherein they celebrate the glory of their octopus god.


Does that automatically put Fury in the right?  Hell no.  As other stories have done before, Project Insight was proven within the first hour (probably the first half-hour, and no doubt earlier than that) to be technology as likely to bring harm as to prevent it.  Maybe that technology will come in handy in the canon’s future, but it’s clear that they’re not at that point yet…if only because a trio of instant-kill satellites would make a guy like Cap redundant.  Fury figured that out long beforehand, and -- to the movie’s great credit -- Fury tried to delay the project the very SECOND he thought something could go wrong.  That’s something to be thankful for, but you could argue that it should never have even reached that point.  Everyone involved in that project should have known better, and I can’t shake the feeling that SHIELD was arrogant in its belief that no one could ever crack them open.  Funny how that worked out, eh guys?

At the movie’s end (and before it, even) Fury bows out and lets Cap take control of the operation -- to the point where in the final minutes, Fury walks out and goes off the grid.  He’s willing to trust in Cap and his methodology, because clearly the SHIELD monolith has failed -- for now, at least.  At the end of the day, that’s what separates Fury and SHIELD from Pierce and HYDRA, however blurred the line might be; Fury has the insight and wisdom needed to bow out, and let THE PLAN fall by the wayside for the good of the people.  The genuine good -- not just something based on concepts and ideals.  Maybe in the end, that’s the answer the movie’s trying to give us.  Maybe that’s the best answer we could ever hope for.

…Wasn’t this movie supposed to be about punch-ups and explosions?
     

SAM WILSON!!

Wait, who?


(FALCON!!)

Oh, okay.  Gotcha.

I think I actually heard about Falcon offhandedly before the movie was even in the works (likely courtesy of MovieBob), but I doubt anyone could have guessed that the guy would ever show up in the movies, much less play the role he did.  According to the story, Wilson was a modern-day soldier who’s currently finished his tour and offering help to soldiers suffering from PTSD (what a guy!), but thanks to the pushes of the plot, he ends up getting pulled into the action -- and this being a superhero movie, he does so along with his handy-dandy wing suit.  Sans colorful costume, to my brother’s dismay, but hey.  Creative liberties.

I hate to be that guy, but I guess it’s unavoidable; it’s just so great to see a black superhero (and a black character in general) being a legitimate presence in the movie.  It’s just a testament to The Winter Soldier’s high execution; Wilson/Falcon could have just been a sidekick, or a half-assed ethnic stereotype, but they treated him with as much respect and gave him as much oomph as Captain America.  Okay, he doesn’t get as much screen time, sure, but when he’s on, he’s on.  But here’s the real clincher: at the movie’s climax he has a run-in with the Winter Soldier, and as you’d expect he ends up getting removed from the action so the super soldiers can have their duel.  So my thought was that he’d be out of the fight for the rest of the movie…except he wasn’t.  Even without his wings, Falcon still got to do stuff.  And cool guy stuff, no less.

Did I…did I die and go to heaven?  Is this movie real?  It is?


Thinking back, Falcon really does get some amazing scenes in the movie -- in battle and out of it.  It takes him a while to get his wings, but once he does, he makes his time count with one high-flying stunt after another.  I may be a fan of the practical fistfights between Cap and the Winter Soldier, but it’s hard not to pull a bit of glee from seeing Falcon bob and weave around gunfire by the helicarrier.  And on that note, I have to make an assumption: Falcon must have a pair of mountains in his pants to be willing to head into a firefight wearing little more than a winged jetpack, goggles, and a T-shirt.  But he does it anyway, and does so much winning, guys.  Like you don’t even know.

Apparently there was an interview a while back that had Falcon’s actor, Anthony Mackie, saying that he wouldn’t just be playing a sidekick role.  That’s essentially true, issues of screen time aside; his boldness makes him more than just a hanger-on, and much like the super soldier he brings his own unique presence and energy.  It’s actually pretty surprising how laid-back he is when it comes to potentially-fatal duty.  Asked to harbor fugitives?  No problem; he’ll even make them some breakfast.  Facing off with a guy who can make Cap look like a chump?  No problem; he’ll take a few swings at him if he can.  Need to escape an exploding building?  Okay, that’s a problem when you don’t have a wing suit -- but he’s still fairly upbeat about it.

Come back soon, Falcon.  The movieverse needs you. 


BLACK WIDOW!!

