Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

"Remember kids, the minimum requirement for wearing a helmet
is jumping out of a low-flying aircraft. Don't bother with one when,
say, riding a big heavy motorcycle, for instance."
Ed Brubaker's essential run writing Captain America from 2005 to 2012 was always a prime candidate for adaptation, being one of the most memorable and innovative periods for the character in recent years. Most crucial to this era was Brubaker's resurrection of Cap's long-dead sidekick Bucky as the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed and regularly-hibernated Soviet assassin who had, through conditioning and mind control, operated against his country of origin for many years. He eventually comes into the control of the Red Skull, who has used a Cosmic Cube (the "Tesseract" of the film universe) to cheat death at the last minute by transferring his consciousness into the mind of Russian businessman Aleksander Lukin, the Winter Soldier's current owner, who had in fact been attempting to use the Soldier to kill the Skull himself. In the course of the story Cap encounters his former friend numerous times, finally using the Cosmic Cube to restore Bucky's memory and original personality in order to break his handlers' control over him. In the course of the story, Cap had to confront his past, and eventually Bucky did as well. Featuring Cap, Bucky, Red Skull, Arnim Zola, Sharon Carter, Falcon, Baron Zemo, flashbacks to the war and to long-past Captain America storylines like "Secret Empire" and "The Grand Director" it's a loving tribute to the history of the character as well as shaking up the formula and telling a compelling story of its own. It's a pretty good example of serialised comic book fiction done right.
"Mr Pierce, please stop staring at my massive belt buckle."
I guessed that the second Captain America film would bear the subtitle "The Winter Soldier" and I wasn't wrong. My review of "Captain America: The First Avenger" is more negative than I really feel about that film now. I rewatch it somewhat regularly, and I'm actually very fond of it. As such I was hopeful that "The Winter Soldier" would be a worthy sequel to "The First Avenger." That being said, having seen trailers, I was not entirely optimistic. "The Winter Soldier" looked to me like it was going to be a fairly generic action film, and unfortunately that's more or less exactly what I think it ended up being. As far as sequels go, it's superior in my opinion to "Iron Man 2", not a difficult task, and probably on more or less the same level as "Thor: The Dark World." I thought that "The Dark World" didn't start well but ended reasonably effectively. The opposite is more or less true in this case. In my opinion "The Winter Soldier" has a strong opening act but doesn't sustain it all the way through, and to avoid a disjointed and rambling review, I'll give my feelings on why this is the case first before examining what I thought were the memorable and effective elements of the film.

