Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a delightfully pulpy adventure. In many respects, it feels like the movie that Captain America: The First Avenger really should have been, a celebration of its lead character’s versatility and a demonstration of how easily the comic book character can cross genres. Part of the beauty of The Winter Soldier is in the way that it feints. It weaves in directions that are a little surprising at times, and even avoids taking the path of least resistance when offered.
With an opening act that teases the age old debate about liberty and security (“this isn’t freedom,” Steve Rogers solemnly states, “this is fear”), the movie deftly steps sideways to avoid getting too bogged down in familiar political discourse. Much like Iron Man 3, there’s a charm in how The Winter Soldier evades any particularly probing political commentary, cleverly swerving out of the way of anything that could become ham-fisted or heavy-handed.
It tricks the audience into expecting a contemporary political thriller, only to become something a bit more unexpected – a strange hybrid of pulpy science-fiction, conspiratorial secret history and even seventies espionage thriller. It’s an exciting and engaging blend, one that never outstays its welcome. The only real problem is that it tries to do a bit too much and some of the smaller pieces get lost in the shuffle – which means the climax doesn’t resonate as well as it needs to.
Still, those are ultimately minor problems with a superior blockbuster.
Captain America is a problematic character. He’s inherently political; there’s no way around the fact that wears the American flag or has a giant “A” emblazoned on his head. It’s hard to avoid his relationship with the leading global power of the twentieth century, and all the baggage that comes with that. The First Avenger suffered a bit because it tried to downplay that aspect of the character, toning down the World War II elements of a World War II origin (to the point where the Red Skull was conspicuously not a Nazi) and trying to present Captain America as an international icon, a leader of a diverse platoon of freedom-loving nations.
These attempts felt somewhat cynical. The Winter Soldier is a lot more direct about who Captain America is and what he represents. Although there are nods to the repeated attempts to present S.H.I.E.L.D as a multi-national organisation, it’s quite clear that it is – in practical terms – an American initiative. Although it’s overseen by an ominous shadow committee comprised of multi-national members, S.H.I.E.L.D. is led by American characters and its operations are centred on American soil. More than that, Steve Rogers is acknowledged as an American hero, engaging with veterans of more recent American conflicts.
Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of The Winter Soldier is the way that Steve Rogers is juxtaposed against various other soldiers and warriors. He serves his country, but not in the same way as leader Nicholas Fury or international spy Natasha Romanov. Instead, Rogers seems much more comfortable with Sam Wilson, a flyboy just returned from a tour overseas. Although separated by generations, there’s a sense that a bond exists between those who have served overseas. (Indeed, Rogers’ defrosting serves as an effective metaphor for the experience of coming home from war; often it’s a different country than the one you left.)
The Winter Soldier is fairly candid in the obligatory social commentary. It acknowledges that post-9/11 America is radically different from the country that existed before. In fact, the script very cleverly treats the climax of The Avengers (which was packed to the brim with 9/11 imagery) as a blunt metaphor for those infamous terror attacks. When Fury talks about changes made “after New York”, it takes a moment to realise he’s talking about a fictional alien invasion rather than the events of thirteen years ago.
The first act of The Winter Soldier stacks up all the clichés we’ve come to expect from socially-conscious blockbusters. There’s a constant sense of militarisation and paranoia – there’s a sense that the authorities have grown too comfortable in the powers that have been vested in them. It’s hard not to shudder when Fury boasts, “We can identify a terrorist by their DNA.” Inevitably, there’s a large anti-terrorism initiative planned. And, just as inevitably, it’s the kind of defensive technology that would prove devastating in the wrong hands. And, just as just as inevitably… well, you see where this is going.
And yet, The Winter Soldier never gets bogged down. It acknowledges these political and cultural realities, but doesn’t let itself wade in too deep. It does two very clever things that help prevent the movie getting too mired in stock political morals. The first is that it avoids the urge to get nostalgic about the past. After all, we live in complicated times; it’s a lot easier to pretend that the past was much simpler. It wasn’t, but it’s nice to imagine that it was. With Steve Rogers, a character dating back to the Second World War, the urge is so much stronger. The Second World War was a time when good unambiguously existed, and triumphed.
The Winter Soldier cleverly undermines this urge, without attacking it directly. While showing Steve his plans, Fury recounts a short story about his grandfather. Without labouring the point, it’s quite clear that Nicholas Fury’s grandfather could never have held the same position of power and authority that his grandson currently enjoys. Indeed, it seems that Fury’s grandfather had little protection at all.
Similarly, Fury scoffs at Steve’s concerns. “You know, I read about the SSR?” he remarks. “The Greatest Generation? You guys did some nasty stuff.” While Steve protests that it was all to build a better and safer world, The Winter Soldier doesn’t let him off the hook entirely. In fact, the movie’s threat is rooted in America’s conduct towards the end and in the aftermath of the Second World War. At one point, Natasha name-drops the real life Operation: Paperclip, the cynical relocation of “strategically important” Nazi scientists to America so they could continue their work.
(At the same time, even Steve himself doesn’t seem too nostalgic. While he keeps old records handy and remains attached to his past, he doesn’t seem too disillusioned or put out by the changes around him. Asked what he makes of the twenty-first century, he reflects, “No polio is pretty great.” He makes a genuine effort to engage with the times, and one of the movie’s most heartwarming gags suggests that Steve keeps a notebook of pop culture he missed. It includes Rocky, with a question mark over Rocky II.)
As such, The Winter Soldier never feels too heavy-handed, never too awkwardly insistent that the world is much darker and more horrible than it ever was before. More than that, the film cleverly swerves away from the political commentary before it has to wade in too far. The first act of The Winter Soldier plays like an political espionage thriller – there’s a covert conspiracy at work and our heroes must uncover it before the wrong technology ends up in the wrong hands. Everybody is under surveillance all the time, nobody can be trusted.
