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How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
(2014)

(SPOILERS) For a film as hyped as this one in terms of influences (the ‘70s conspiracy/ paranoia thriller), there was probably bound to be a degree of disappointment with the reality. Captain America: The Winter Soldier's ability to follow through is consistently beholden to hitting the prescribed Marvel marks. Perhaps I set the bar unfeasibly high following Iron Man Three's resounding success at being completely what it wanted to be and hugely entertaining with it. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is sporadically first class, and has certainly grabbed hold of the most topical of themes to kick-start its plot, but it also bears the tell-tale signs of formula engineering seen in Thor: The Dark World. And then there’s the small detail that it can’t quite get shake off the millstone of a really rather bland titular superhero.
          
                                                                                         
Nevertheless, Winter Soldier is night-and-day superior to its predecessor, the most lumpen and inert of the Marvel Studios pictures thus far (and I include Iron Man 2 which, despite its listlessness, at least had a charismatic lead character to distract attention from its numerous failings). I’ve opined before how an actor as talented as Chris Evans is wasted in a block of wood role like Steve Rogers/Cap, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely probably do the best possible thing they could with the character here; put his “traditional American values” up against a corrupt and malignant modern USA; so rotten at the core, those ostensibly in power as its protectors (and willing to sacrifice fundamental ideas in order to do so; Cap is particularly on the nose in relating this to the Bush Jr/Obama US of pre-emptive strikes when he says “I though the punishment usually came AFTER the crime”) are blind to who’s really in charge. Somehow, though, this is never quite as potent as it should be. Part of that may be Cap’s capacity to speechify, an area in which Markus and McFeely aren’t sufficiently skilled at treading the line between preaching and making a judicious critique of the US’s limitless appetite for infringement of liberties, all-pervading surveillance and unchecked aggression. That may be an inherent flaw in the character, but they still needed to do more to put him up against it. There are the makings of an excellent paranoia thriller here, and at times the Russos really sell it, but to do be to sell the genre riffing they needed one man on his own on the run. Not one man and an entire entourage.


It’s telling that Markus and McFeely also scribbled The First Avenger, and The Dark World (and the Narnias). They’re reliable hands at purpose built screenplays. They know how to structure a story, where to put all the beats, when to insert the emotional moments and how to manufacture little character arcs. Which means none of it feels very spontaneous. It might be a little harsh, but Bond writers Neal Purvis/Robert Wade come to mind. For all the headlines created by bringing in Paul Haggis or John Logan, you can feel that dogged attention to vacuum formed structure even in Skyfall and Casino Royale. And the creativity of the franchise suffers as a result (it may sound like a silly complaint to make of Bond, but the best films in the series are the best films because they do something a little different; the best parts of the better Craig instalments are when it isn’t sticking to the rules). 


Compare and contrast to Iron Man Three, where the joins don’t show, or Avengers, where Whedon’s mastery of twists and turns and tricksy characterisation is similarly effective. For all that it feels daring in places, The Winter Soldier is also extremely safe. Stodgy even. Following the set piece hostage rescue beginning, the writers over-consciously ease back a notch, as if they’ve been following the Bond Handbook too literally. The movie nearly dies on its arse for the next 30 minutes, unable to build the plot without clumsy exposition and characters saying what they’re thinking rather than through deft plotting. It’s all rather elementary screenplay problem stuff; later, when Arnim Zola (Toby Jones, very broad and having some much needed fun) blips onto the screen there’s an enormous info dump guilty all the worst excesses of the Bond villain explaining the plot, and then some. That the scene just about plays is down to Jones and it being visually interesting, but it reveals front-and-centre where The Winter Soldier’s fault lines lie.


I wouldn’t say the Russos’ direction is an unqualified hit in the manner of Shane Black’s. Nor is it as clean and precise (I hate to say reliable) as Alan Taylor’s on The Dark World. They understand scale, and the essentials of constructing a good set piece, but as many sequences as hit slightly miss the target. They need to fine-tune their staging, and the art of pacing a scene. It feels as if their acumen improves as the movie progresses (having said that, I’ll probably discover it was edited completely out of sequence), although the well rendered massive destruction finale is probably the part that needed it least (as in, it’s a by-the-numbers predictable sequence and there’s not all that much invested in it or surprising about it; Marvel will only really be showing movie daring when they rely on a clever bit of plotting rather than a huge array of clashing pixels to finish off a picture). Nothing here achieves the giddy euphoria of Iron Man Three or the brio of Avengers.


