The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups – Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

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Spoiler-free first thoughts on Thor: The Dark World

Just having emerged from Thor: The Dark World since a friend reminded me to see it, I type this from the Carlisle branch of Waterstones. (From the Costa, that is, strangely if typically built in. The Earl Grey satisfies; milk rationing per cup continues to frustrate.)

Conclusive thoughts on films take time to form, and usually, at least in my case, repeat views. It’s very possible then that I’ll write about The Dark World in more detail down the line, and that feelings I have now will change, but it seems worth giving a brief summary of how it left me. Spoilers are fair game in the comments, but I’ll leave overt ones out for now.

First things first, it’s notable Thor is only the second Marvel franchise from its recent, interlinking stand to get a sequel. Before last year’s The Avengers – I refuse to use the UK title – only Iron Man had received a second film, which itself strayed from the usual sequel format – what weighed down Iron Man 2, to many fans’ frustration, was its use as the first proper chapter of the S.H.I.E.L.D. arc, introducing us to Howard Stark, Black Widow and the gears of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, important elements in films which followed. World-building of this kind is what’s expected of a series’ first instalment usually, and in terms of branching out the onscreen universe in view, one could say Iron Man 2 served as just that. The Dark World isn’t just the first ‘part two’ since then, it’s the first story within its continuity that doesn’t need to be anything else. (Iron Man 3, released this April, was similarly self-contained, but see the number in the title.)

Cutting to the case then, or at least the highlights, there are lots of things in this film to love, above all its cast and their performances. If his place with Tom Hardy and Ben Whishaw as one of film’s next great Britthesps were still in any kind of doubt, Tom Hiddleston’s scenery-chewing, even in barren wastelands and glorified CG slagheaps, clinches the deal, as does his stamina for moral line-treading even three films in. Christopher Eccleston, contrary to almost everything you’re likely to have read, is neither underused nor overkill as villain Malekith (whose skin, disconcertingly I felt, appears to darken as his evil grows). While I wouldn’t have said no to more of him, I didn’t feel like I missed out. Supporting actors round out the cast well on all sides, though there are perhaps a few too many – with names in play like Hopkins, Skarsgård and once-again-sidelined Rene Russo, alongside Alice Krige in a delightful bit part, it’s a shame not to give some of them more time than they get here.

Praise goes too to a smörgåsbord of gorgeous moments, from the Ancient-Norse-meets-science-fiction space battle through gleaming towers and spires half way through to the wondrous, under-utilised setpiece of a warehouse found early on by children which defies physics (floating trucks and all) and the climax of the film in Greenwich, where loveably unsubtle Thor looks valiantly out of place in greyscale London (brace for a tube gag almost as good as when Skyfall did it) and which plays out like Man of Steel was made by someone competent. It’s a shame The Dark World opens, in seemingly dogged keeping with the formula from Thor, with a voiceover from Odin, when either of the first two might have made a stunning introductory sequence. The warehouse in particular evokes Guillermo del Toro’s style, which one feels filmmakers hoped to suggest with the Dark Elves’ design.

It’s not as funny as reviews suggest, or at least I didn’t find it so. I’ll grant that I saw it, as I often try to with new films, in a nearly empty cinema, and the group dynamic of a packed house often helps with comedy, but then again, I fell about watching Iron Man 3 in a comparable sparse room. This said, some moments play fantastically. Half way through or so, Loki especially receives some quite wonderful quips, delivered rapid-fire like Roger Moore’s in The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond fans may be reminded, specifically, of Barbara Bach’s van-driving scene). A metereological slapstick sequence in the first hour – yes, this is now a concept – offers surreal genius, as does the groaning slide of battling demigods down the glass side of London’s gherkin. One more serious gambit which impresses is a loyalty-switching, limb-severing development far less expected than it should have been, testament to the acting chops of all involved.

It’s The Dark World‘s script, unfortunately, which lets it down. The picture wanders aimlessly for much of its just-less-than-two-hour length, some elements included for no clear reason – among them, for example, a battle and later callback on a forested, seemingly Asian planet and a sketchy lecture-giving scene from Skarsgärd. The effect is most of the film’s gratifying action and fun being left to its second hour (web commentary so far gets this weakness spot-on), and as Den of Geek note in their spoiler-filled analysis, it never seems quite to know what to do next, and lacks in this sense the integritas of its predecessor. The plot’s MacGuffin, a haze of swirling, evillish red-black mist, and Malekith’s designs for it never quite work; I never really understood, nor cared much about, just what it did or how he planned to threaten/end/rule the cosmos with it. Two major deaths take place, neither of which entirely worked for me: the first, while not the one I expected on buying a ticket, bumped off a character I hadn’t much invested in to start with; the second, conversely, predictable while anticlimactic and emotionally unconvincing. There’d more to be said on both counts, but let’s hold that discussion in the comments.

Joss Whedon, we’d been told, gave this script a once-over polish – certainly, his work shows through in the jokes and camera phone moments. Perhaps producers went to him sensing things weren’t quite right yet, but if so he seems to have been too sheepish to advance the radical rewrites this really needed. Still, as a whole this a quintessentially good film, neither very good nor unsatisfactory – three stars, perhaps. Marvel’s Avengers series has still to give us a bad entry, and while overall this might be one of the weaker ones, it’s pretty fulfilling watched with managed expectations and a sense of fun.