And then things get a little bit weird. The middle act of The Winter Soldier shifts gears and becomes something altogether more bizarre than a thriller layered with political commentary. The concepts become a lot higher, a lot weirder and a lot more fun. While The Winter Soldier owes its title and its villain (and its first act) to the fantastic work of writer Ed Brubaker, who just finished an eight year run on the character, the middle section of the film harks back to some of the character’s more esoteric adventures.
There’s a sense that The Winter Soldier is indebted to some of the quirkier seventies stories featuring the character, right down to the inclusion of supporting character Sam Wilson. There are secret empires to topple; unlikely Nazis to confront; nods to Asimov’s psychohistory to acknowledge. There is even – in the film’s most gleefully off-the-wall “if gotta do exposition…” scene – a surreal dose of retro-futurism to enjoy. (The film is also heavily influenced by the work of current comics writer Jonathan Hickman.)
The Winter Soldier is the type of film that can casually reveal that our lead character just happens to have made a friend who can fly using man-made wings. It’s hard not to get caught up in the gleefully pulpy enthusiasm of all that. And, so, the fact that The Winter Soldier relies on all sorts of contrivances to get where it’s going – with any number of improbable coincidences occurring to move the plot along – isn’t as troublesome as it might be in a lesser film.
The Winter Soldier isn’t any more tightly constructed or sensical than The First Avenger. However, it is more fun and energetic, and less concerned with trying to please as many people as possible. So when it makes crazy lateral shifts – changing from a political thriller to a science-fiction throwback to a secret history of the United States – there’s an understanding that these shifts are included because they lead to fun places.
Yes, a lot of The Winter Soldier doesn’t make sense; but the movie is quite aware of that. Instead, it moves with enough swagger and confidence that it’s easy to buy into that. The quirky odd-couple pairing of Chris Evans’ boy scout Steve Rogers and Scarlett Johannson’s snarky Black Widow is strangely endearing – as is the way that the movie never breaks its stride while dealing with the wilfully surreal. (No matter what crazy revelation our leads uncover, Natasha is constantly trying to set our leading man up with one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. office staff. There’s a nice “this is what living in this universe from day to day entails” logic to all this.)
As an aside, it seems that the Marvel films have actually reached a point where they are so interconnected that they don’t really depend on superhero crossovers to make the universe seem properly shared. It took a cameo from Robert Downey Jr. to make The Incredible Hulk feel like it was building a shared universe. Instead, we’ve reached the point where the overlap of quirky supporting characters can build a sense of continuity between otherwise unrelated films.
We probably didn’t need to see Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern make a return appearance after Iron Man 2, but it’s a nice little touch. Similarly, the reappearance of the vague council of ominousness from The Avengers (even with 100% less Powers Booth) helps cement the ties between the two films. This sort of a well-developed big-screen universe is fascinating to watch, and there’s a sense that The Winter Soldier is using elements that fit its own needs, rather than existing to serve the greater needs of the brand going forward. (As compared to, for example, Iron Man 2.)
It’s also quite refreshing that The Winter Soldier manages to be just a little surprising by avoiding a few more of the obvious plot beats. There are moments when the film seems to be building to very obvious plot and character twists. Given how effectively the central twist worked in Iron Man 3, it would be hard to blame The Winter Soldier for trying to mimic that success. The movie spends considerable time building towards an obvious revelation about one of the supporting characters; only to reveal that the character was pretty much exactly what he appeared to be all along.
Then again, given how willing The Winter Soldier is to go full-on “comic book” at any given moment, it’s hard to suggest the movie is particularly static. It’s a film that is perfectly willing to embrace the goofier aspects of its character’s convoluted comic book mythology. In a way, that’s one of the stronger aspects of The Winter Soldier – it’s very much a live action comic book, complete with larger-than-life characters and a sense that nothing is too far out.
If there is a problem with The Winter Soldier, it’s that the movie is too crowded for its own good. The title villain almost feels like an after-thought in his own film. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that the emotional climax of The Winter Soldier is anchored in Steve’s final confrontation with the eponymous assassin. In order for the audience to engage with that showdown, we need to invest in the Winter Soldier. Unfortunately, he’s just not enough of a presence throughout the film. There’s a sense that the movie knows we need to spend more time with him, but there’s just too much fun stuff going on elsewhere.
Similarly, Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce can’t help but feel like one of the more interesting and disappointing characters in the film. Redford is a casting coup for the film, an elder statesman and American institution. In many ways, with his blonde hair and blue eyes, he seems like a time-displaced Steve Rogers. It’s not too hard to imagine an alternate universe where Redford could have played Captain America in the seventies. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition, one the movie plays up by dressing Redford in blue and grey suits to provide a visual mirror to the lead character’s blue and grey outfits.
Unfortunately, the film never really does anything with this. Pierce is a major character who is vital to how the plot unfolds, but he feels strangely underdeveloped. The resolution of his character arc feels a little unimpressive and we never get a sense of who Alexander Pierce is, despite what the plot needs him to be. None of this is Redford’s fault. Redford has a great deal of fun in the role, and lends the character’s lines an impressive gravitas (check out how many end up in the trailer), but the character never feels fully formed.
Still, the problems with The Winter Soldier essentially boil down to the fact that the movie is just a little bit too busy for its own good. That’s not the worst problem to have, particularly when the movie maintains an impressive pace and an engaging sense of fun. The Winter Soldier is a pulpy delight, and a cinematic pleasure.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews | Tagged: captain america, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, chris evans, comic book, marvel, Movie, non-review review, review, scarlett johansson, the winter soldier |