Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Nine films in. How many film series have gotten to that lofty goal and maintained some level of creative integrity? Not many. Even Harry Potter called it quits at eight. There seem to be three ways to react to this largesse, which has accumulated in only six bounteous years of Avengers films:

  1.  Oh god, not another one. The Marvel House Style is really starting to wear on me and I need a flowchart to help figure out who’s who with these damn things coming out so fast.
  2.  *Captain America: The Winter Soldier* was the best one yet, or at least top three! These movies just keep getting better!
  3.  My reaction: I’ve never been so bowled over by a Marvel film (as I was when I saw Dark Knight) that I’ve felt compelled to anoint it a masterpiece, and *Captain America: The Winter Soldier* is not my ideal conception of what these Marvel films should be going forward, but if anything, I’m more impressed than ever by how daring (and outlandishly successful) every decision this studio makes is.

Once again, I find myself respecting how a Marvel film ties into, advances, and recontextualizes the entire Avengers Universe more than I find myself respecting the film itself. (Thor: The Dark World, which I went gaga for, was a huge exception to this.) I’ve never disliked a Marvel film (Iron Man 3 came closest) but I’ve never been so enamored of one that I’ve felt compelled to completely stop the presses either. So I see both sides, and yet remain distant from them.

On one hand, people are tiring of the risk-averse corporatization of the movie tie-in model that Marvel, by making kazillions of dollars, is establishing as the new “it” thing to do if you’re a Hollywood studio. You hear a lot about a “house style,” and how increasingly anonymous television directors are being brought in to execute the vanilla top-down vision that will sell the most action figures. And I guess all those elements are there if you choose to see them that way but… no…

Fatigue is no excuse when the product is this consistently good (Captain America: The Winter Soldier is so much fun, totally different from all other Marvel films including its predecessor, and a complete game-changer) and it comes in so many flavors. We can argue business strategy and say that two films advancing the same narrative a year is too much – maybe it is too much to ask the layman to keep up with that much plot progression, especially in the increasingly baffling post-credits teases – but what seems inarguable is this: the films are never the “same old thing.” No two Marvel films have been alike, showing that the superhero film is not a genre unto itself (unless you count the “origin story,” which Marvel seems to have left behind) but a mask that other established genres (man-on-the-run caper, fish-out-of-water comedy, stirring war flick, epic fantasy/sci-fi mashup) wear. The benefit of the Marvel Studios films is that they can change it up; what seemed like a major flaw at first (the studio’s inability to keep any director on the payroll for any longer than the two films Jon Favreau did) has turned into a blessing, as new directors’ pet genres and dispositions seep into sequels, making them seem inspired and imbued with new passions. And we haven’t even seen James Gunn’s “Hooked On a Feeling”-scored space romp Guardians of the Galaxy, which looks batty and brilliant, or Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man which… Edgar Wright! C’mon!

Up to bat this time: a set of directors far more recognized for their television work (Community, Arrested Development) than their film work (You, Me and Dupree). The Russo Brothers follow on the heels of another prolific television director, Alan Taylor, who directed the gee-wiz awesome Thor: The Dark World. The brothers bring with them the affable charm of their comedy work, an apparent obsession with the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, and Abed. (It’s a moment that totally took me out of the movie, but… Abed!!!)

What they do not bring with them is a strong climax – the film sputters so egregiously as its action ebbs that I can’t really consider it to be on par with Iron Man or The Avengers. As the film builds to a mission whose objective is, bafflingly, get these three chips we just pulled out of thin air into those three mainframes… or else (except for you Black Widow, you go do that other thing), it becomes clear that the story lacks the off-the-wall Dadaist-meets-Benny-Hill spunk that Thor: The Dark World exhibited when objects and characters blinked through portals all over the universe, to comic and dramatic effect. That climax was inspired nonsense, while Winter Soldier wraps up with some pretty bland nonsense. It’s as if, after a very grounded film waged with hard punches and shotgun blasts in elevators and on highways, the filmmakers said “We heard you liked the Helicarrier. Well, here’s four helicarriers!” It’s quite numbing to behold.