You know, a part of me is surprised Black Widow is even in this movie.  If it were me in her shoes, I would have bailed the hell out after the last outing had me outrunning a gamma-irradiated sasquatch that could backhand me into spaghetti sauce.  Maybe she’s an adrenaline junkie.  Or a secret idiot.

Much like Falcon -- only more so! -- Black Widow isn’t there to play sidekick to Cap.  They’re equals pretty much every step of the way.  Well, in a sense.  They start out as something close to rivals by way of their divided opinions (Cap’s not happy that Widow had an extra mission objective -- securing SHIELD data -- instead of helping to save the hostages), but there’s still some rapport between the two -- even if there is tension and dissent. 

You can’t really blame her.  Much like Fury, when it comes to the question of “How do you protect the world?” she’s going to side with him and SHIELD’s ideals for the most part.  The key difference is that much like Cap -- and the Winter Soldier, to some extent -- she’s just following orders.  She doesn’t see much choice, given that she doesn’t have anywhere else to go without her organization’s protection.  Beyond that, I’m inclined to believe that she actually put faith in Fury and SHIELD’s ideals, since she actually has a crisis of confidence once the big reveal has come and gone.  On the other hand, it’s also possible that she’s just using the agency to protect herself -- and despite her words and actions, she’s only willing to trust (superficially) for her own sake.  Her allegiance is to herself; she’s just helping out whoever’s nearby.


The interesting thing about Widow is that her key conceit is “versatility” -- something that carries over in her action scenes/missions as well as her development and dialogue.  She’s no Thor or Iron Man, so as a slinky spy, her style revolves around stealth and subterfuge.  Setting aside the fact that she manages to hold off and outwit a walking embodiment of death the Winter Soldier, she has the brains to avoid battles -- and the potential consequences/collateral damage -- entirely.  Not even Cap could manage that, even if he had a solid strategy laid out in a matter of seconds.  As you’d expect from a woman with no qualms about wearing a suit that likely has to be peeled off by a professional team after a mission, she’s more than willing to use her feminine wiles to throw enemies (and allies) off their game.

It would have been easy to downgrade or oversimplify Widow into being “the cold femme fatale whose heart is thawed by our hero”, but this movie sidesteps that and plays it smart.  Even if she does have her moments of weakness, this character is overflowing with confidence.  (If you looked like Scarlet Johansson, wouldn’t you?)  And with that confidence follows the ability to do whatever comes to mind.  Be bold.  Be a brawler.  Be beautiful.  Be ready to banter.  Widow’s not boxed in by her role, the bullet points in her design, and certainly not by her gender.  She’s free to be a character that’s as fun as she is cool.

But even if that’s true, there’s no one -- NO ONE -- cooler than… 


CAPTAIN AMERICA!!

So let’s see if I can list some of the stuff Cap does in this movie in the space of about a paragraph.

He dives into the ocean without a parachute.  He beats up French pirates.  He goes toe-to-toe with an enemy ace, and avoids getting his rocks smashed by a heel drop.  He tackles his way through a building, one wall at a time (CHARGING STAR!) in pursuit of the Winter Soldier.  He breaks through one sheet of glass after another.  He takes down a SHIELD jet while riding on a motorcycle, vaulting atop it and throwing his shield as needed.  He rides a motorcycle in general.  He gets into an elevator full of dudes and wins a punch-up despite having less room than the average closet.  He gets blown off a bridge and into a bus, and lives to fight again.  He takes a million billion punches from the Winter Soldier and doesn’t get his head asploded. 

But for me, the best thing Cap does in this movie -- the greatest, most indisputably cool thing he does -- is give a speech.  HYDRA’s got control of SHIELD, and gets ready to launch the helicarriers unabated to ensure certain doom for twenty million people.  But Cap gets in touch with the agents over the intercom, revealing the truth and telling them to stand up and fight for what’s right.  It’s such an obvious move for him, to the point where it would be an insult if he didn’t -- but just the fact that he was so willing to do it, after everything he’d been through in the movie, just goes to show the kind of hero he is.  Not a lot of characters can (or will) give inspirational speeches, but the messages therein are always welcome.  They’re proof of more than just raw power or superior tech; they’re proof of the hero’s heart.

It’s the one thing that Cap has, more than nearly any other leading man.  But that’s not all he’s got.

He’s got it all.


