Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cold Conflict – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The pantheon of superhero films from the last decade that have dominated and defined global box offices often feel bloated with a sense of self-importance, despite their ludicrous premises (see: Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, etc). Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as modest as its protagonist, Steve Rogers, at least as far as such a thing is possible in a blockbuster superhero action feature, and this makes for a refreshingly sober, unaffected entry into the ever-growing Marvel film canon.

As a Canadian and an X-Men fan, I’ve seldom been compelled by Captain America’s character. He’s one of the less “super” superheroes and feels irrelevant to today’s pop culture zeitgeist. This is of course addressed with the fish-out-of-water humour from The Avengers, which depicts Cap’s difficulty integrating into modern society after having been frozen in stasis since World War II. The Winter Soldier takes place two years after the events of that film, and drops this “Can Cap Adapt?” arc in favour of a more relevant and topical story. Cap no longer labours to fit in; he’s now concerned with aligning his 1940s sensibilities with a world of modern conflict, in which the moral boundaries are far less clear, and this existential grappling makes him suddenly much more interesting.

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark struggled to reconcile his reliance on technology and science with the fantastical, alien-centric “Battle for New York” that took place in The Avengers. Steve Rogers is likewise shaken by these events, but his arc takes a more nationalistic turn: the country and the people he thought he valued and trusted begin to betray him as S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes compromised and spectres from his past appear to torment him. The Winter Soldier isn’t “dark” the way The Amazing Spider-Man tried to be “dark” (manifesting as brooding, angsty, poorly-executed teen drama and an illusory and unconvincing element of “grit”), it’s actually dark. It wears its Cold War sensibilities on its sleeve; themes of distrust, betrayal, skepticism, isolation, grief, and loss are front and centre in this “family action film.” There’s still the requisite humour, but it’s elevated from slapstick hijinks to the kind of character-driven repartee that made The Avengers so likeable, and it’s couched in a gallows mood. These are the jokes people make because they’re terrified – of their enemies (which are legion and nameless), of their allies (who are fickle and untrustworthy), and of themselves. I didn’t expect this kind of sensitivity from a Marvel film, and it’s very welcome. (During one action sequence in which the Captain and a fellow soldier face off against an army of compromised S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, the soldier asks “Which ones are the bad guys?”, and Cap’s answer is, “The ones shooting at you.” This is all Cap is able to understand - all he needs to understand in order to do his duty - and to have the central themes presented so neatly gives focus and energy to the film.) This attitude informs the action, too, which is taut, compelling, and brutal – there is no restraint in the way Cap savages his enemies; it’s as though he studied and mastered as many martial arts as possible as part of his effort to integrate into the modern world, and understood that as the world has become more violent, so must he. Bones are broken, armour is shattered, and many people die. If I had a kid, I would hesitate before I let them see this film.

Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson
The first Marvel Captain America film, The First Avenger, succumbs to the third-act failure typical of all origin stories: the first two thirds of the film, during which the everyman becomes the superhero, is always the most interesting and strongly-motivated part of the film by far. Once the super-mantle is assumed, the new hero must be faced with a conflict, which almost always manifests as some hackneyed “save-the-city” plot (see: Batman Begins, almost every other superhero origin movie ever). The sequels which follow are usually much stronger in terms of narrative, and The Winter Soldier certainly fits the bill. There are really two plots. First, S.H.I.E.L.D. is revealed to have been infiltrated and controlled since the 1940s by Hydra (the fanatical Nazi cell originally led by a red Play-Doh Hugo Weaving), and sends three (!) of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier behemoths into low orbit, where they will eliminate threats “before they happen” (which in this case promises the preemptive annihilation of millions of innocents). Second, Cap must face off against a mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier, who is revealed to be his best childhood friend and fellow World War II veteran, Bucky Barnes, who was believed to have died in 1943, but was actually the product of Hydra experimentation. Thankfully, these two narratives aren’t in opposition; at no point did I feel confused about what was happening or why, or disconnected from the action, but it’s irritating that the Bucky storyline was underplayed in favour of a broader, less interesting, less personal plot. It would have been much punchier to keep the S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra plot in the background and allow for some development for Bucky and his relationship with Cap. Also, the Winter Soldier’s physical design is very striking, almost beautiful, and it makes me wish he had more screentime just so I could continue to appreciate his costume.

Of note are some fine supporting performances. Cobie Smulders returns as a very deadpan Maria Hill, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she uses her limited appearances effectively. Samuel Jackson has enough screentime and a clever enough script to give Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., more emotional guts and incentive than he’s ever had, and Robert Redford – an unexpected sight in a comic book film, like a rare tiger showing up in a city street – provides a sharp-eyed and erudite antagonist. He summons the Cold War paranoia from Three Days of the Condor and elevates the film just by his presence alone. That an actor like Redford (especially at his advancing age) would approach material like this with earnest enthusiasm says enough to me about the quality of the film.

The Winter Soldier is undoubtedly one of the better standalone superhero movies I’ve seen in a long time. In a word: solid. Solid script, solid action, solid pacing, solid payoff. Some of it rises to the exceptional (such as the Nick Fury escape sequence and the standoff in the S.H.I.E.L.D. office), and very little of it falls into the mediocre (like the unconvincing turn from Canadian MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre as a kickboxing French terrorist). Captain America is not a terribly interesting superhero but he’s used well here – his motivation is clear and his arc feels natural. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still just one of many, many side entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, destined to be overshadowed, remade, rebooted, and forgotten, and as far as I’m concerned this is all to the better: let the high-profile, low-denominator Marvel entries hog the attention, so that entries like this one can exist in their own singular universes of consistent tone and robust storytelling.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto. 

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