I remember the excitement I felt going to see Spiderman back in 2002: finally, an exciting, action-packed take on those great Saturday morning cartoons—the ones about an ordinary high school nerd gifted with extraordinary powers, mirroring his biggest fans (except for the powers). The connection to nerds has followed comic books almost as long as they have existed; they have been a form of escapism for their readers (primarily for the Poindexters and Dungeons and Dragons players, not the track stars and successful socialites). But, as comic book adaptations have become the rote backdrop for contemporary action movies, their audience has expanded widely—some (specifically Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy) drawing in serious-minded film heads who would never stoop into the category of ordinary action or B science-fiction. As the audience has expanded, so has the target of these formulaic dramas, attended by football captains just as much as Magic the Gathering champions. The hero has become much more conventional. Captain America: The First Avenger was a tale of transformation and fantasy, of a magic potion that could turn any 90-pound stripling into an awesome behemoth of legendary proportions who would fight Nazis and survive being frozen in the arctic for six decades. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is something different—the story of a super-soldier being super, and in that it loses much of its excitement.
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Joss Whedon (post-credits scene)
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Ed Brubaker (story), Joe Simon (comic book), Jack Kirby (comic book)
Producers: Victoria Alonso, Mitchell Bell, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Alan Fine, Michael Grillo, Stan Lee, Nate Moore
Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch
Editor: Jeffrey Ford
Music: Henry Jackman
Cast: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo
Premiere: March 13, 2014
US Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
The film opens with a big budget action sequence, something to jolt the audience to the edge of their seats and give a dramatic entrance into the plot (negating the need for such trivialities as writing and acting). The Winter Soldier’s opening seems more video-gamey than most: a flying camera circles a ship as our heroic Captain smashes dozens of faceless henchmen with his bare hands, breaking bones, hurling men overboard, and generally dispatching them in the most violent ways permitted within a PG-13 rating. The whole sequence looks like someone playing Metal Gear Solid with the cheat codes on. That is this film’s essential failing--all of its heroes are just too super. Every character is competent with every challenge they meet, even going so far as to have Captain America, who was born in the 1920s, have millennial-level ability with technology. When every character’s innate abilities make them excel at every challenge with ease, there is little drama left.
The plot centers on a massive government intelligence initiative called Project Insight. Headed by two-faced politician Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Insight’s purpose is to develop massive drones that can police the world from the skies. These drones are enormous, essentially flying cities—carbon copies of the heli-carriers that occupied a central role in last summer’s Marvel’s The Avengers. Yet unlike those flying behemoths, these bristle with thousands of computer-operated guns which Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) brags can read a terrorist’s DNA and take him out as soon as he walks out his front door. The dynamic arc of the film mostly follows Fury and Captain America as they come to realize that something wicked is afoot with this secret project, but the drone’s general position in the film is emblematic of a worrying trend in sci-fi action flicks. As the audience has expanded beyond comic book nerds, the corresponding films’ presumed moral compass seems to have swung rapidly to the right. This plotline is eerily reminiscent of the “bring unmanned drones to America” plotline that dominated February’s Robocop, and though both offer a half-baked critique of the Obama administration, they also reveal a near-fascist obsession with safety over privacy. Yes, in both of these films the faceless drone armies are the evil that needs to be stopped, but the centrist heroes stepping up to the plate are nearly as fascist themselves. Our “heroes” seem to think that it would be good if we could kill terrorists (whatever that word means) anonymously, without dirtying our collective conscience; it’s only the wicked masters of these machines that need to be stopped. If the drones weren’t part of this evil plot, they could be used for good, the film’s screenplay seems to say, even though the machines are specifically designed to be able to kill “up to 1,000 people every second.”
In Winter Soldier this is all the more apparent, as it becomes clear that these murder-drones aren’t bad in themselves—it’s just that the organization behind them is part of a secret worldwide conspiracy left over from the secret Nazi organization called HYDRA (which Cap fought back in World War II). What’s more, there is nearly no motivation provided for the villains, making this film’s central conflict oddly flat. We know that they are somehow descended from Nazis and that they have nearly limitless supplies and henchmen to replace those that Captain America dispatches, but their motivations are only developed to the point of wickedness. As one henchman says (the only one with a speaking role), “Order only comes from pain.” It’s hard to believe that such a misanthropic mantra could suck in thousands of willing followers, and so our Captain’s crusade against this conspiracy goes against a ludicrous opposing force.
Lest I be remiss in mentioning it, the film’s eponymous Winter Soldier adds a bit of mystery as well—that is, until his identity is revealed. I won’t spoil that moment (as disappointing as it is), but suffice it to say that this figure (who features heavily enough to be the basis of a sequel set up in the last five minutes) operates as one of the biggest MacGuffins that has ever made an appearance in a comic book adaptation. Even less meaningful than The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane, The Winter Soldier is a shadowy nucleus around which the film’s larger plot can orbit.
Outside of its central conceit, though, the film is a passable spy thriller. Its most enjoyable moments involve the uncovering of the dastardly scheme rather than the high octane action; these directors clearly struggled with making Captain America’s trademark shield into something exciting, and their results are middling. As Cap uncovers the conspiracy, along with sidekicks Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and his workout buddy (Anthony Mackie), there are flashes of classic spy thrillers—most notably Sydney Pollack’s terrific Three Days of the Condor (1975). But with The Condor himself (Redford) present, these moments pale in comparison, and by the time the ridiculous action finale rolls out, the film has lost all grip on its classic suspense-thriller homage. One can only hope that this film will be one of the last cookie-cutter comic book adaptations. Maybe Hollywood can find something else to overproduce again. How about Westerns?