This past Friday, after opening worldwide a few weeks earlier and performing like gangbusters, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the ninth Marvel Studios movie to date, arrived in the U.S. and swiftly proceeded to be the biggest opening of 2014 to date, smashing April records with a hefty $96 million weekend. That’s a big step up for the second adventure to topline Chris Evans‘ super-soldier Steve Rogers to date, no doubt helped by very positive reaction from fans and critics alike.
Our official review was a touch more cautious than some, while still finding a lot to like, but when we ranked every Marvel movie last week, we acknowledged that it’s among the best of its sort. All that said, with the film now widely seen by many of you, we wanted to tighten our focus a little and delve into spoiler territory by examining what was good, bad, and just kind of baffling about the movie. The team have weighed in below, and you can let us know what you think about the film in the comments section. And if you haven’t seen it yet, heavy spoilers follow, so you may be better off bookmarking and coming back when you’ve discovered the film’s surprises for yourself.
The Evolution of Captain America’s Patriotism
With ‘The First Avenger’ getting to play in period territory in delivering the Captain’s origin story, and “The Avengers” being part of a team up in which the interplay between the characters was more important than any one of their stories, the real proof of whether Captain America could survive his own franchise was with this sequel. And in fact he thrives, as the writers made the canny choice of, if your character is called Captain America and you don’t want to induce eyerolls, better make sure he stands for a fairly progressive idea of America. And so this is a Captain America who, far from being a government lackey/mouthpiece for the machinery of power, in fact brings down existing power structures (S.H.I.E.L.D. included), necessitating a period in which he goes apparently rogue. It’s a timely, clever move, aligning the Cap with the “America” of everyday people who both in that universe and our own, are having their freedoms eroded, rather than the “America” of the government, its politicians and institutions (the fact that they’re H.Y.D.R.A. is almost an afterthought) of whom distrust is already widespread. It’s also emerging that decency, and a common-sense, common-man idea of what’s right is actually Captain America’s real superpower (along with leadership), especially important when his own superstrength has been somewhat outdone by the Gods, robots and big angry green monsters that he’s recently met.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow
So with two of the most straightforwardly entertaining (read: tricksy, rug-pulling) scenes in “The Avengers” under her belt (her introduction in the warehouse and her outwitting of Loki), and no movie of her own to overexplain her background, we were already anticipating good things from this story in terms of Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff. But those expectations were in fact slightly surpassed, with ‘Winter Soldier’ delivering the most individualized impression of the character to date, carving for her superspying abilities and conflicted background an actual deserved place in the Marvel pantheon of more supernatural/scientifically enhanced/otherworldly superheroes. While of course she’s still second fiddle to the guy who’s got his own franchise, Romanoff, abetted by the fact that Scarlett Johansson seems to be growing ever more comfortable and convincing in the role, is the one to face down the movie’s Big Bad at the end (with Nick Fury) while Cap’s away battling a more personal nemesis, and it’s her strategic smarts that eventually wins the ground war. And as a personality, what’s refreshing about Romanoff is that despite the fact she’s, you know, Scarlett Johannson, she’s not some brazen seductress (not that we don’t believe she’s done that kind of spying in the past)—in fact her kiss with Captain America is a ploy, and provides her with some friendly joshing material later, as well as more fuel for the running gag of trying to set him up with a woman. Romanoff, this time out, as well as being usually the smartest person in the room, is conflicted and secretive yes, but she is also nice. It’s almost subversive, to be given a female superhero who we’re not just “rah rah yeah, she kicks so much ass!” but who we actually like, the way it’s expected that we like her male counterparts.
