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Friday, 4 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Part 1 -- Trust No One.

Previously: The costumes and characters of The Avengers -- Captain America.

SPOILERS throughout. You have been warned.

I've been rather entertained by the number of reviewers who smugly namechecked Edward Snowden while writing about this movie, but they do have a point. CATWS is about as "realistic" as you're going to get in the superhero genre, in a way that I found far more satisfying than the stereotypically ~gritty reboot~ atmosphere of the Dark Knight trilogy. Whether you or not you're a fan of Nolan's Batman movies, I think it's fair to say that they were masterminded by someone who doesn't have much affection for the comicbook superhero genre, which is quite funny considering the overt silliness of The Dark Knight Rises. CATWS provided an excellent balance between a relatively realistic concept (SHIELD's PRISM-inspired surveillance helicarriers), and the inherently optimistic nature of Captain America as a character.
Steve Rogers may do a lot of punching in this movie (perhaps too much punching, dare I even say it), but his real "superpower" is his status as a role model and leader. In the end, it's Steve who decides that SHIELD is beyond salvation, Steve who inspires Falcon to join the fight, and Steve who persuades SHIELD agents to ignore direct orders because it's the right thing to do. As with Bucky and the Howling Commandos, he's the guy with the guts to go first when confronting everything from schoolyard bullies to the guys giving him his orders, and as a result you can really understand why people want to rally behind him as a figurehead. He may not have the firepower of Thor or Iron Man or the political sway of Fury and the top brass at SHIELD, but he's the one trustworthy rock in the shifting moral sands of SHIELD and HYDRA, and that's what makes him important.


It's a little depressing to compare Steve Rogers to the bastardized version of Superman we saw in Man of Steel: a guy who needlessly fought a battle in the middle of Metropolis when he could've just flown it out into a field somewhere (HELLO CIVILIAN CASUALTIES), and who then snapped the neck of his enemy. Meanwhile Captain America (not just a soldier but also one of the few superheroes who occasionally wields an everyday gun) primarily fights with a shield, and ends his final battle scene by lying down and surrendering because he'd rather die than kill Bucky. I just wish there had been another scene like the one in Avengers where he coordinates the civilian evacuation in New York, but that would've been logistically impossible because all of the public fight scenes were desperate chase scenes across DC motorways.

The superhero genre has spent a long time trying (and usually failing) to bring compelling antagonists to the big screen. Either you get an excellent actor to play someone so utterly batshit that their motivation doesn't matter (i.e. The Joker), or you use a shades-of-grey villain with an comprehensible motive (i.e. Loki or Magneto). Then there's the additional problem of the end-of-movie showdown, which is usually only interesting on the first viewing, and in some cases not even then. The Avengers has the best battle scene I've seen so far, because the it pays a great deal of attention to each of the characters' strengths and abilities, rather than just being a rockem-sockem war of attrition. Captain America was sadly one of the worst examples in this regard because Red Skull was a terrible villain, and the movie would've been vastly improved by just adding 20 minutes more of the Howling Commandos instead.

CATWS seems to have learned from its prequel's mistakes, and thus the structure of the final showdown follows a similar model to that of the Avengers, with the added bonus of having no specific Bad Guy for Steve to punch into submission. Instead, Steve and his allies have to deal with the far more amorphous problem of HYDRA, which in the 21st century has less to do with battling a preposterously evil-looking Nazi cult, and more to do with the general theme of moral greyness within the government establishment. You can tell by process of elimination that Alexander Pierce is the "bad guy," but the truth is that he's not all that different from Nick Fury, which is kind of the point of this entire movie.
One of the central tropes of the superhero genre is the "two sides of the same coin" nature of a successful superhero/villain pairing. Superman mostly fights aliens (with the exception of Lex Luthor, who is the opposing figure for Clark Kent rather than Kal-El), Spider-Man deals with animal-themed scientists, Iron Man goes up against a lot of scientists, engineers and people with robot armour, and so on. Obviously the vast array of superhero characters means there are plenty of exceptions to this, but as a rule, the most popular superhero/villain pairings are between characters who mirror each other in some way.
In CATWS, there isn't really a central figure who takes the position of the Red Skull. The waters are far murkier this time round. Bucky is Cap's direct opponent, but none of us really want Cap to "defeat" him. Professional kickpuncher Brock Rumlow (you know, the punch-kicky man) is evil cannon fodder. Zola is an expository prop. Alexander Pierce is the closest we get to a primary supervillain, but his power is more to do with what he represents than what he actually does. I'd actually say Cap's main "enemy" in this movie is the loneliness of his life in the 21st century.

