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The Winter Soldier

April 10, 2014

winterOK, so I wrote a pretty nasty thing about Thor 2 back in November when that piece of shit got released. That thing turned me off on some many levels, and because of that I really wanted to write off the whole Marvel movie thing as a whole. God damn did that thing suck.

Suffice it to say, I wasn’t expecting all that much from the new Captain America movie. Sure, everything I heard about it sounded like it was my kind of movie. It was supposed to be more of a modern spy thriller thing with government conspiracies, getting all Tom Clancy up in the place. But Thor 2 did a number on me and my tolerance for these movies. It went right past my SDC and straight to my HP.

Turns out all of that didn’t matter. Winter Soldier and Thor 2 are pretty much diametrically opposed to one another, at least as far as my fucked up fanboy mindset is concerned. Everything the latter did wrong, the former does right.

Let’s get this out-of-the-way, though. The action scenes, to put it nicely, just didn’t do it for me. Watching them play out, they clearly have some good ideas going. That opening scene where Cap and his SHIELD buddies sneak on board of that ship has some bits where there was some cool choreography going, but so much of it is shot at such a close angle with that ever-dreaded handheld camera that half of it gets lost. It makes it where, yeah, my imagination can fill in the blanks, but I shouldn’t have to do that when said blanks actually exist and simply weren’t captured properly by the cinematographer.

I’ve ranted about that before, but the whole handheld camera thing is weird, man. You assumedly go through the effort to plan a scene where stuff happens. All of the actors’ movements are deliberate and planned and are supposed to convey some sense of place and movement and all that cool stuff. Then you come along and film it like you’re some bystander with their smart phone trying to capture the stuff while standing five feet away from the action. It’s supposed to convey a sense of being in the action, but part of the point of action sequences is to have that extra step away from the action to be able to comprehend the moment. Instead of conveying the idea of “this person threw this punch and blocked this kick” and all the literal story beats that make up an action sequence, you instead convey an emotion of “this is what it feels like to be in a fight.” It’s literally telling a different story by changing the way the camera is used. It’s no longer about what’s happening and more about the feeling of immersion. That may work in something trying to mimic, say, a war documentary or something along those lines, but I think it does a disservice to other stories where the most important element isn’t the emotions of the situation but the ability to follow the flow of events. Those are completely different things, but the people making these movies don’t seem to notice that. It’s a very post-modern, everything is a symbol of a symbol sort of thing, and the action setpiece thing simply isn’t a post-modern construct.

So yeah, the action scenes kinda suck. Usually that’s going to damn this sort of movie to mediocrity at best. This is a movie about Captain America and Black Widow and a bunch of other peeps punching and shooting bad dudes, so the very act of punching and shooting should be good for the movie to be good, right?

Nope. Despite Winter Soldier not really working on that visceral level, it’s a damn good movie. Like, it’s easily the best of the Avengers-centric Marvel movies. For reals, dude.

The scene that really did it for me was the bit with Armin Zola. For one, I love the way the character was reimaged for the movie. Visually speaking, he’s a bit of a goofy character in the comics. He’s some robot dude with a computer screen in his chest acting as his face. It’s a Jack Kirby design, so there you go-cool, but not exactly in time with the aesthetics of these Marvel movies. Given where the movies have gone with all their technology shit, you’d think Zola would be a bit more Iron Man like if he ever appeared-maybe some sort of overly CGed robot thing that projects a hologram or whatever. It’d fit the aesthetics, but it’d also be pretty lame and obvious.

Nope. The movie version of Zola is his consciousness recorded onto thousands of reel to reel computers stored in an old SHIELD base. The image conjures up some awesomely unsettling feelings. It’s like looking upon some Elder God-a creature whose form is wholly inhuman and unknowable. It’s strange how something as mundane, antiquated, and really downright quaint as outdated computers can be stretched out and transmogrified into something seriously alien in nature. Compound that imagery with the rant he goes on about controlling history and steering the public into wanting to accept tyranny in the guise of security and you get the perfect image of modern-day fears of government control. Armin Zola’s physical nature is pretty much how the average person is going to view the government. It’s a cold, distant, alien behemoth that may at one time been human but has long since “evolved” into something new and strange. It may have a human face and communicate like a human, and its logic may follow tracks that we can follow, but the end result is something operating for its own ends. It’s the glimmer of truth behind all of the insane government conspiracy theories-that the system that governs us has festered over the years and turned into something horrifyingly detached from reality, and by not having the big picture we begin to fill in the holes with our imagination.

And that’s what makes this version of Captain America the perfect hero to tackle this sort of monstrosity. He’s a man out of time, willfully trapped in ideals deemed antiquated by those in power. He was literally frozen in ice as the world started to become more visibly broken and dysfunctional. He knows the world wasn’t perfect during his time, what with his little conversation with Fury over the nasty things soldiers had to do during World War 2, but by his perspective the world he inhabits-that being the men and women who try to protect and serve their country-has become nothing but a world of compromise and moral ambiguity. Rather than being a line crossed out of desperation, that sort of thing has become standard practice. Like he said in the first movie, Cap does what he does because he can’t stand to see people suffer or be bullied. He’s had to deal with hardship, and he wants to do what he can do alleviate the suffering of others. He doesn’t take joy in killing Nazis-he isn’t in it for the vengeance or justice or anything like that. It ain’t about ideology and furthering a goal or anything like that, it’s just about making sure people don’t get screwed over by those who do get gratification out of those sorts of things.