The Conspiracy Thriller Tone
There was a lot of talk before “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” came out that the movie was going to be an homage of sorts to ’70s conspiracy thrillers. And no one really ever believed this because, hey, it’s a Marvel movie and Marvel movies aren’t Marvel movies unless there’s some kind of mystical doohickey that throws the universe into jeopardy. But this movie really does fit the genre, with much of the first two-thirds of the movie devoted to Captain America and his confidants uncovering a vast conspiracy, whose complexity is somewhat ungainly (but never becomes too much to bear). The down-to-earth tone is refreshing and does much to humanize the Captain America character (and the Marvel universe as a whole). It also makes things a whole lot easier to figure out. (It’s also a complete 180 from the intergalactic hooey that cluttered “Thor: The Dark World,” arguably the worst Marvel movie since “Iron Man 2“). At our screening, during the mid-credits sequence that reintroduced Loki’s scepter, pulsing with some kind of otherworldly energy, you could feel the audience roll its eyes (there might have been a handful of audible groans too). It turns out that a Marvel movie focused on mystery, centered around actual human beings and free of unnecessary cosmic MacGuffins is outrageously appreciated. In fact, it’s downright super.
A Welcome Degree Of Diversity
Diversity should be a given in a superhero universe as vast and complicated as the one that Marvel is taking great pains to establish. But so far almost every project has been centered around a bunch of white dudes. Which makes “Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s” emphasis on female and African American characters all the more refreshing. Not only is Scarlett Johansson‘s Black Widow basically the second lead, but we also get sharp, finely tuned supporting performances from Emily VanCamp (as Sharon Carter—this will probably be a much bigger deal in future movies), Hayley Atwell, and Cobie Smulders. Hell, there’s even a nice moment with Jenny Agutter, who plays one of the members of a mysterious global security council. Additionally, Samuel L. Jackson‘s Nick Fury sees an expanded role in the sequel, offering up an actual character instead of a black-leather-clad cipher who just screams at various superheroes to attack things. And what’s more—Anthony Mackie‘s Falcon is introduced. Falcon was the first African American superhero in mainstream comics, and proves a more memorable and better used premise here than, say, Don Cheadle‘s War Machine in the “Iron Man” movies—his presence not only expands things in interesting ways but feels like a better message to be sending kids. Up until now, it seemed that the Marvel Universe was saying that anyone can be a superhero… as long as you’re white and male. Now anybody can truly be a superhero. Or a kick-ass secret agent. Or a daredevil pilot. Why it took so damn long to diversify the movies is really the issue… and one that we hope they continue to address.
The Nick Fury Chase
While the action in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” may occasionally grate (see below), there is one standout sequence early in the film that really solidifies the Russo Brothers as nimble directions of action set pieces. In it, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is boxed in by a number of shadowy black SUVs. When one pulls up beside him, he rolls down the window and quips, “Want to see my lease?” (If Joss Whedon didn’t write that line, we’ll owe somebody lunch.) It’s the beginning of a frenzied, expertly choreographed car chase that does well to emphasize why the movie works so well as a whole: try as Fury might, none of the sophisticated S.H.I.E.L.D.-approved doodads work. Like Cap for the rest of the movie, Fury is alone, left to struggle with figuring out who is behind the attack and what he can do to stop them. In the sequence, Fury attempts to engage measures that would turn his SUV into some kind of flying vehicle and when those attempts fail, it feels like the filmmakers are clearly establishing that this won’t be a movie with outer space robots or flying gondola sequences. The message is clear: this is set in a slightly skewered version of the real world, and in the real world things are fucked. The assassination coda to the car chase, even if we don’t buy it for a second (again: see below), still packs an emotional punch, even if it’s just because we’ve spent so much time with Fury as a character and, like any great TV character that you’ve watched for seasons, we’ve grown emotionally attached. (It’s also pretty brutally violent, which certainly adds to the impact.) If old One Eye was really gone, it’d probably break our hearts. Thankfully, he’ll stick around at least for long enough to see “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron” through.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo
Marvel Studios often surprises fanboys and the industry alike with its directorial choices, and opting for Joe and Anthony Russo is no exception. With just two comedies (“Welcome to Collinwood” and “You, Me and Dupree“) on their feature resumes, the brothers have spent most of their time and energy on episodes of TV shows like “Community,” “Arrested Development,” “Happy Endings” and the short-lived, little-loved “Animal Practice.” They were an unlikely option, but it pays off, and now audiences know why they’re already slated to direct the third film in the “Captain America” series. The directors are better with the epic set pieces than you’d ever expect. Whether it’s a one-on-one fistfight or a large battle across Washington, D.C., the action is kick-ass and more than a little breathtaking. We’re particular fans of the Nick Fury chase (see above) as well as an elevator fight between Rogers and, well, everyone. There’s humor throughout the film and the action scenes, but it never overshadows the drama, the pair walking the tonal tightrope carefully. Though there are fewer laughs, it manages to be one of the most entertaining offerings yet. We also got a cameo from Danny Pudi (Abed from “Community”) so no complaints there. And after Adam Pally from “Happy Endings” in “Iron Man 3,” this seems to be a recurring thing now: we demand Retta from “Parks and Recreation” or the girls from “Broad City” next.