Which is marginally depressing, because Winter Soldier is far from a numbing film. The Russo Brothers deliver a film that is both thoughtful and kinetic, a livewire action film with a relevant question about how much we allow the bad guys into our lives, onto our phone lines, into our homes, because we’re too afraid of the idea of bad guys. On a certain level, no Marvel film has seemed this connected to our reality since Tony Stark displayed the power of the Jericho and payed for his hubris – the Russo brothers lucked into a media firestorm surrounding the NSA that erupted after the script was locked – but on another level it’s important not to read too much into the connections: Black Widow has a character arc that very closely mirrors the Edward Snowden kerfuffle, but it would be difficult to argue that just because one of our heroes leaks the misdeeds of a surveillance organization to the world at large, Marvel is making a firm pro-Snowden statement. Or maybe they are? Marvel could do anything at this point, who would object?

That’s not what interests me about Winter Soldier though. If there’s one word that gets a lot of play in the Winter Soldier script, even more play than NSA buzzwords like “trust” or “orders,” that word is “friend.”

One huge thing the first film did is that it didn’t make Bucky Steve’s comrade or his ward, it made him Steve’s lifelong friend, someone whom Steve looked up to and admired. Those in the know realized as he fell to his “death” that this would likely come back to pay huge dividends if Ed Brubaker had anything to say about it, and Marvel quickly circled back to that idea, haunting Cap with his own connections.

That’s the emotional throughline that peeks through even that numbing climax. Let’s look at the actual decisions Cap has to live with as a character. He opts to shut down S.H.I.E.L.D, an organization of spies that can no longer be trusted, without prejudice or hesitation, except when a friend is standing in the way. Cap cannot – or really, he makes the conscious choice not to – hurt that friend, and it gets him shot through the gut, thrown in the Potomac, essentially left for dead. It also almost brings about complete mission failure and the death of millions. This movie takes a pretty strong stance on one thing, and that thing is not information leaks or surveillance; that thing is sticking by a friend when you know that friend is true. Following them to the “end of the line.”

At the start of the film, Steve is a loyal employee, dedicated to his work (half out of unfailing idealism, half out of “all my friends are dead” boredom), who isn’t so much actively seeking companionship as he is stumbling upon it by accident. Prompted to get out there and play the field by Natasha (played by a so-game-it’s-revelatory Scarlett Johansson, who is en fuego right now), he retorts (as he flees the question by jumping out of a plane without a parachute, which is an extreme avoidance tactic) that he’s “too busy.” Who can blame him for burying himself in his work? The man’s been burnt (or as the case may be, iced) too many times: all his Howling Commandos are long dead; the one who is revealed not to be dead is trying to choke the life out of him with his cybernetic metal arm; and Cap’s one-and-only-gal is now a nonagenarian Alzheimer’s patient (still, what a delight to see Haley Atwell worked in here!). It’s easy to see how Steve Rogers could be a little commitment-phobic.

In spite of this, he forges new bonds with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie debuting as Falcon, the first ever African-American superhero), a fellow war veteran who lost his wingman in combat as well and is thrilled to get a chance to work with a kindred spirit like Steve Rogers; and, after some initial hiccups, with Natasha, the wounded superspy who holds everything so close to her vest that she is all things to all people and nothing to everyone; and he triumphantly reclaims at least a flicker of his old friendship with Bucky. As much as this is a film about NSA-like security states or about the overall tapestry of the Marvel universe and its interlocking pieces coming together in new and interesting ways, it is also a moving portrayal of what it means to value friendship, trust, and connections in contexts where that vulnerability is difficult if not dangerous. Because, as every one of this collection of spies and soldiers know, spies lie and soldiers die.

Nick Fury displays the danger as he briefly becomes the film’s protagonist following a tiff with Cap in the film’s early going. Fury has had a decades-long friendship with politician Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), the man who recommended him for the director position he currently holds. That friendship burns him when it is revealed that Pierce is actually a Hydra agent, the man behind Fury’s attempted assassination and a plot to use predictive analytics to eliminate all threats before they become threats. In the spy game, calling anyone “friend” is a risky gamble.

But hey, we as viewers fell for it too. The main reason this film’s twist pays off is because it makes total sense when we hear it coming out of Armin Zola’s mouth-speaker-thing (that reveal of Zola the computer was my huge nerd-out moment in the film), but it shocks us because the films have allowed us to buy into a friendly, straight-arrow version of S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that has guided the entire Avengers Initiative from the shadows with a sassy smile. The main thing that distinguished the S.H.I.E.L.D of the film series (and the irritatingly underwhelming television series) was a sense of chummy paternalism. The films got us to root, in the age of NSA, for what amounted to a militaristic surveillance organization by making our contact points (Fury and Coulson and Sitwell and Blake) so affably authoritative. Coulson, a paragon of good-humored dedication, was our way into this world, and his relationship with Sitwell, with whom he traded barbs and secrets, made us believe that they must all be playing for the same side. This film weaponizes that assumption, turning it against us quickly and painfully.