Most notable of set piece shortcomings is the extended freeway shoot out. The car chases preceding it are reasonably effective, and in thrust at least the sequence has clear purpose. But when it comes down to the one-on-one stuff the Russos opt for the curse of the post-Saving Private Ryan, post-Gladiator high shutter speed stutter effect. If you really know what you’re doing as a director it can enhance a scene, but if you’re just using it (as here) to create the impression of excitement, rather than as an aid to capturing coherent action, any tension ebbs away. In general it’s the fight scenes where the Russos show they’re still on a learning curve with a movie of this size and technical magnitude. Hopefully they will hone things when it comes to the third Captain America, which they are on board for.


At other points, their work is more than serviceable. They manage to make the human element rousing in an effects-heavy scene where Cap takes down a S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft. Preceding this comes one of the best sequences, expertly sustained, in which Cap discovers he is a target in S.H.I.E.L.D.  At every stop during his elevator journey additional prospective assailants pile into the same confined space, leading to the inevitable dust-up. At other times, the sureness of touch comes from knowing that simple is most effective; when Alexander Pierce’s assistant inopportunely walks in on something she shouldn’t have, Robert Redford (playing Pierce) disposes of her swiftly and with barely a glimmer of remorse.


The notion of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an ethically grey but upstanding where it counts covert intelligence agency (the key being, you’d want them on your side when the going gets tough) has been milked in that rare Marvel misfire Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This approach is a two-edged sword, since, in as much as this is a reflection of real world disillusion with the defensive establishments designed to protect and uphold the rights of the citizen but which invariably spend their time abusing them, it could be argued to come down on the side of necessary evil. We just have to live with it; as long as the real heroes (the rebels who both refuse to be part of the establishment for whatever reason; vanity (Stark), displacement (Thor, Cap) or indiscipline (Hulk)) defer to them, they will still carry a shred of decency no matter how much lip service is paid to them being dodgy. Narratively S.H.I.E.L.D.  is a problem, since having an organisation in support of already indomitable heroes encourages yet further escalation to build a valid threat. There’s less danger with S.H.I.E.L.D.  about, and weaker storytelling. It also stuffs the Marvel universe with unnecessary junk, little of it very interesting.


Nick Fury might be the most banal character Samuel L Jackson has played, and he’s made a habit of picking unmemorable identikit types over the past decade or so. He’s tiresomely one-note and, no matter how much Jackson bellows in his scenes, Redford calmly wipes the floor with him for presence. Jackson’s become a very boring actor, which only adds to the problem. He gets his own set piece here, and even the movie’s best joke, but it says something when you’re surprised to see a Nick Fury scene with something interesting going on. As for Fury’s death, I don’t think anyone bought into it for a moment.


So, given all that, it might seem like a smart and insightful move to bring down S.H.I.E.L.D.  and expose its entrenched corruption come the conclusion. Except that this merely taps into the classic failing of the lesser Hollywood conspiracy thrillers; the menace from the powers-that-be is over; there was just one rogue element spoiling the barrel, etc. Winter Soldier manages to compound this with the mid-credits Avengers 2 teaser, which disposes of the vaguely real world in a stream of magical superhero antics and a threat beyond even the pervading one we’ve seen here. It basically “restores” the Marvel universe to a Bond-ian world where the only danger is from super-villains; the establishment, however misguided or underhand, is on the side of right.


To be fair to the Whedon-directed scene, the script has pretty much disposed of the best bits of the paranoia-thriller by the time we reach the over-amped finale. Well before that, even. The arch-villainy of Hydra, which has worked S.H.I.E.L.D.’s strings behind the scenes for years, is to reach its apotheosis in the dispatch of 20 million target threats (how three helicarriers are going to do this instantaneously still escapes me), bringing about order and peace to the world. It doesn’t really convince; such a meticulous long game, in which Hydra could be substituted for the conspiracy theorist’s shadow government, is imperilled by an eggs-in-one-basket final gambit. Put like that, Iron Man Three is much smarter and more cynical with its showman terrorist and corporatised military. But there’s kudos in trying, even if the end result may be encouraging the complacency to be found in the mistrust of government rather than encouraging mistrust of government itself.