Is it fair to say that the Marvel movies have something of a villain problem? Some cases are worse than others (*cough* Christopher Eccleston), but outside of Loki (who’s more effective as an ambivalent question mark than he is as an ‘Avengers’-style megalomaniac), and the occasional notable but unthreatening side-antagonist like Sam Rockwell in “Iron Man 2” or Ben Kingsley in “Iron Man 3,” these films haven’t come up with all that many memorable bad guys yet. Well, leave it to a true cinematic legend to step in and save the day, because Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce is pretty great. The casting of the veteran star was a pretty surprising choice when announced, and speculation immediately began that he might be more than meets the eye (in part because Redford blabbed that he was a villain in an interview). But what Pierce’s true nature lacks in shock value, it makes up for in effectiveness, and Redford’s so good that it’s hard to think of anyone else who could have done the part. Even aside from the meta-value of the casting (throwing back to the film’s major inspiration, “Three Days Of The Condor,” which starred Redford), the actor brings instant gravitas when it seems like Pierce is a benevolent mentor figure. But when it turns out that he’s really a senior H.Y.D.R.A. agent, it’s a casting coup comparable to Henry Fonda in “Once Upon A Time In The West”—Redford’s never really played a villain before, so having an American icon as a secret mega-Nazi feels doubly shocking. And props to Redford: this could have been a paycheck role easily, but he’s totally committed, even when he has to say “Heil Hydra.” Also worth noting is Frank Grillo doing a solid job without as much screen time as we’d like as the third-tier bad guy: we hope his burned-up survival prefigures a bigger role in the third movie, rather than an arc on “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.“
Speaking of both diversity and great new additions to the franchise, let’s give a hand to Anthony Mackie. The actor’s been a consistently engaging presence for yonks (it’s ten years since he played the lead in Spike Lee‘s “She Hate Me“), but finally promised to break through after the success of “The Hurt Locker.” It’s taken a little longer than we’d like, with some slightly thankless roles in the likes of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “Gangster Squad,” but he gets a proper mainstream showcase here as Sam Wilson, known in the comics as The Falcon. Literally from the opening scene, he brings a warm, easy presence, but also serves as an important modern-day counterpart to Steve Rogers: he’s a two-tour Afghanistan veteran who, through some subtle performance by Mackie, seems to be having a little trouble adjusting to modern life in the same way that Rogers is. His thrill at taking to the air is palpable, he can trade quips with the best of them, and fits immediately at home in the franchise. That the ending sets up a proper buddy adventure for Evans and Mackie (who have great chemistry together) bodes well, but we’d also be thrilled if he cropped up in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” Or even better, in his own vehicle.
