Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The perceived “Avengers effect” whereby individual Marvel superhero properties are expected to get a box office boost from the goodwill and increased exposure of that mega hit, got an easy vindication when Iron Man Three sailed past the previous two installments. Indeed, it doubled Iron Man 2’s worldwide gross.
But Downey Jr’s Tony Stark was already twice as successful as Marvel’s other fledgling superheroes, and the combination of his witty delivery and Joss Whedon’s post-modern dialogue was central to the appeal of Avengers. It should be no surprise that Iron Man Three did well, because it would have coasted to success on its star’s charm anyway. What differentiated it (controversially, perhaps with some fans) was that it ploughed its own distinct furrow. It wasn’t content to offer the lazy option of the big, better, more forgettable sequel that was Iron Man 2. Instead it chose not to follow the standard superhero formula and embraced a plot that included, well, you know, a plot. There were major twists, and Stark was kept out of his suit for the majority of the running time (a studio-friendly decision, since for some reason they think the public are paying to see the actor not the masked superhero, but one that worked). They threw in an annoying kid who, shockingly, wasn’t annoying. Shane Black was allowed to come in and shake things up a bit, and he did so in a wholly good way.
One might expect Edgar Wright’s Ant Man to work on similar lines, as it is informed by (relatively) auteurist instincts. Who knows what Guardians of the Galaxy will turn out like (I’m hesitant as James Gunn has yet to really “wow” me). But Thor and Captain America have an uphill struggle to make themselves distinctive and attractive as solo properties, particularly as both were approached in a (then) rather half-arsed budget-sensitive manner. I was extremely sceptical of Kenneth Branagh tackling a big Hollywood movie. I well remember the unintentional hilarity of Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He couldn’t even keep that steadicam from overacting in his big screen version of Hamlet. But he delivered an entertaining, undemanding movie. It may have owed a little too much to Masters of the Universe, and it played everything very safe, but it was okay. The sequel comes with the promise of more of the Asgard Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige and co were reluctant to indulge too much first time out (lest it alienate). It also ropes in Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor, as if to say, “This will be a grittier fantasy epic”. But I’ve seen the trailer a couple of times and I can’t remember anything distinctive about it. Not the plot (Loki must team up with Thor; well no one could have seen that coming), not the action (there are some big battles, surprisingly), not the performances (Chris Eccleston is in there, under a pile of prosthetics and pointy ears). It might well be very good (but my expectations are middling), I’m sure it will at least be entertaining. But it sells nothing but formula. There’s nothing to make you think they’ve come up with something different. More than bigger, better, (possibly) more boring.
Which brings me to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If I had some good will towards Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger left me mostly indifferent. It was all rather underwhelming. I had little familiarity with the character, other than that his name was not the most advisable one for a superhero in the current global environment. Fish out of water, or time, stories are a reliable standard, from Adam Adamant Lives! To… Thor. The problem was at least partly Joe Johnston, one of those safe-pair-of-hands journeymen who can be trusted not to mess up a Jurassic Park movie but who will also be in no danger of pulling off something more impressive than Spielberg. He’s bland and, true to course, he made a bland Captain America movie. It never built up a head of steam, failed to make the action involving. It just kind of sat there.
And Chris Evans is a charismatic guy; pretty much everything he did previously showed this (including the best part of the poxy Fantastic Four duology, Johnny Storm). But as Cap he becomes a block of wood. He even looks pallid and anaemic. Aside from Downey, Evans represents Marvel’s most obviously crowd-pleasing pick for a franchise king. But they put him in a vehicle that works against all his best qualities. Evans should be quick, sparky and irreverent. Cap is slow, bulky and staid. You can see Evans having to work against giving the character’s (few) witty lines a bounce. His personality fizzles out in the role.
I’m not sure that has really changed in the sequel. But, on the evidence of the new trailer, other aspects appear to have been given the kick in the pants that Thor: The Dark World lacks. Screenplay writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus contributed both the previous Cap and The Dark World screenplays. They also adapted all three Narnia movies. Perhaps not the most illustrious of CVs, although my understanding is that the Winter Soldier plot they’re basing their script on is a good one. What is most arresting (and of course a trailer can be cut to suggest qualities that are not in the finished movie; The Counselor appears to be the latest example of just such a let-down) is the flourish directors Anthony and Joe Russo have brought to the table. Known for their work on comedies, including Arrested Development and Community on TV, they had an early “up and coming” vibe with well-cast heist flick Welcome to Collinwood about a decade ago, but nothing suggesting a facility for massive mayhem. So this looks like one of those cost-effective chances that has paid off for Marvel (just as plumping for Jon Favreau paid of with the first Iron Man). The images suggest a keen grasp of framing and staging, from the lift fight to the car flip, to the crash and burn hellicarrier to the final shot of the Winter Soldier catching Cap’s shield.
I’m less than sold on Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow. This may just be sour grapes at Emily Blunt losing out on the part, or it may just be that nothing has been done to make the character distinctive or interesting (other than put Johnansson in tight-fitting catsuits).
But the rest of the trailer content struck a chord, as it echoes the Russos’ previous comments that they wanted to combine the Captain with the trappings of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. The vibe of the trailer suggests Cap’s traditional American values are pitted against a world where threats are neutralised before they even happen, and where “to build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down”. The Captain’s response is a head butt to a USA where pre-emptive strikes and drone attacks are an integral to the modern military machine. “I though the punishment usually came after the crime” he chastises. Appropriately, and picking up from the uneasy authoritarian vibe of their previous depiction(s), SHIELD is a force not to be trusted, an encapsulation of governmental propensity to act unmonitored and unanswerable to higher authorities. Might this be the first Marvel movie with a serious and graspable commentary? Well, Robert Redford shows up, Condor himself, so you’d have though some kind of carrot attracted him (I doubt that it was the thought he would once have been an ideal Captain). I expect the whole thing will devolve into unfettered explosiveness during the final act, but this looks like it might also have some bite.