The Winter Soldier’s awesome power.  Pierce’s charisma.  Fury’s wisdom.  Falcon’s courage.  Widow’s versatility.  All of those are pieces of his character, and all of them orbit the heart that makes him such a joy to watch.  He’s not just a character worth caring about; he’s a character that cares about others.  He puts personal stakes in the people around him, and the country he treads upon daily; he’s the type that would put it all on the line just for one person, and by mission’s end he’d offer up a pleasant smile and a salute.  Despite his flaws, despite his fears, and despite his fumbles with a world that moved on without him, Captain America will always do what’s right.  Always.

Early on in the movie, Cap heads to the Smithsonian to see the exhibit made in honor of him and the other Howling Commandoes.  In a time of great uncertainty, he felt the need to go back to the past -- however incompletely -- and remind himself of the good old days.  A time when things were simpler, and good guys just had to take on bad guys.  But the thing that I’ve wondered about for a while now is this: were things really that much simpler in “the good old days”?  Retroactively, maybe.  Superficially, yes.  Potentially, maybe.  But I don’t think it was that simple; World War II and the events leading up to it weren’t just a black-and-white, good-versus-evil affair.  There’s more to it than that -- just like there’s more to the problems of today.  Things likely only look simpler in the past because they’re in the past.  Because the problems back then have already been solved.  Ours haven’t.


I would think that on some level, Cap understands that.  He’s a relic of the past -- an ideal hero from an ideal era, brought out of hibernation into a world well beyond his understanding, even if he’s slowly getting used to life in the present.  But what sets him apart -- what drives him to be the man he is, and more than just the Man out of Time -- is that he’s willing to bring a piece of the past with him.  Just because he’s in a different and tumultuous time doesn’t mean he has to, or even should stop being the man he used to be.  There’s absolutely no reason why he has to give up his ideals.

And he didn’t.  He won’t.  He can leave elements of the past behind, and he can adapt to the present that sprawls around him, but he can still live up to those ideals.  He can push back, and make the unreal real -- be the best soldier, hero, and person he can be, regardless of what those with power and those without are doing.  He doesn’t have to compromise.  He doesn’t have to break down.  He doesn’t have to lose sight of what he was, or fret over what he should be.  All he has to do is march forward -- do his best, do the right thing, and do what others can’t, for their sake.  That’s all he wanted, even back when he was a tiny scrapper on the New York streets.  That’s all he wants, even after becoming a superhuman soldier.  He’ll gladly be a hero, until the very end.

That’s what makes the character, and the movie, so special.  They believe in heroes.  And they’re asking a question to the audience:

Shouldn’t you believe, too?


So.  Where does that leave me?

I’ll be honest.  Before I wrote these posts, I was willing to say that as good as this movie is -- and it’s good, if I haven’t proven that yet -- it still wasn’t quite as good as The First Avenger.  By a slim margin; the plan was to say that the first movie had an edge by taking an audience to an era other than the present, because any creator should get bonus points for showing off a world far-removed from ours.  Plus it had the advantage of a soundtrack so spirited and uplifting that I STILL can’t help but listen to it on a semi-regular basis.  But damn it, I can’t bring myself to say it now.  I’m not saying the first movie is retroactively worse, but I am saying that it’s been edged out, at least for me.  So yeah, The Winter Soldier is the better movie.  It’s a dark movie done right, it’s still got that spirit and charisma, it’s bursting with awesome characters, it’s loaded with unbelievable action, and it’s got execution so airtight that pretty much the biggest complaint I’ve got is that a new version of the march doesn’t  play over the entirety of the credits.

That really is all I can say.  Well, not quite.  It’s entirely possible that I’m being too much of a Marvel movie apologist (apparently, genuinely liking Iron Man 3 is a sin to some people), and I might have gotten my senses and reason dulled by hype.  That could very well be the case.  But I’d like to think that my brain isn’t so easily swayed that a man in stars-and-stripes pajamas can turn me into a slack-jawed sycophant just by making a few quips.  Biased or not, I’ve made my stand.  Take that as you will.  And as for the movie itself?  Take my verdict -- one that places you right about HERE on my SmartChart™:


You’ve done well, Marvel Studios.  Now go ahead and make that Doctor Strange movie.  Yeah, that’s right.  I heard you mention Stephen Strange in the movie.  I’ve got sharp ears.

As for the rest of you?  That’ll just about do it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go cry tears of joy.

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