Shaking Up The Status Quo
We’ve spoken in these pieces before about the issues that the serialized approach of the Marvel movies can cause—the films not standing on their own enough, an occasional tendency to feel like episodes of a TV series rather than a stand-alone movie. But if these are closer to long-form television than movies, we might have just reached the Phase Two season finale (“Guardians Of The Galaxy” is still to come before ‘Age Of Ultron,’ but it seems likely to be mostly stand-alone), because there’s an admirable ballsiness to the way that Kevin Feige and co. have shredded the status quo by the end of ‘Winter Soldier.’ Secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D have been a crucial part of the comics for decades, and a key part of the Marvel movies, for better or worse, since Clark Gregg first popped up in the first “Iron Man.” More than any other element, it’s been crucial to tying together the disparate characters, so revealing that a large chunk of the organization have been secret H.Y.D.R.A. members working undercover is a killer twist, and basically blowing up the organization completely doubly so. It’s here that the serialized approach feels like a benefit rather than a crutch—the betrayal is felt harder when it turns out that recurring face Agent Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez) is a baddie (although not as hard as he feels it when the Winter Soldier throws him into incoming traffic, we imagine). It suggests promisingly that Marvel will continue to take risks, and for the first time since the pilot, even makes us want to watch TV show “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” if only to see how it deals with the aftermath (probably by being a poor-quality monster-of-the-week show, but you can always dream…).
The Bittersweet Return of Peggy Carter
In general, you don’t go to these films to be moved, but probably the most touching element of the mega-franchise to date was the thwarted romance between Cap and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell)—a tentative, unrequited affair that provided the emotional backbone of the first movie before our hero had to crash his plane into the Arctic to save the world. Atwell proved popular enough to headline her own One-Shot short film (and potentially, a TV series on the way), but she crops up unexpectedly here, and in a quietly devastating scene that elevates the film. The old-age make-up (unusually) is convincing enough that you don’t immediately recognize Carter when Steve Rogers visits her—only the British accent and Atwell’s eyes clue you in over time. But for a brief scene, it does a lot to sketch out the decades that Carter’s lived since, and thanks to the sensitive performances by both Atwell and Evans, you can feel their hearts breaking a little for what could have been (even if, rightly, Peggy loves the man she married instead). And then there’s another twist of the knife, as it’s revealed that Carter’s seemingly suffering from some form of dementia or similar, causing her to lapse and think that she’s a young again. It’s a welcome addition of humanity and heartbreak to a film predominately about things exploding.
The Largely Incomprehensible Third Act
For so much of its running time, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is so good. It’s small and character-based and basically an old school espionage thriller in a shiny (and handsome) new package. But all of that comes crashing down in an overtly cluttered, visually hard-to-follow third act where a bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D.-controlled spaceships fly up out of the ground and crash into one another above Washington, D.C. (You’d think one of the good guys, so committed to undoing the evil that had already been established, would have thought about where the debris from these busted up spaceships would land. Nobody is talking about the death toll from that.) The ships look exactly the same and they’re all basically doing the same thing: either firing canons at someone (like Falcon) or themselves, or bursting into flames. We can’t tell exactly where our heroes are supposed to be or what their goals are. Would it have killed them to make each spaceship a different color (hell, they could have been red, white and blue)? And did we really need Captain America to, once again, face off against his sworn enemy on a suspended, bridge-like platform? That is literally how the last Captain America movie ended and, here we are again. It’s enough to make you feel like you’ve been frozen for decades. The clumsiness and convoluted nature of the third act could have been acceptable had it been fitting in with the tone of the rest of the movie. But the rest of the movie is so, so much better than this. We expect more from you, Cap.
Does Anyone Actually Believe That Nick Fury Is Dead?
Self-explanatory really, but at no point does anyone really think that if Nick Fury is going to be killed: they’re going to save that for at least an ‘Avengers’ movie, right? (And probably not even then; the franchise’s biggest death to date has been Agent Coulson’s which is itself revealed to have been a ploy, slowly explained in the spinoff S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.) So to be honest that whole sequence in which he’s “dying” and the heroes are looking on helplessly as they quietly resolve to, um, avenge, kind of lost our attention/investment entirely. Ditto the “reveal” in which what should be a major emotional pivot point is dispensed with in one line (“I took a potion that slowed my heartbeat!”). We wish the writers had spent a little more time thinking of some other way to achieve the same effect in terms of story, or had at least winked to the audience over the inevitability of the return.