I’ve mentioned how the plot construction lacks inspiration, even if the subject matter is ripe. If Cap weren’t part of a mega-franchise that needed to twist and flow into the next, this would have been ideal for an Empire Strikes Back mid-trilogy cliffhanger; put Cap on the run alone, the straits particularly dire, defeat having apparently been dealt. It’s ironic that, for all the on-going plot elements in these movies, they very much need to resume a status quo of sorts by movie’s end. Winter Soldier bodes well in what it sets up but, given the comics’ universe predilection for returning to year zero, I doubt that S.H.I.E.L.D.  will be gone forever, 


And for all the areas that the movie rather blunders its choices (Fury’s death, the Bucky flashback; which ironically points out the limitations of the series, not investing enough of a bond between him and Cap in The First Avenger) others show commendable restraint. For example, resisting the need to go there with the whole Rogers/Bucky Barnes forgotten friendship, such that there was no gasping “I remember you!” moment (as it is, the Winter Soldier’s quizzical “Who the hell is he?” when Cap first recognises Bucky seems an unlikely response for a brainwashed superassassin mid-operation).  On the debit side, not being a fan of the comics, I wonder just how super tough Cap is. He can jump out of aeroplanes without a parachute but then engages in protracted fights with non-super powered people. And when he’s shot a couple of times he very quickly struggles into oblivion. What a big wimp.


Winter Soldier might provide us with the best (virtually) silent screen villain since Darth Maul. Visually he’s one of the most iconic big screen representations Marvel has come up with, and the otherwise anaemic Henry Jackman score announces him a wonderfully ominous metallic theme. After the utterly forgettable Eccles-Elf in The Dark World, Marvel should take note of what works. It’s particularly a shame since the third instalment is set up for Bucky’s rehabilitation. Sebastian Stan, who was utterly forgettable in the first movie when we could see him unconcealed, manages to be indelible when for most of the time we can only see his eyes and flowing locks. Credit also to Frank Grillo as Rumlow, who gives standard villain material a bit of bite (although he can’t save the tiresome macho preening scene prior to his altercation with Falcon; another indication of how schematic this picture is). I’m rather glad we might see more of him.


In terms of the rest (and aren’t these casts over-extended to bursting?) Anthony Mackie’s Falcon impresses the most.  He saddled with some terrible groundwork early on, administering pep talks to veterans and indulging in the worst of the movie’s “lost comrades” dialogue. But by movie’s end he’s definitely the winner, served up all the best one-liners and portrayed with a likeable lightness of touch by Mackie.


I remain to be sold on Black Widow. Like Nick Fury, she’s a one-note character played by a star who brings nothing to the role (well, apart from a fine arse; as directors invariably emphasise at some point in every Marvel film she’s in). Obviously Scarlett Johansson has her legions of fans but I don’t think she brings anything to care about to the role. And Black Widow is completely superfluous to the plot (her final scene is especially crappy, attempting to be some kind of character statement but bereft of any resonance). The banter between her and Cap is trying too hard to be breezy (Whedon at work?) and it’s like the wrong characters are saying this shit. It says something that I was incredibly disappointed when Jenny Agutter kicking arse all about the place was revealed to be Scarlett in disguise. It was just the kind of unexpected weirdness the movie needed at that point. I don’t know; perhaps I’m still sour Emily Blunt lost out. 


But it’s not just Johansson; Renner’s Hawkeye (at least he’s absent) is similarly forgettable. Characters aren’t cool just because we’re told they are, they need to have something else going on (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Coulson is not engaging no matter how much mysterious backstory they provide). Like charisma. Elsewhere there’s the unnecessary Cobie Smulders (her name’s the most engaging thing about her) and Hayley Atwell in jolly old age make-up.  And Agent Thirteen (Emily VanCamp), who is a big deal apparently. I hadn’t even remembered Garry Shandling plays the same character in Iron Man 2 (but I don’t remember much about that movie). Shandling’s looking distractingly puffy, so it took a lot of effort to follow his scenes.


If I’ve criticised Winter Soldier more than I’ve praised it, it’s not because I didn’t rate it; it’s because it had all the potential of a classic but repeatedly feels obliged to rein itself in and swim back to safer waters. I hope I’ll like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant Man ought to at least have the infectious personality of Iron Man Three, and Age of Ultron is sure to be as solid as any house that Whedon builds. But Winter Soldier’s advance word raised expectations and it can’t quite meet them. Time to be more adventurous still, Marvel.


***1/2

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