[Review] - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Consider this the dissenting opinion: I didn't like The Winter Soldier. Or rather, more about it bothered me than kept me engaged, especially in the latter half, when things take a turn. Technically, this is perhaps Marvel's most mature film to date (which is reasonable, and expected), and the Russo Brothers demonstrate a keen knack for directing this kind of adrenaline infused action. But the script pivots on a plot that I just don't buy. And considering that the film's sole purpose as a story is to sell me that story, I walked away considering it a failure.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers for both The Winter Soldier and Agents of SHIELD.

So... Sitwell isn't the Clairvoyant? Though, that reveal would have made leagues more sense. But first, what the film did right. As I said, from a technical perspective, this is Marvel's greatest achievement yet. I would hesitate to claim that this film had more CG effects than the most recent MCU films, as Thor 2 has sequences that took place on alien worlds, and the Battle of New York lasted 20 minutes. But unlike some films (cough*Spider-man*cough), the lines between the digital and real were as seamless as possible. What helped in creating that illusion was the sheer amount of blended practical effects Marvel and Russo's put into the film. The two primary Winter Soldier attack scenes, first on Fury, than later on the trio of Cap, Widow and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) were wonderfully orchestrated sequences, which benefited from the textural feel of debris raining down on the wounded and winded heroes.

The Russo's direction was solid, if a bit too jittery at times. I appreciated that the fight scenes were shot at a distance, allowing us to the see the full scope of the scene, rather than obscuring the events in a series of quick edits and close ups. In fact, there were a lot of long range tracking shots that really opened up the film, and made it seem as physically large as it wanted to be philosophically. Despite Iron Man's entire premise being that he's a regular man, there was more of a sense of desperation and of potential failure here, and characterization helped establish that. Inside or outside the suit, Tony Stark has the resources to succeed (billionaire playboy philanthropist, and all). Cap, despite being a super soldier, is more restricted to what he can punch. And his increasing disenchantment with the modern era (something that was omitted due to time in Avengers) is reaching a breaking point. So, as the film continues, and he is bested in nearly every confrontation, as people around him die or turncoat or disappoint him, there is a greater sense of actual defeat.

The performances buoy a script that doesn't deserve as much support as it receives, but not always. There is a particularity difficult to watch scene between Cap and Widow, where he questions her loyalty, that seems as if they were giving the terrible dialogue their absolute minimum. In fact, as much as I hate to say it, Widow is a pale continuance of what she was in Avengers (it was no surprise to me when Whedon's best writing in the film went to the ass kicking woman). This script, from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, fires best when Cap and Falcon get to banter, or reflect on being soldiers. Unfortunately, it tends towards monologues, as either Alexandre Pierce (Robert Redford) or Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) get to rant on in cool sounding one liners and reveals, but when you actually think about what they are saying, it has little substance. Which, boiled down to a single line, is Winter Soldier's primary problem: it's all style, and not as much substance as it thinks it has.

The best performance of the film goes to Haley Atwell, as the aged and dementia ridden Peggy Carter, in a single emotional scene (a similar scene had been scripted for the Avengers, but was cut in the draft stage). Again, the practical effects are impeccable, creating one of the best "old" performances I've seen in a long time. But it wouldn't mean anything if Atwell let the scene down, and she did not. She didn't act old, which I felt was key. There was no affectation of a Grandpa Simpson voice, no overly elaborate arthritic movements. This scene, and many of the scenes that might have been tempted to drift in that direction, avoided becoming cartoonish. The Russo Brothers were able to keep a solid  and grounded line throughout the first half of the film, and occasionally in the back half, though the ridiculousness of the narrative turn make their job all the more difficult. 