The film never explores this in any explicit way, but I think CATWS is a story about a guy who is borderline suicidal. Steve Rogers may not actively attempt to kill himself, but he literally tells Sam Wilson that he doesn't know how to be happy, and the opening action sequence involves Cap throwing his shield and helmet aside to have a pointlessly macho showdown with Batroc. This is not the behaviour of a normal Steve Rogers, and while we can potentially attribute that particular scene to bad writing, Cap's overall mood throughout the film is that of a lonely, unhappy person who doesn't really have any reason to carry on living. He's sticking with SHIELD because he thinks they're  the only viable option, not because he actually believes in what they're doing.

The depressing thing is that the film's "happy ending" is Steve finding out that his best friend is alive (which gives him a motivation to keep going), but this is tempered by the fact that Bucky has spent the past seventy years going through unimaginable trauma. And I'm still not entirely sure if Steve had any intention of surviving the helicarrier being blown up, since he didn't make much effort to do anything except save Bucky. All this, from the supposedly un-gritty Marvel Studios.
Steve Rogers is a fundamentally friendly guy who operates best when surrounded by a unit of soldiers he can trust, and CATWS dropped him into the polar opposite of that scenario. The tone of the film is somewhere between a Cold War spy thriller ("Trust no one.") and a Bourne movie with Cap as the fugitive -- and the lack of a specific Bad Guy means that Cap is out of his comfort zone in more ways than one. He's forced to fumble his way through the unpleasant internal politics of SHIELD, where he is treated as a pawn by both Fury and Pierce, and has no one to turn to except Natasha and some guy he met while jogging at the park.

Honestly, I think this movie would've benefited from milking the "all my friends are dead" angle some more, or at least including one more emotional scene where Steve mourns or talks about Bucky. Hopefully we'll get some of that in the sequel. As it is, I was very satisfied by the way Marvel struck a balance by inserting their most wholesome superhero and into their most unpleasantly realistic story concept so far. CATWS was politically and culturally relevent without really supporting any ideology other than "freedom," and was about a thousand times more coherent than the incomprehensible mess of Occupy and terrorism references in The Dark Knight Rises. Even taking into account blatantly ridiculous moments like Zola's bunker scene, I think this movie should be the new gold standard for realism in the superhero genre, as opposed to grittiness for the sake of itself.


Continued in Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.

14 comments:

  1. HE DOESNT KNOW HOW TO BE HAPPY. I really love this review for a lot of reasons, but I'm kind of overwhelmed by the maybe suicidal Cap idea.

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  2. TheMichaelMoran5 April 2014 05:24

    I like this review, good insights. Plus fun.

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  3. Cap really is reckless! I hadn't thought of that before. Very interesting. I agree with the success of making the "villain" in this story both realistic and a mirror of Shield.

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  4. "I just wish there had been another scene like the one in Avengers where he coordinates the civilian evacuation in New York"

    I agree, but how great was it that we got that scene with Natasha instead? The Black Widow running through a crowded street screaming "get out of here, get to safety!" instead of "get out of the way" was probably one of my favorite moments of the film. It's not her strong point. It's not her fighting style. But she did it because she wants to be with the good guys and that's what the good guys do.

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  5. I had thought about that angle given Cap's "recklessness" with his own life but it occurred to me that maybe we need to look further past that into something a bit more complex. It's important to remember that to some extent Steve Rogers was always a lonely character, Bucky was all he had. He didn't fit in, he was physically outmatched and considered unnattractive. Steve Rogers genuinely likes people but he's always been one way or another a man(or a boy) apart. Some people let that embitter them while for others, like Steve, that slight distance makes them more compassionate or more kind because it widens their perspective.