The Lack of Consequences of the Events of “The Avengers”
One giant “how are they going to handle this now?” issue that “The Avengers” raised is that all subsequent Marvel universe movies have to exist in a world in which the population of the planet knows that aliens, Gods and, indeed, superheroes with uncanny powers actually do exist. The best later film in terms of addressing this was “Iron Man 3” and its PTSD sub-plot, but even that didn’t really capture a sense of what an enormous, world-changing revolution that would be, not simply politically, but fundamentally, even philosophically. And so a Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian and occasional mention of “New York” and Tony Stark just don’t cut it in terms of the sudden discovery that we are not alone in the universe and Gods and green rage monsters and supernatural entities are all around us. Not only that but it calls into question the basis of the plot of ‘Winter Soldier’; while the post- 9/11 parallels are clear in the surveillance state type paranoia that a terrorist attack (and one on New York, no less) could engender, the idea that in response to an extra-terrestrial attack a government would be able to sell its population on increased internal (on-planet) surveillance seems kind of odd.
The Winter Soldier Himself
If there’s anything that we learn from both this and “The Avengers,” it’s that even the best Marvel movies can be hampered by a brainwashing sub-plot. The Winter Soldier is, we’re told, an iconic villain of latter-day Captain America comics, and it was clear from the announcement of the title a few years back that the movie sequel was going to be going in this direction. So it’s curious that in the film, he seems like something of an afterthought. He’s admittedly badass in combat, but because he’s a mind-controlled assassin (and, in part, because Bucky Barnes didn’t make a huge impact in the first film), there’s no characterization to the part, and he exists only as a physical threat, not really an emotional one. Sebastian Stan’s been decent enough here that you suspect that he’ll do a fine job once he gets something to get his teeth stuck into, but he’s basically Darth Maul—he looks cool, he can kick some ass, but there’s not much to him. At this point, it feels more like the eventual film will focus on the relationship between him and Rogers more (ahead, potentially, of him taking over the shield once Chris Evans’ contract expires), but for a film with his name in the title, Bucky feels pretty tangential here.
It’s admirable that the film (like “Iron Man 3,” although that was really only in passing) is prepared to engage with real-world politics in a way that so many superhero-type movies simply ignore. And there’s plenty of references to layer in, from NSA-type surveillance society to the murky world of special ops. But it also feels that, in order to avoid offense not only from ever-divided politics in the U.S. but from the increasingly crucial worldwide crowd, the film shirks from ever actually taking a viewpoint, and its politics come off as muddled as a result. Golden boy Captain America discovering that he’s been a pawn in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s scheming is interesting (the murkiness of that opening mission on the boat is intriguing and almost Paul Greengrass-like, even aside from the “Captain Phillips”-ish setting). But it hedges its bets a bit, mostly letting Nick Fury off the hook (for a super-spy, it’s pretty dim to miss that half your organization are sci-fi Nazis), and by muddying H.Y.D.R.A.’s intentions (the Toby Jones-narrated montage suggests they were responsible for radical leftist Hugo Chavez, among other things). It’d pack more of a punch if Pierce’s ultimate motivations were to wipe out those who are potentially evil, as the film seems to be heading towards, but instead he seems to want to use it just to take over the world. And Black Widow’s appearance at the end sees it step back from critiquing the concept of superheroes themselves. A for effort and everything, but the film’s political engagement ultimately seems satisfied by pointing at the issues, not by investigating them.
The Relentless Action
There’s no denying that the action in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is very good indeed: really satisfying, crunchy hand-to-hand stuff, good stuntwork, even some fun CGI-heavy flying stuff with Anthony Mackie. It’s cleanly shot, and energetically cut without becoming incoherent, and the Russos immediately make a claim to being top-flight action directors with the film. But there’s Just. So. Damn. Much. Of. It. Outside of maybe 10-15 minutes early in the first act, after the boat chase, the film stuffs an action sequence nearly continually: barely five minutes pass without a fistfight, a car chase, a shootout or something blowing up. It’s of a consistently high quality, sure, but it’s also goddamn exhausting, especially when the characters are actually worth spending time with when they’re just talking. By the time the film reaches the exploding airship finale (and can we please, please call a blockbuster moratorium on big-flying-thing-crashing-into-buildings-in-a-way-that-cheaply-evokes-9/11), your eyes just gloss over, because they’ve reached action saturation. Your mileage may vary, but action filmmaking is often about the ebbs and flows as much as throwing bad guys at the screen, and we could have done with the Russos stepping off the pedal by the end.
