Monday, April 7, 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

 3 / 5 

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Marvel movies take a step into territory previously reserved for James Bond, a distrustful and downbeat world of global politics, but with the comic-book sheen that this film series has down pat.

Possibly, I simply prefer the earlier incarnation of Captain America, the only Marvel super hero presented so far on film who didn't buy or invent his way into heroics.  Joe Johnston's 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger gave us a World War II hero who wore the colors of the American flag and spoke in such gee-whiz good-guy tones that brought a smile to your face.

That film ended the way it had to -- not because the story dictated it, but because the Marvel Film Strategy required it: Captain America had to be dragged into the 21st century so he could join the other Avengers in a bombastic mega-hit that ended, you may recall, with the gleeful destruction of New York City.  That film rubbed me the wrong way, but I was clearly in the minority.  Few others took umbrage at seeing Manhattan reduced to rubble, so it stands to reason that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the same thing happens to Washington, D.C.

There aren't many films with as high a faceless, merciless body count as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film targeted at 10-year-old boys that I'd seriously think twice about letting a 10-year-old boy see.  The Marvel films straddle an increasingly uncomfortable line between reality and fiction: When Nick Fury, the head of security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. refers to "New York" in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he's not talking about 9/11, but a few shots later as Captain America descend in a glass elevator and out the window, he's got a clear view of the Watergate complex.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier exists in our world, but does not want to acknowledge that.

It combines elements of a 1970s political thriller with a very modern, CGI-fueled blockbuster, and the result is often entertaining, often murky, and created with exactly the kind of anonymous polish that have become a signature of these films.  They are slick machines, existing to please the greatest number of people possible, rather than create a compelling style all their own.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does try to mix things up a little bit by staging its action scenes in the chaotic handheld mode that has come to signify gritty reality.  It was not a surprise at all to learn that  the film was directed by two brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo, and I would wager one of them took on the more dialogue- and plot-focused scenes while the other concentrated on action, because the movie sometimes feels like two separate films mixed together.

The plot-driven elements are well-done and well-acted, especially by Chris Evans (it is, after all, a pretty thankless role) and Scarlett Johansson.  I was generally entertained by the movie's slick, assured gloss that's not unlike the political-paranoia thrillers of the 1970s.  There's this one small problem, though: This isn't a political thriller, it's a comic-book movie.  The intrigue and deception that should drive the movie seem too pat: There will be a betrayal, but it will turn out not to be an actual betrayal, and the person we imagine is protecting the hero will be revealed as someone who has been working against him the whole time.  Considering that the target audience for Captain America: The Winter Soldier has almost certainly never seen The Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate or All the President's Men, perhaps it will feel new and fresh to them.

It does say quite a lot that moviegoers are willing to let a super hero movie drift into political territory (it even alludes to WikiLeaks at one point), perhaps because it's so much easier to imagine that the world's very real problems could be solved by a super hero or three.  Maybe that's why the movie is both graphically, sometimes disturbingly real (just think about how many people lose their lives during some of those chases) and also cartoonishly silly.

Toward the end of the movie, three massive warcraft drift into the sky from their secret hiding place below the Potomac River.  These multi-trillion-dollar technological doomsday machines have been created by an evil organization called HYDRA, which is bent on world domination, and even though they are hovering above the capital, people are going about their daily lives, the President walks around the White House, and apparently news doesn't travel nearly as fast as it does in the real world.

What's required here is a willing suspension of disbelief.  I was on board when one of the characters (known to comic book fans, no doubt, but here given nary a line of introduction) sprouts metal wings and begins to fly.  I was on board when Captain America and Black Widow stumble across exactly the place they're looking for at just the right time.  I was on board when the Winter Soldier reveals himself to be none other than -- well, if you don't know, you clearly haven't read anything about this film; I'm not a particularly zealous Marvel fan and even I knew that revelation long before taking my seat in the theater.

But I drew the line at the silliness that machines capable of killing millions of people were taking aim and no one noticed.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier wants to have it both ways, to be a comic-book movie set against a backdrop of real-world politics, and that's where it makes its biggest mistake, because we know no Democratic Congressional committee would ever have allowed these craft to be built, and no defense contractor ever could have gotten them finished.

Maybe next time, Captain America will dispense with fighting HYDRA and instead pay a visit to Capitol Hill.  Seeing him go up against John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and the tea party would make a tremendously entertaining movie -- that's one I'd like to see.

Viewed April 7, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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