    Steve Rogers also spent pretty much his whole life one bad cold away from death. He was small, he was poor, he was very sickly(ever read that list of health problems he has in the first film?). His father had died when he was a kid(and was an alcoholic who had become very disillusioned with life going by the comics). Then his mother died when he was still relatively young.

    I think it's safe to say that Steve Rogers NEVER expected to live a long life, that he'd probably learned to accept he could die at any time, and probably young, long before there was a war in Europe to fight. What he wanted was for his life to mean something and if he was going to die for his death to mean to something. Just like the heart of Captain America is the physically weak but good hearted he was before he was given the serum I think perhaps a good part of his attitude when it comes to death and dangerous situations still relates back to what he was like the rest of his life.

    Steve spent far more of his life small, bullied and sickly than he has as a physical "specimen"(to quote the Apple Store guy of Cap 2:)), psychologically it shaped who he is. It's one of the reasons why he didn't turn into Red Skull, it's why Erskine wanted someone like him and not like the soldier the Colonel wanted. So just like Cap's compassion and good heartedness is in some ways related to that, I think the same can probably be said for SOME of his attitude towards his own life. Dying is probably something he accepted long ago, it's the how and the why that matter more to him than the physical survival I think.

    None of which is to say that he didn't disregard his own life perhaps too easily now because he is so acutely aware of how everything he knew is changed and gone but I don't think that's really the basis, I don't think it's entirely coming from a negative place, some of I think comes from having a different perspective in the first place.

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  6. "Red Skull was a terrible
    villain"? Gotta disagree on that one. Sure, he was a one-dimensional maniac with no depth to speak of, but I can't be the only one who found Hugo Weaving's performance the most enjoyable part of the first movie.

    In comparison, I think the lack of a similarly fun villain is one of The Winter Soldier's weaker points. Unlike with Thor and Iron Man's movies, there's no one cackling with evil glee here. But then, that's kind of the point.



    In any case, I definitely agree that The First Avenger would have been improved by adding another 20 minutes of the Howling Commandos.

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  7. Actually, I guess Zola was pretty much 'cackling with evil glee'. But sadly he was only in that one scene.

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  8. Love this analysis, although I have to disagree on the suicidal Steve theory -- I've heard it before and I've given some thought to it but I just can't get behind it. For example, in the Batroc scene you cited, the point where Steve ditches his helmet and shield marks the moment when Batroc gets CURBSTOMPED. The whole confrontation takes like seven seconds after that. Steve spent the first part of the fight analyzing Batroc and then when he felt he was ready (which coincided with a taunt -- although he responded to it very respectfully!) he took off the gloves and ended it hard and fast. Throughout the movie he either 1) does crazy things with complete confidence that he can do them, such as take down that plane over the highway, or 2) tries everything else before doing something suicidal, like jumping out of the elevator only when he had literally done four or five other things first, or telling Maria to fire on the helicarrier but NOT before making every attempt to do what he needed to fast so that he (and Bucky, he can't make himself compromise on "and Bucky") could get out.


    I feel like Steve is making a very good faith effort to readjust to his new life. He's looking into pop culture, finding the bright sides of the changes, even slowly trying to come out of his shell and make new relationships with people he knows can't understand him. I think you're totally right in that it's not completely successful, and he's still desperately lonely and not sure how to make himself happy -- he hasn't found a place or a role where he feels he belongs, and he doesn't know what to do with himself. But he is trying and I don't think he wishes, subconsciously or otherwise, that he could die.


    But I'm loving your posts -- this is great analysis and everything about it is wonderful and thought-provoking and ugh, this movie. Thank you for this!

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  9. I am going to have to contact Megashare and get them to have a HQ HD English one of these pronto. I have waited more than 2 weeks and I am not willing to spend a penny for this until it comes online. I am not happy about this!!

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  10. Great analysis. I've been pretty obsessive about this movie, and have read just about every review out there. I can say unequivocally that yours is the most insightful and perceptive review I've seen. It was a great pleasure to read. Thank you.

