Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Winter of Our Discontent

Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo) is the best of the Marvel Studios Avengers movies, one that manages the not inconsiderable feat of linking its eye-drugging fantasy with real world real politik in a way that engages the mind as well as the adrenal glands. It's also a film that cements the Avengers movies as an inheritor of the James Bond films, which they resemble more than they do the superhero movies from other studios. The Winter Soldier also argues forcefully against the grimdark superhero genre even as it indulges in some of its tropes. A deconstruction of the deconstruction? Maybe.

Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The story picks up some time after the events of The Avengers. It finds Captain America, Steve Rogers, a man out of time, trying his best to adjust to a world seventy years on from the world he knew. Part of that adjustment is his work with S.H.I.E.L.D. He still doesn't trust Nick Fury, but he believes in the mission of the agency, or, at least, he believes in the mission he's been sold. On a mission to rescue the hostages held by pirates in the Indian Ocean, Rogers finds more things to question. His fellow Avenger, The Black Widow, appears to have been given a different mission, one that makes him even more suspicious than he was before: while Rogers is taking on Batroc the Leaper, the leader of the pirates, and rescuing the hostages, Natasha is busy downloading information from the boat's computers. Upon confronting Fury, Fury decides to confide in Cap, taking him into the depths of S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters to show him Project Insight, a fleet of three helicarriers designed to neutralize threats before they become threats. It's a project entirely dependent on a surveillance society, and it makes Rogers very uncomfortable. "This isn't freedom," he tells Fury, "It's Fear."  Meanwhile, Cap is trying to fit into the new century. He's made friends with Sam Wilson, a retired Paratroop soldier who he laps every morning as he jogs, and he's made peace with Peggy Carter, who is now a very old woman. He learns about his friends and comrades from their exhibit at the Smithsonian. As it turns out, Fury has some reservations about Project Insight himself, and is shortly the target of an assassination attempt by the mysterious Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier, Natasha tells Cap, is a phantom, a super assassin about which almost nothing is known except the strange length of his career. He's been the boogeyman of the intelligence community for fifty years. When Fury survives the first attempt and hides out in Cap's apartment, the Winter Soldier follows to finish the job. This turns Rogers into a target from elements of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, particularly Fury's superior, Alexander Pierce, who fear what Fury might have told him. It soon becomes apparent to Rogers that Project Insight is something profoundly dangerous, and that S.H.I.E.L.D. itself has been compromised. Soon, Cap doesn't know who to trust as he has to stay alive long enough to save the world...

Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

My persistent complaint about the Iron Man movies has been the incoherence of their politics. While the first Iron Man film manages to take something like a principled stand, its sequels waffle and prevaricate, as if as a mass entertainment committed to the broadest possible audience they don't dare offend the left or the right. Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes no such concessions.  It is the most pointed, most politically aware blockbuster in recent memory. Its directors compare their film to the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, which were overtly critical of the military/industrial complex. While this follows that lead, this film is very much of its moment, also touching on the NSA spying program and Wikileaks and Edward Snowden and drone warfare. Sure, it casts these things as fantasy avatars, with the convenience of Hydra allowing the filmmakers to sidestep questions of partisanship, but it doesn't take a code book to decipher their meanings. This is not a film that conceals them. The conviction behind its politics translates to a heightened sense that what we are watching is meaningful to not only its characters, but to the world beyond the screen as well. This creates an engagement with the viewer--this viewer, in any case--that the other Avengers movies have lacked.

Robert Redford and Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In the context of the film's politics, Steve Rogers becomes the incarnation of a New Deal liberal who can't abide Neo-Liberalism. This isn't the world he fought to save and he's blunt in his estimation of the current security state. Is Nick Fury a stand-in for Obama? A man who went along with bad things in spite of the better angels of his nature? That's a harder case to make. Certainly, Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce is wedded to the politics of the actor who plays him: he's almost a caricature of a ruthless conservative politician, a portrayal heightened both by the antipodean nature of Redford's politics and the sheer glee with which he plays the part. It's Redford's most engaging performance in some time. He sometimes lets his politics get the better of the movies he makes, but here, he lets the action film smuggle in the polemics.

Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The critique of the surveillance state is pointed, but not entirely shocking in itself. The solution to the problems present by such a state in the context of the film are another matter. At the end of the film, while Captain America is taking down the rogue helicarriers, The Black Widow has a different mission. She dumps all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets onto the internet. The Widow is accustomed to keeping secrets so this is a radical act on her part. The film knows this and shows this to the audience when Pierce threatens that such an act would reveal who she really is. She does it anyway, but she hesitates. This is a radical act on the part of the film, too, and in a broader context, by the company who made it. This is a film that argues for the patriotism of the Edward Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings of the world and against the state apparatus that would silence them. One doesn't expect a plea for radical openness and transparency from a multi-national conglomerate, but damned if this isn't one.

Anthony Mackie in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

None of this would work if the characters didn't ring true. There's always a danger in big special effects films of reducing characters to cardboard cutouts, placed in the film frame in order to give the special effects some scale. I would be lying if I said that that doesn't happen in this film, because in the pummeling action sequences that conclude the film, it does happen, though not for long. This is a film where the set-pieces actually interfere with the best parts of the movie. In truth, if the filmmakers had dialed back on these sequence and included more scenes of Steve and Sam Wilson talking or following Cap and the Black Widow on a road trip as they flee Hydra, that would be just fine with me. Steve is a fun character, a man who doesn't fit his times, who is playing catch-up with a world that's mostly unfamiliar to him. The little notebook in which he keeps track of things in the culture is cute. Steve Rogers as a character type runs the risk of being a Mary Sue, but there's always enough of a sense of loss in his interactions with the world and his place in it to fend that off. More entertaining are the two primary friendships he forms. The friendship with Sam is a classic bromance, one tinged with shared experience as soldiers trying to recover from the horrors they've seen and trying to do good in the world after war. Cap's relationship with Natasha is more nuanced. They're not romantically attracted to each other, but Natasha takes a deep interest in Cap's love life. She's also a very different personality. Where Cap is fundamentally optimistic, Natasha has seen and done too much for that. Where Cap is almost without guile, Natasha is nothing but guile. As lovers, this would be a disaster, but as best friends? Yeah. That works fine. Splendidly, in fact.