In the comic books, Armin Zola, a former Nazi scientist and current thorn in the side of many Marvel superheroes, has transferred his consciousness to a robot body and is often depicted as a robot with a screen in its midsection, projecting Armin Zola’s face. In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” he appears as an antique artificial intelligence, stored in an underground bunker and secretly helping to control S.H.I.E.L.D. Yes, it’s a shout out to the comic books (the filmmakers tried to even wedge his robot body in there but couldn’t find a place for it), but it’s still one of the more ludicrous moments in the entire movie—one that, up until this point, at least attempted to maintain some form of reality. Just because it was in the comic book doesn’t mean it has to be in the movie. And “but it was in the comics” isn’t an excuse either for something being this weird and terrible.
Real History Vs. Marvel History
Without wanting to get too geeky about the whole thing, Black Widow specifically mentions her training by the KGB, which does open up certain questions about Marvel world history, and/or about her age—Johansson would have been 6 or 7 when the KGB disbanded, and even assuming she’s playing older than she is, the numbers don’t add up. However, there is mention made of the “infinity serum” which slows aging, so perhaps part of the Black Widow’s yet-to-be-uncovered mysterious backstory is that she was also a recipient and has in fact been alive a lot longer than we think. However, at this moment when that has not been revealed, it does at least make us think about what version of history is being referred to here—World War II clearly happened and played out roughly as it really did with the exception of H.Y.D.R.A., but did the subsequent Cold War happen differently? Further muddying the waters, Falcon mentions having served two tours in Afghanistan, so are we to assume that 9/11 as we know it also happened in the Marvelverse and that the alien attack on NYC occurred thereafter? Or is this a different Afghanistan war in a parallel universe? Given the slightly awkward imposition of a post 9/11 mentality on to a post-alien attack fictional world (see above) we did wonder if we’re letting Marvel off a little too lightly in its borrowing of real historical interest at times and deviating from/ignoring it at others. And then we went back to not worrying about it and watching the ker-powwing instead.
At this point, the mid- and post-credits tags for these films, which help to set up the next movie (or, often, a few movies down the line) are as eagerly anticipated by fans as the actual movies themselves, with speculation as to what form they’ll take coming months in advance. We’re not necessarily opposed to them in principle—they’re fun Easter Eggs for fans. But we have issues. Firstly, there’s an increasing tendency to only end the story with the final post-credits tag—Thor returning to Natalie Portman at the very end of “The Dark World,” and Bucky discovering his past self in the Smithsonian here. The cast sitting around eating shawarma is one thing, but if the scene impacts the story we’ve just been watching, we’d rather get it as part of the actual story. The other one rather involves the quality of the execution of the mid-credit tags. Since at least “Thor” (tag helmed by Joss Whedon), there’s been a tradition of the director of a future movie directing the tag sequence (Alan Taylor even disavowed the “Guardians of the Galaxy”-themed one at the end of “The Dark World”), which is maybe one of the reasons they always feel a bit stilted, awkward, and tonally incongruous with what came before. The other is that they generally appear to have been filmed in a rush on a lunch break during production of whatever Marvel movie is in front of cameras. We don’t mind, as non-comics readers, being baffled—it’s fun to see a glimpse of Benicio Del Toro’s wig or Martha Marcy May Marlene—but we wish the execution was bit better overall.
Larry Sanders’ face
Everything you love will one day die. Oh dear god.
— Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Oliver Lyttelton, Kimber Myers