And so there’s a giddy moment halfway through the film, when Agent Sitwell and Gary Shandling’s Senator Stern, reappearing for the first time since he begrudgingly pinned Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, exchange whispered Hail Hydras, where we don’t know which way is up. (By the way, when did Hydra’s argument become “We’re the good guys, trying to enforce the true peace and order you’re too afraid to make reality”? Sure didn’t seem like that was Red Skull’s philosophy.) If Sitwell is Hydra, couldn’t anyone be? Couldn’t Agent Maria Hill or Agent 13 be Hydra? This lack of orientation, with our heroes on the run from everyone (since no one can be trusted) and Nick Fury cold and dead (admission: considering Samuel L. Jackson can’t play Fury forever, I honestly bought the “death” hook, line and sinker), evokes the spirit of the paranoid thriller while never losing sight of the warm and gooey thematic glue – Cap’s attempts to bond with Natasha at the Genius Bar and bring his new buddy Sam (who it turns out learned to fly with awesome mechanical wings back in his enlisted days!) into the fold.

The film’s last great moment sees these three comrades taking on the impossibly intimidating Winter Soldier, who reveals himself to be a brainwashed Bucky. (Here, I’d like to call out the film’s greatest stylistic touch: Bucky is about to blow a defenseless Widow’s head off, and before Cap blitzes in to save her, there’s this moment where Bucky, alone in the frame, takes aim, and the soundtrack shrieks out the most menacing shriek while the camera does this disorienting quick zoom.) With this realization, Cap really has a mission, and while it sometimes coincides with what the film is driving towards (an explosive helicarrier denouement over the Potomac), more often than not it constitutes a very internal, personal struggle to help his pal overcome years of cryogenic sleep and bad rewiring of synapses. One of the film’s big problems is it characterizes what actually happened to Bucky very poorly – more focus on his struggles and more lucidity from him could have brought him more in line with Marvel’s other evergreen villain, Loki, a sympathetic family member gone dark. As it is, their brawl, and Bucky’s decision to pull a drowning Cap out of the river and leave him on the bank without a word, feels like an anticlimax compared to other superior sequences form earlier in the film – namely the absolutely outstanding Nick Fury car chase (oh, that air conditioning) and the elevator battle. Next to those, this feels like a paltry “Come back next time for the real action!”

Much of the film’s ending feels that way – a disappointing segue into future stories. (Whaddya know, the first Cap movie had the same problem… Why does this keep happening to you Steve?!?) A montage set to “Trouble Man” (good callback, good bow on the “friendships bringing Steve into this century” angle) gives us a much needed look at what Widow and Fury and Hill are up to (speaking of Widow, if you can explain to me how she survived the shock from that thing on her chest when everyone else died, you win my gratitude), but also includes nice long looks at relatively-unimportant-character Sharon “Agent 13” [Last Name Redacted] joining the CIA and stock-henchman Brock Runlow being rescued from the rubble of the Triskellion, which I’m sure left plenty of people nice and baffled. (I, for instance, know why Sharon is important while expecting few will, but had no idea why we were seeing Runlow, or to be honest, who I was looking at the burned remnants of.) But not as baffled as that mush of words and monologues known as the mid-credits tag will leave people. Whedon directed that one, and while the tags have gotten rather ephemeral and nerdy in recent years, this one left me actually worried about the direction of the next Avengers film. (Miracles? ‘Kay…)

But not too worried. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has its issues, but it comes highly recommended. At this point we have to start discussing Marvel in the same terms we reserved for Pixar five or six years ago. As it continues to pump out high-grade boutique-quality films at a factory-floor pace, we have to consider that the men constructing this mythology, from producer Kevin Feige to Joss Whedon to the Brothers Russo, really know what they’re doing and could truly be planning future installments of this story out to 2028 not out of hubris but out of unprecedented creative energy and the confidence that they can continue to reign that creativity in and make distinctive, relevant pieces of pop entertainment that will stand on their own and comprise one of the greatest mass-appeal narratives ever unspooled.