6 April 2014

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(Dir: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2014)

Note: Unusually for reviews I write, this one contains spoilers. If you care about not knowing important plot details for both Captain America films, don't read!

Captain America is not a man for this modern age. The Avengers obfuscated this reality thanks to the assembled ensemble, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes this strikingly clear. Unfortunately it's not exactly a surprise as it was a fear left lingering from the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. Joe Johnston's film was the anomaly in the run of first Marvel films, set in the 1940s many decades behind where this universe was elsewhere establishing itself, but absolutely the right period in which to play, with this era being the defining essence of the character. The First Avenger plays out like a classic, fun, adventure serial, albeit with a slightly shiny gloss and tech that's unbefitting of the time, but this nature forms its core strength. It feels a step aside from the soulless, generic cgi-worshipping modern action films that are now frequently thrust upon our screens, with the effects actually serving the story rather than being the story. And this classic edge makes a tangible difference.

The stoicism exuding from Cap (Chris Evans) alongside his core belief that he can make a difference even in his weedy Steve Rodgers frame, and not just can make a difference but should try regardless of the consequences, define him. This was a prevailing attitude of the time, where service to your country was duty and honour of the highest order. But attitudes change over time as the horrors and falsities of war truly reveal themselves and it becomes a diminished notion shaded in futility. And so the character's unwavering commitment to this ideal starts to feel almost alien in this day and age. Even his name now represents an ideology of patriotism that's looked upon in derision in a century defined by perpetual globalism. Where is his place now? This feeling lingers. Winter Soldier could've made things worse by running with the whole fish-out-of-water schtick but it wisely downplays this, not least because Thor so thoroughly nailed it. But the few small jokes only remind that this is a man stuck in the wrong time who can never make it home. Likewise a thread of love life jokes never sit right thanks to the weight of the continually burgeoning relationship with Peggy (Hayley Atwell) from The First Avenger, with it's sweet tentative steps coming from a place of genuine hope and subtle longing, rather than the shallow seeming implications here.

A compounding problem of bringing Cap into today's world is that here and now he seems like nothing more than a glorified strongman. Back in the forties he was a game changer. No-one else out there was like him or could do would he could do. He was unique, the definition of a hero and the villains he had to go up against felt similarly matched to his abilities. In the context of his modern compatriots, what does he offer compared to the technologically and firepower enhanced Tony Stark or the radiation / biologically induced craze of Hulk, let alone an actual god? Hell the cunning and guile of both Black Widow and Hawkeye are at least on a par with him, never mind their combat skills. Where does he really fit in this team? What's unique about him except for perhaps the positive attitude he brings? And then there are his new enemies who are next level in their dedication to technology. Sure this was also the Red Skull's forte, but put into context what was available to that megalomaniac compared to the sheer scale of what Cap needs to take down in Winter Soldier. Seventy years of the world growing and developing and he's moved forward how? The ruthlessness of a powerful, mechanically adorned foe feels about the only suitable match-up here.

But nothing of the villainous aspect in Winter Soldier feels right. What it did not need was a rehashing of seventy years ago, especially arising in a contrived way for only Cap to deal with, despite it's fundamental impact on S.H.I.E.L.D.. Modern day Hydra, the unnecessary return of Bucky as the titular Winter Soldier - are Marvel feeling that devoid of ideas despite the wealth of source material available at their fingers? Hydra was ultimately defined by the Red Skull / Johann Schmidt, creating an iconic villain that unequivocally radiates maleficence. On what level is Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce remotely comparable, let alone a compelling bad guy? The clich├ęd undercurrent of is he / isn't he bad doesn't help allowing motivations to appear hazy, but then there's always something about watching the magnetic Redford. The biggest crime is bringing back Toby Jones' Dr Zola as a bizarre all-knowing digitised head-on-a-screen - the reveal is the epitome of facepalm, utterly awkward plotting. Hydra's presence is a distraction. It's an unnecessary plot device to allow connection to the first film. It flat out does not work.

The First Avenger revealed a rich history surrounding the Marvel universe, with Howard Stark being integral to the initiative that created Captain America. He and the core team from this film are, as is inferred in Winter Soldier, the ones who ultimately established the organisation of S.H.I.E.L.D., but this inexplicably gets rapidly skated over. What's most frustrating is that there's so much great potential for storytelling within this idea, from both the perspective of the characters and the setting, that to leave us with such a bland story with stupid plotting is just squandering your assets. Cap doesn't feel like the most important part of this film, S.H.I.E.L.D. does. The attempts to set up this aspect of the universe in Iron Man 2 may have felt overdone, but here it just bogs everything down. As there's now a tv series bearing the name S.H.I.E.L.D. it's only an inevitability that focus drifts that way, but who other than the most hardened geeks are really concerned about their politics? I'm not when it comes at the expense of the storytelling. It's arguable that a benefit of this direction is the increased focus on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who has always been a semi-intriguing if fleeting character of the series. This gives him probably the most screen time of all the films, yet nothing is really revealed and he still feels like an enigma devoid of personality. Is he dead or is he really alive? Does it matter when the only reason we have to care is that he's played by Samuel Motherfuckin' Jackson?

Ultimately it appears we have The Avengers to specifically blame for how Captain America: The Winter Soldier has turned out, since this feels like an attempt at creating a mini version. And that's not a good thing. Cap clearly can't work alone in this modern age, so he has an assembled team - this means more Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) but she proves to be less interesting here (I still stand by my assertion that we need to see a Black Widow / Hawkeye back story film), whilst Anthony Mackie's Falcon serves as a very basic imitation of Iron Man but also fulfilling the inevitable drama and symbolism of Bucky's return and Cap needing a partner. Cobie Smoulder's Maria Hill comes out to play again and still seems to be there solely to move the plot along. Then there's the very nature of Winter Soldier - the blandness that typifies a lot of modern big budget action films that also fail when it comes to offering decent character development, which is basically The Avengers summed up. Of course the special effects look amazing and the destruction of the heliships is fantastic work, but that alone does not make an action scene more enjoyable. If the destruction feels soulless and the stakes seem forced then so what. This was endemic with The Avengers and continues here, but more importantly the essence of fun that was prevalent within The First Avenger is sorely lacking. It's all too po-faced leaving a taste of casual indifference.

That there is a lot of criticism laid at the feet of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that's not say it's actually bad. It's still an enjoyable couple of hours and Cap remains one the most likeable characters within the Marvel universe. The problem is that being such a fan of The First Avenger and seeing all its strengths laid to waste is just so frustrating. In an ideal world the end of that first film would not have forced Cap into freezing as he stops the Red Skull, allowing more time to develop interesting and fun stories in his rightful era before he ends up on ice, including the establishing of S.H.I.E.L.D.. But alas it's not to be. This is bland, easy entertainment lacking the richness of both setting and characterisation that the first offered. Unfortunately it's like The Avengers all over again, and further proof after Iron Man Three and Thor: The Dark World, that perhaps it's the more unique and out-there Marvel characters like Ant-Man that we should instead be looking forward to seeing on screen.

Read my short reviews of the first wave of Marvel films here.

Read my review of The Avengers here.
Read my review of Iron Man Three here.