It’s the sort of existential crisis people experience on a considerably smaller scale on a daily basis-that conflict between the personal world we can understand and the larger world of ideologies and tribalism and abstract concepts that don’t give a fuck about us beyond whether we adhere to their tenets and maintain their position of power. The scope of Cap’s crisis dwarfs that of your everyday peep on the street, but you kinda need that exaggeration to get the idea across, especially in this sort of movie. Mythological heroes have problems just like us, but if their problems aren’t blown up to scale with their fantastical elements, those problems kinda end up feeling insignificant. You don’t have to go all Dark Knight operatic on this shit, but the emotions do need to be fairly big and impressionistic when the explosions are this big, even when said emotions are the sort of existential crisis stuff we’re seeing here.

I also really dig what they did with Black Widow in this thing. She was just kinda there in Iron Man 2-a throwaway cameo to introduce the character and nothing more. She had a cool moment in Avengers where she outwitted Loki, but you gotta emphasize the moment aspect of that. Other than that and an alright moment with her and Hawkeye talking about the nature of her job, she didn’t have much to do. Winter Soldier finally gives her some real purpose beyond that sort of checklist fandom shit.

Widow’s arc in this movie really resembles that of Fujiko’s in that TV series she got a couple of years ago. Widow and Fujiko both come from lines of work where they have to seemingly compromise their own personal identity in order to solidify their place in the world. Even in her attempt to go straight by joining SHIELD, Widow still has to play by the “who do you want me to be” game, doing dirty jobs no one else is willing to do because it’s her thing to be that morally mercurial person willing to shove a dude off a building to get information out of him or do an important side mission that may jeopardize the safety of her colleagues. And like the ending of Fujiko, rather than revealing some traumatic past that rationalizes this behavior or some other handwaving that attempts to humanize her in a traditional manner, she embraces her ambiguity as the truth. Widow willfully releases all of SHIELD’s and HYDRA’s secrets, knowing full well that all of her own dirty laundry will get dumped in the process, and it’s a liberating moment for her. Both Fujiko and Black Widow are essentially the same woman they were at the beginning of their arcs, and they both seem to come to the conclusion that that’s a damn fine thing.

There were a lot of neat little scenes throughout the movie as well. Cap meeting up with an elderly Agent Carter was a nice nod to that character. The bit where Fury talks about his grandfather and where he naturally assumes that those cops were racially profiling him right before that big car chase were pretty welcome too and really helps show some of the roots of his distrust for people and why he’s willing to trust those he does. And that Marvin Gaye montage at the end of the movie was pretty great.
Really, it’s a bit of a shame that this movie has to be tied into the whole Marvel movie cosmos thing. With the exception of some of Cap’s historical stuff, everything that works about it has no real ties to the monstrosity that is shared universe storytelling. HYDRA could be any sort of conspiratorial organization. SHIELD could easily be the FBI or CIA or whatever. This is a damn good spy movie, and it needed none of the super hero trappings to work. I’m glad these Marvel movies have something as good as this in their stable, but I can’t help but think of what this story could have been if it wasn’t shackled to what’s come before and what ‘s to come afterwards.

Like, seriously, Rocket Raccoon is cute and all, but he’s what we have to look forward to next? And after that it’s Joss Whedon doing yet another Avengers movie? At least we have Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man coming up after that. That thing should be crazy fun, if only because of his influence.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2014 8:10 PM

    I’m looking forward to Guardians because I’m curious about how the Cosmic angle will turn out. I’m going to enjoy Age of Ultron, but I’m not excited for it since it feels “safe”. It’s going to be an obvious hit. Ant-Man however, I’m definitely excited for that. I hear it described as a “heist movie” and directed by Edgar Wright who loves playing with genre movies? Sign me the fuck up!

    The thing about that is, I’m down with the idea of specific genre movies that just happen to have superheroes in them. I read an article that talked about that in length:

    http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/captain-america-fate-superhero-genre.php

    I just hope they can keep the quality up. A Black Widow movie would probably make for another good conspiracy spy thriller, but after Ant-Man, the character I wonder most about is Dr. Strange. I wonder what genre they’ll go with that…

    • Landon permalink
      April 12, 2014 6:38 PM

      Yeah. That’s pretty much exactly where comic book movies need to go if they want to survive for the long haul.

      I think my main concern is Avengers 2. Is it gonna be another explosionfest where a city gets destroyed while the Avengers spout cute, awkward, annoying Joss Whedon dialogue? Basically, are we going to get yet another one of his movies, or is he going to get in line with this “movies that just happen to have super heroes in them” bit?

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