Captain America is a character that will invite a fair amount of derision from more cynical audience members, and in some ways, that's important to this film. Steve Rogers is an archetypical boy scout in a world where his essential goodness seems almost naive. One pundit has called the character "The 95 Year Old Virgin." And yet, for all that, I find that I want a character like him--a man who is caring and sweet--after many seasons of grim and gritty superheroes whose only solution to their adversaries is to kill them. The Marvel Characters have been handled beautifully in this respect, but none more so than Steve Rogers. He moves through a world of symbols in this movie. When we first see him, he's jogging around the Capitol Mall in D. C. past monuments to patriotism. The movie then goes to pains to let corruption seep into the institutions that prop up that patriotism, while letting Cap remain unstained by it, and it's that incorruptibility that enables him to spot the corrupt, something to which Fury and Natasha are blind. More than that, Cap is a character who believes in redemption. The final scenes with the Winter Soldier are a testament to this: Cap refuses to fight him, tossing his shield in the Potomac and letting the Winter Soldier pummel him rather than raise a hand against him. There's certainly an element of an ideal Christianity in this--he's literally turning the other cheek for his enemy to strike--but there's also a refusal to give up on his friends. This is a rare action film that's resolved not by violence, but by deliberate non-violence. If that's going to be Captain America's modus operandi, then not only is that noble in the tradition of the character's name, but it's also subversive. In a political film, it's an overtly political non-act.

Sebastian Stan in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Winter Soldier himself is one of the film's weak links. He doesn't get enough screen time to develop as a character, though he does represent menace and enigma well (assuming you don't know the secret of his identity, that is). Another weakness is the lazy reliance on shaky-cam action sequences. If ever there were a film that could use Jackie Chan's fight choreography, this is it. The closing action sequences play as if the filmmakers had twenty million dollars extra to play with and burned it on set-pieces against their better judgement. Still, these are nits. The overall film is strong. I'm delighted by some of the random weirdness ported over from decades of comic stories. If I were making a list of villains I never expected to see in a major motion picture, both Arnim Zola and Batroc the Leaper might be on it. Especially Zola, who the filmmakers manage to tie to his depiction in the comics without making it ridiculous. If you know what Zola looks like in the comics, then you know that that's no small feat. In this film, he's downright terrifying. The film is littered with Easter eggs, too, but I won't inventory them. The film indulges in at least one instance of metacinematic legerdemain. In the trailer(s) for the film, Redford's Pierce is heard telling Captain America, "Your work has been a gift to the world...," a monologue directed at a completely different character in the film itself. This dramatically changes the tenor of the speech, and I sat up and took notice. It's not often that a superhero movie will surprise me, but this did.

I won't even grouse about the film's naked franchise building, because it's mostly confined to the first credit cookie. The second credit cookie is delightfully bittersweet. It's hard for me to complain about "franchise building" with this movie, though, given that this functions as a kind of Avengers-lite, and given that the ubiquity of S.H.I.E.L.D in these movies means that the events of The Winter Soldier are going to dramatically change the way subsequent films guide the audience through the weirdness of the Marvel universe.

This probably isn't germane to most of my other points about the film, but I want to take a moment to comment on how unbelievably gorgeous the men are in this and the other Marvel movies. Marvel understands movie star charisma in a way that the folks in charge of superheroes over at Warner Brothers do not. When they can't get a bona fide star, they somehow manage to make them out of whole cloth. Sebastian Stan, who plays The Winter Soldier, has good looks that can't be hidden by the costume or the eye-black that he wears, and Anthony Mackie, playing The Falcon, lights up the room when he smiles. This is not to be underestimated when calculating the fun quotient, particularly if you are glandularly inclined to appreciate the Olympian ideal of masculine beauty on display in this film. As it happens, I'm so inclined.

I'm also impressed by the women in this movie. The Black Widow remains the crux of the Marvel film universe and in the absence of a film of her own, I'll take her central role in this movie. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) gets more to do here than she had in the Avengers, too, and even Agent 13 (Emily Van Camp) gets her moments in spite of being underwritten. The best scene in the film is Cap's reunion with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), which is sad and funny in about equal measure. I think this may even pass the Bechdel test, but don't hold me to that.

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Chris Hewson said...

Good news indeed about this film's portrayal of Armin...err...Arnim Zola. I wonder if we'll ever see MODOK in one of these films. I can't imagine how they could possibly make a giant fetus head in a pink helmet look not mind-numbingly silly.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I'm hoping to see them try. I dig MODOK. His showdown with Squirrel Girl produced one of the greatest comics panels in Marvel history.

Mykal said...

I like that you like this character's "naive" goodness and reluctance to kill his way to victory. Scruffy thug Batman so fucked up the superhero genre, it's great to see a noble, sunlit character.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I like Batman for what he is, but I'm bothered that Batman's cultural dominance has dictated the tone of every other superhero property in the marketplace. I hated the grimdark Superman in last year's Man of Steel, a film running so far away from its traditions that it refuses to even name the character. I love Cap, though. I love to see sweet, good people in films. I mean, I can be as cynical as the next person and I wouldn't want everyone to be sweet and good--I like film noir too much for that--but I want to see at least some wholesome characters, particularly if that character represents some kind of ideal.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: Well said.