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  11. Yes, I agree completely - see his behavior in the 'grenade' scene in Cap 1. He was ready to sacrifice his life back then</i, not out of suicidal loneliness (he had to have at least been looking forward to seeing if Erskine's experiment would even work at all) but in order to save others. He just wanted his death to serve some purpose, so that his constant fight to keep living with all his health problems wouldn't seem pointless. I think that attitude definitely informs all of his decisions in CATWS

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  12. I agree with this! I don´t think Steve goes around being borderline suicidal, he is just not afraid of dying because he was always close to dying, pre-serum Steve would have died because of any of the many disease he had, and the post serum Steve, because he was in the middle of WWII and like all the soldiers who went there, putting his life on the line.
    And that is how he lives his life, there is no impossible enemy for him, he is just going to face that enemy, even if h could lose his life as a result... and here with Bucky, in that final scene, how could he kill his best friend/brother, he would rather die than kill Bucky.
    Aside comment from this, Cap is my favorite superhero, he is inspiring to many, but not because of speech or way of living, but because he acts what he believes.

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  13. Actually, one nitpick here -- Sam asks Steve what would MAKE him happy, and Steve says he doesn't know. Not that he doesn't know how to BE happy, but he doesn't know what would MAKE him happy.

    I don't think he's actively suicidal, though. I keep seeing that, and I strongly disagree. I think it's simply that everyone forgets how old he REALLY is. The '95' is due to freezing, not due to the years he's lived. And, granted, he's lived a LOT harder in his years than most people in their 20's...but he is still in his 20's.

    And think about it: his life pre-serum wasn't a piece of cake by any stretch of the imagination. Also, he didn't belong to a generation which was in search of ways to make itself happy. The whole 'find yourself' bit didn't really come until the 60's and after. Steve's generation still had some pretty pre-defined roles: You got a job, you settled down, married, had kids. You can tell from his comments to Peggy in CA:TFA those were pretty much his expectations; in their brief conversation in the taxi, he mentions waiting for the right partner. So, he was really kind of in a holding pattern, but still expecting a certain pattern to his life.

    And then came the war, and then the serum, and then he became something he never expected to be -- and then he was frozen.

    It's not JUST the tech that's got to blow his mind. The whole CULTURE is different. No, he doesn't know how to be happy; he's not from the whole me-centric attitude which we take for granted now. It's not that there weren't people in the 40's who did the whole 'let me go find myself' bit, but it wasn't the norm, and certainly not something Steve Rogers, in his pre-serum life, would have had the money or leisure (or, indeed, the health) to do.

    And last but not least, I don't think his actions with Bucky were suicidal, either. I do think it was refusing to betray a friend as nearly everyone else in the movie had betrayed *him*. But also, we forget, Cap is a master strategist. What did he do in CA: TFA with the Red Skull, at the end? Prodded him by telling him, he was 'just a kid from Brooklyn', because he *knew* that was the ONE thing that would completely anger the Skull. Schmidt was SO caught up in the idea of being the superior man, it would completely chap him to think that some *nobody* kid turned out better with the serum than HE did.

    And in the case with Bucky, I think Steve knew the one thing that might bring Bucky back is remembering the Steve who couldn't fight worth a damn, who couldn't defend himself. The Steve that Bucky knew would never have fought Bucky; he couldn't have. And, in fact, Steve's strategy worked, because what did Bucky do as soon as he saw Steve in danger by some other means? He saved him.

    And yes, Cap is my favorite superhero, although I do love my Supes and Cyclops, too. :)

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  14. Not related to the whole review but on Man of Steel, I think you're ignoring the fact that Superman didn't pick his battlefields in that one; each fight scene, it was him dealing with Zod's forces where they were. Given that he's never so much as been in a fist fight with normal people, and fighting people with his powers AND military combat training, 'taking them away from civilians' isn't a viable option for him. The only way he could do that is either to lead them away (to which its likely that they'd just not follow and would continue shooting up where they were until he came at them) or to physically force them away, which he actually does try in the final fight by flying them into space, only for Zod to bring them back down to earth.

    The Zod neck snap moment is another bag of worms, but the destruction in the city isn't Superman's fault. Not to mention, its nothing new to Man of Steel; how many times in the comics or cartoons does Superman's fights cause damage like this?

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