"Who the Buck is Fu- wait..."
The Winter Soldier
Perhaps the greatest issue I have with the film is that the titular Winter Soldier is introduced too late in the film, isn't given sufficient attention, and never has his narrative resolved in the scope of the on-screen narrative. He first appears as a sinister henchman of Alexander Pierce, the film's main villain, and only after several encounters is revealed to be Bucky, Cap's presumed-deceased friend of decades earlier. This is much like the comics, but a film doesn't have the time allocation a comic series does. We get scraps of backstory - the implication is that in this continuity he was resurrected not by the Soviets but by HYDRA - but by the end of the film, after his confrontation with Steve, he never actually recovers his identity. We don't get any closure on the situation, and it's in fact left hanging for a sequel. Personally I found this to be rather bizarre. Cap doesn't even get much time in the film to attempt to deal with discovering the survival of his friend or the state he has been in for the last seventy years or so. I think that had they focused more on the Winter Soldier himself, perhaps with the revelation of his identity early in the second act rather than at its conclusion, we might have been able to tell a more personal story. It ends up, however, being Cap fighting to save the world rather than to save Bucky, and I feel like the film doesn't play to the strengths of its narrative in that regard. That being said, perhaps it's a story almost impossible to tell effectively in the scope of a single feature film. In addition, straggly longish hair and overgrown stubble really don't suit Sebastian Stan, who deprived of his mask looks a bit like an adolescent who's responding to recently finishing school by rarely shaving or getting a haircut. I would have preferred a more sinister clean-cut look with the original domino mask. The rest of the costume's fine, though, and the bionic arm's done well, although in this adaptation the Soviet star on the shoulder is rather inexplicable.
Hello, old sport.
This is my other major objection with the story. The main problem with the storyline as it stands is that instead of simply having it focused on Cap's objections to an increasingly intrusive, paranoid and ruthless SHIELD, this quality has to be attributed instead to HYDRA, the Red Skull's evil organisation from the previous film, which infiltrated SHIELD upon the incorporation of Arnim Zola and others into its power structure. My main issues with this are twofold: firstly in reference to the previous film, where HYDRA seemed to largely be a vehicle for the Red Skull to enact his own rather personal designs of megalomania and where Zola himself seemed to have very little personal investment in the cause, and secondly because I don't think we need a sinister conspiracy for this storyline to work. I actually would have preferred Cap to cut ties with SHIELD because of things SHIELD was doing entirely legitimately. I think this would have given the surveillance issue far more bite than simply attributing an evil scheme to an obviously evil organisation. While I appreciate that HYDRA is an ongoing presence in the actual Marvel comics universe, I also feel that this ties the narrative too closely to the plot of the previous film instead of telling something new. I didn't like the idea that HYDRA was responsible for things like Howard Stark's death, and generally thought the betrayal from within was a bit of a cliché, not unlike Stane's betrayal of Stark in "Iron Man". It all seemed excessively orchestrated. It also limits the impact of the Winter Soldier's already truncated storyline. I think it would have been more interesting to see Cap dealing with how the random accumulation of events can cause a situation to spiral out of control. It probably owes something to the "Secret Empire" storyline of the 70s, but that was effective because it tapped into America's anxiety about its own leadership after Watergate by implying that the President himself was the real villain. Using fictional organisations like SHIELD and HYDRA instead of the US Government, the Soviets and so on makes the story feel a bit toothless in my opinion, sort of like HYDRA substituting for the actual Nazis in the previous film. Pierce isn't a very memorable villain to my mind, and with Winter Soldier as just a stooge I would have preferred a proper Cap villain like Baron Zemo or Strucker, who appeared altogether distinctively and memorably in the mid-credits sequence, as someone against whom Cap could face off.

Hopefully he's getting too old for this.
Supporting Cast
At times this film feels more like "Avengers One and a Half." We have Cap, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, SHIELD agents and the introduction of new characters Falcon and Agent 13. Pierce is observed to be a character basically outranking Nick Fury who has an enforcer loosely based on the Crossbones character from the comic, which almost makes the Winter Soldier feel unnecessary. Black Widow is okay as a supporting character for Cap, but given her presence in the film Falcon seems a bit redundant, Hill moreso. Poor old Scarlett Johansson sadly has to slip back into the same tight catsuit, a bad wig and the familiar old role of being exploited on film with, for example, an egregious posterior shot and an even more egregious bosom shot that comes out of nowhere towards the end. While the character works effectively as a foil for Cap, at times I found her exasperatingly dry. Falcon's fine, but doesn't undergo much development, and as I've said feels a touch redundant, and his storyline helping other retired soldiers deal with civilian life doesn't seem to pay off much. Robin, I mean Maria Hill, seems basically there for the sake of someone to operate the computer at the end, and there's a missed opportunity for some Bechdel-passing dialogue between her and Widow. As for Nick Fury, I could do without him. I feel like we're meant to think that Samuel L. Jackson is this cool "badass" but frankly I find him typecast and dull. The most underutilised presence is undoubtedly Emily VanCamp as Agent 13. She's set up as Cap's new love interest but never really gets to do anything. Poor Hayley Atwell also has to get slathered in old lady makeup in a cliché old, bedridden scene with Steve. Some of these characters probably needed to be dropped to give the others room to breathe.