So... let's talk about that reveal. Toby Jones reappears as Arnim Zola via old timey computer bank, and provides a turgid exposition dump at the midway mark, and reveals that SHIELD has housed a clandestine and parasitical cult of Hydra for decades, to the point where Hydra has controlling interest in SHIELD. The film then proceeds to reveal that a (vast?) number of influential members of SHIELD and the US leadership are Hydra faithful, and that the fanatics have been responsible for many of the worst ills that have afflicted the MCU in the past (including the death of Stark's parents). And it's this reveal that I was never convinced of. Imagine, in the real world, if it was revealed that a significant portion of the NSA and several members of US House of Representatives were secret Nazis, and had been manipulating events for years. How utterly and monumentally a failure that would be on the part of the government, how distressing that would be to society, and how utterly ludicrous that would be? I get what they were going for: a big, world altering event that upends the status quo. I'm all in favour of that. I'm significantly, dramatically in favour of that. But the film doesn't do the leg work necessary to convince me why or how this happened, just that it did.

The point where it lost me was when Garry Shandling leaned into Sitwell and whispered "Hail Hydra" with utmost sincerity. I laughed out loud at that moment, in a theater full of people who were into the building tension of the scene. All I could think of was the Mitchell & Webb bit where the Nazi officers figure out they are the bad guys. While I do buy that there would be those who believe that society needs to be router-routed, and would take extreme measures to "fix" it as they saw fit, I was so completely not convinced that they would swear fealty to a skull and octopus logo, born out of the Third Reich, spouting feudal style allegiances. Perhaps I would have been more receptive to the reveal if they had spent any of the rest of the film establishing how deep the corruption went. It was extremely unclear who in SHIELD were Hydra, and who were just following orders. Part of that is obviously by design, to heighten the paranoia, but because (like Iron Man 3 before it) they choose to end the film with a quick montage rather than establishing a new paradigm, aside from the front line cast the depth of the infiltration is left unknown.

But getting past the shock of that reveal, the film is ridiculously predictable. All of the other twists - Pierce being the villain, Fury not being dead, Bucky coming around - could be seen a mile off. It's all things we've seen in spy movies before. They don't try to add anything to the genre they are aping, they just dressed it up with as much Marvel trappings as possible, and hoped that would be enough to distract those of us who pay attention to cliches and tropes. And it was a wasteful script, on top of everything. Maria Hill is in here, briefly, and I can't really figure out why. Unless Smulders was limited in availability due to HIMYM, why include a character who hasn't distinguished herself on film yet (she was equally underused in both Avengers and on Agents of SHIELD) and still not give her a chance? Equally underused (possibly more so, since I guess we're meant to think of her as a larger player in this) was Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp). Take a look at how Coulson was introduced back in Iron Man, and compare it to how 13 was introduced here. It was too obvious that they wanted us to pay attention to her, but without giving us a reason as to why we should. The titular Winter Soldier was also underdeveloped, though I suspect that's more so they can use him in Cap 3 or the mythical Black Widow movie further down the line.

And I'm sorry, but if Fury was putting together a secret assault team from his fake grave, comprised of only high ranking SHIELD operates he can trust, why wasn't Coulson his number one choice? He of the equal assumption of death? This is the same problem Marvel is having on the TV show: they fail to spot the organic ways the two mediums could be interacting with each other. Likewise, I've never had the problem most people have apparently had, asking why didn't Iron Man give Thor a hand, or where wasn't the War Machine a member of the Avengers. I am able to compartmentalize the characters. But through the entire film, I kept tasking myself "where is Barton?" With SHIELD being ripped apart from the inside out, helicarriers falling from the sky, and Fury dead (they managed to avoid the funeral-in-the-rain cliche, at least), you'd think the only other established cinematic SHIELD agent might get a mention. I feel really bad for Hawkeye, a lot more than I did in Avengers. At least there, he had an excuse. Here, he just feels like the only kid in class that didn't get invited to the birthday party.

I'll say this for Winter Soldier, it managed to accomplish something I've not felt since last summer: excited for the new episode of Agents of SHIELD. Because I am genuinely interested to see the ramifications of SHIELD's disbandment has on the MCU (though, suddenly I'm wondering about the point of an Agent Carter spin off, since we know how corrupted SHIELD has been from the go). And it made me properly excited for Avengers 2, giving us the first flesh-and-bones glimpse of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and established how the MCU will be getting around the no-mutants issue (though, a post credits sequence should not be one of your film's greatest strengths). We're entering a time of Miracles, apparently. And I'm all for that. I just wasn't a fan of how we got here.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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