General Constructive Comments
The film in my opinion is just too busy. I don't think we have enough time to show Cap dealing with modern life, which already didn't get that much time in "The Avengers", or to introduce Falcon and establish his relationship with Cap, deal with SHIELD being taken over by HYDRA, give the numerous other secondary protagonists much attention and deal with what's notionally the film's chief focus, the Winter Soldier. As I've said, I would have largely dropped the SHIELD elements - at times it feels like "SHIELD: The Film" - and presented a more personal story for Cap about his efforts to find his place in the modern world, having to deal with the revival of his friend as a mindless killer. Otherwise, I would have just had Cap dealing with SHIELD. I think the film tries to have two main plots and in the end the more interesting one, the Winter Soldier, gets shafted for the more ticket-selling one, the action extravaganza of a SHIELD civil war. There are too many interchangeable urban action scenes, the ending is a pretty routine CGI-'em-up with three giant airships firing hundreds of shots at each other and it feels too constrained to the SHIELD Triskelion. The pacing is too frantic, eschewing more opportunities for breathing room which I think would have made things more poignant. This is a film which tries to do too much and ends up unfulfilled in each element. And seriously, how many times have we seen movie terrorists cause big multi-car pileups on highways? And what's with the bit where Steve calls out HYDRA over the radio? Didn't he consider that publicly announcing to the loyal SHIELD agents what was going on would probably start a massive, confused, treacherous battle where loads of them would get killed? The evacuation shot where crowds are running in three different directions like headless chickens was pretty risible too.

Well that's enough of what I thought didn't work in the film. So what did I like?

The Opening and other quiet moments
I thought the film started quite well. I liked that we started with Cap himself and I felt like Falcon was introduced effectively. I thought Washington was a visually unique setting and I enjoyed Cap visiting the Smithsonian exhibit, as well as the general feeling of his efforts to live in the modern world. The film was actually most successful, I think, in the scenes shot in the evening, which I felt gave the environment a particular atmosphere equivalent to some degree to the historical setting of the previous film. I quite liked the part where Cap and Widow went to the Apple store to investigate their information, even if the product placement was pretty blatant, and the scene in the car where Steve and Natasha were driving out to Camp Lehigh was a massively important piece of, as I keep saying, breathing room in a film with an enormous quantity of action scenes. In this regard I appreciated the moments where Steve seemed alone or isolated, relying on his convictions where the authorities and hierarchy had failed.

"Uh... it was you."
Captain America himself
In 2011 I thought that Chris Evans was well-cast as Captain America, and this film didn't change that opinion. Captain America is portrayed as a sincere, decent, moral person in a world gone mad with similar effectiveness to the previous film and once again Chris Evans provided a believable sense of a humble, self-deprecating character whose greatest strengths are his loyalty to his own aforementioned convictions and his ability to bring out that side in others. He has a good rapport with the rest of the cast, and I think that his scenes were almost always the strongest. He provides a solid, dependable core to the film much like the Captain himself.

Arnim Zola
Apart from the other scenes I've mentioned, one of my favourite moments in the film was when Cap and Widow discover the enormous 1970s-style old fashioned computer room where the intelligence of Arnim Zola was stored. Not only was this scene incredibly atmospheric, it also paid homage to the character's nature in the comics in an interesting way that wasn't managed in the previous film. I appreciated both the design and, despite the implausibility of the situation, the realistically huge amount of antiquated technology implied to be necessary to achieve something that the film depicts in modern times with holograms and clouds of light out of nowhere.

Essential Line
The exchange:
"Who the hell is 'Bucky'?"
is mandatory dialogue from the original comic so I'm glad it was retained in this.

Sky Captain meets The Spirit?
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" isn't a terrible film but I think it's a film which doesn't recognise its own strengths and suffers as a result. As objectionable as many would find this complaint, there's too much action, or the action scenes are too repetitious. The attack on Fury on the streets, for instance, feels too similar to the attack on Cap, Widow and Falcon later in the film. The airborne finale feels too similar to the finale of the first film. This is a film which would have benefited from a deeper focus on a smaller cast, greater selectivity of narrative, and more moderated pacing to allow for moments of introspection. I often complain about modern cinema and TV prioritising character too far ahead of plot. This is a film which puts plot too far ahead of character. It's a little cold and lacking atmosphere except in the few scenes I already mentioned, the ending is a bit "forced climax" and too routine as a big battle full of CGI explosions. My opinion on the first film changed as well, so I'm prepared to change my mind about this one, but at the moment I'm not convinced that it's much more than a fairly generic action film or that it really lives up to the praise it has thus far received elsewhere.

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