Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Capain America 2: The Winter Soldier

I've had a difficult relationship with Marvel over these long four and a half years of Planet Blue.  I know the comic book fans have been living lives of unending euphoria and glee, but as for us non-comic book fans, let's be honest, the Marvel films have been pretty hit or miss.  I will admit that the Marvel invasion was definitely a step-up for superhero films as a genre.  I'll take the 2010 "Captain America" thirty times over the 1992 "Captain America", and I'll take it three-hundred times over the Reb Brown "Captain America" films from the 1970s.  Still that's like choosing between getting stuck in traffic for six hours or getting run over by an Abrams tank.  Neither choice is exactly on my bucket list, you know?

The early Marvel movies, such as "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" were these awkward early dates, trying just a little too hard to impress.  Clearly Marvel had been off the dating scene for about a decade, and it came off more than a little desperate.  But then America decided this strange movie studio with its goofy superheroes was cute, and the courtship continued.  Marvel then moved for the grand romantic gesture - the big move to cement the relationship:  "The Avengers".  But you can't just pop the question like that, you have to get the moment exactly right.  So Marvel had to spend years setting up the universe, building these half-complete two-hour-long advertisements that barely counted as movies.  "Thor", "Captain America 1", "Iron Man 2", each one sadder than the last.  But now finally "The Avengers" came and passed, America said yes, we looked absolutely beautiful in our white dress, and now we will have to live with Marvel and superhero films till death do us part.

Luckily now that "The Avengers" has come and gone, the Marvel film universe seems to have finally reached a higher level of maturity and confidence.  "Iron Man 3" was not a soulless mid-chapter simply around to set up characters, it was a fully-fledged action comedy.  And here, with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", Marvel continues to use its established characters to create huge involving stories which stand up entirely on their own.  They know by now that America will be hugely impressed by just about anything they do, so now they've taken to breaking into other genres.  "Captain America 2" takes the patriotic shieldbearer and uses him not to punch Hitler in the face, but rather solve a complicated spy thriller conspiracy.  Its a huge movie with impressive action scenes and some interesting twists and turns, a perfectly fine blockbuster.  The honeymoon period between America and Marvel shall continue, as superhero movies continue to rise in average quality every year.

Following the events of "The Avengers", Captain America has been living a quiet lonely life serving as a thug for S.H.I.E.L.D., the high tech intelligence agency of Marvel fame*.  S.H.I.E.L.D. itself has grown into a massive anti-terrorist taskforce, complete with its own building in just outside of Washington D.C., a secret underground hanger filled with flying aircraft carriers, and most impressively, veteran actor Robert Redford.  Redford is playing Alexander Pierce, a white collar Washington insider who is very obviously going to double-cross the heroes.  Captain America's not-so-secret civilian identity, Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) has a difficult time adjusting to modern life, and keeps brushing off Black Widow (Scarlett Johanson)'s attempts to hook him up with various cute blonds in the S.H.I.E.L.D. bureaucracy.  He also likes to visit his own exhibits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum** to relive the past and cleverly give the audience exposition.  Not much is happening besides a brief fight with French pirates until...

Only two of the Avengers were able to make it.  The other supeheroes were on vacation.
...Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. MOTHAFUCKING Jackson) is suddenly attacked in the middle of the streets of Washington.  The assassin is a masked monster named "The Winter Soldier", a legendary warrior who fights with robot arm and a brutal squad of machine-gun toting Eastern European goons.  As it turns out, Nick Fury's eyepatch is not in fact hiding his Homunculi Ultimate Eye, and he is very quickly defeated by a combination of the Winter Soldier's ruthless battlefield tactics and Washington D.C.'s far more unforgiving traffic jams which block his escape.  Nick Fury manages to crawl to Steve Rodger's apartment and hand him a thumb drive containing the evil formula for world domination.

This leads Rodgers on what the producers think is a thrilling spy adventure where Captain America must fight his own allies and cannot tell which way is up.  Turns out actually its a very straightforward journey.  If they're a superhero, trust them.  If they're an elderly movie star who have suspiciously taken over S.H.I.E.L.D. while Nick Fury is down, then they're probably evil.  Along the way Captain America grabs Black Widow for a team-up that - to "The Winter Soldier"'s credit - does not end in a cheesy romance.  He also grabs Anthony Mackie who is a brand new superhero whose powers basically are just that he has mechanical wings.  (Captain America presumably does not call up the Hulk or Iron Man or whatever superhero Jeremy Renner was playing because he doesn't understand the modern technology of cell phones.)  S.H.I.E.L.D. is torn insideout, the Winter Soldier kicks a lot of ass, airships crash into Washington D.C. its a decent action movie, but not a very great spy thriller. 

Oh well, one out of two isn't bad.

The Winter Soldier bringing terror to the streets of Cleveland Washington
I will say that the titular bad guy in "The Winter Soldier" does add an element that just about every Marvel movie has been lacking so far:  menace.  This guy is a brute.  His methods are not very sophisticated, but he gets the job done.  It reminds me favorably of the Joker's tactics back in "The Dark Knight", where rather than elaborate plots involving laughing gas or something, he would gather a bunch of guys and hand them rocket launchers.  The Winter Soldier just punches you in the face with his steel arm, or swings around a knife to cut you up.  Where the Joker liked to smash into SWAT cars with garbage trucks, the Winter Soldier uses several SUVs to smash your car, then blasts you into pieces while his backup singers belt out high caliber rounds.  You look at Loki, and he's charismatic, he's funny, but he doesn't really stand a chance against the superheroes in a real fight.  This guy though, he smash you into a pulp with his boot and then drink your blood with a curly straw.

Actually, for a superhero film, this is pretty surprisingly violent.  Obviously nobody's heads are going to get blown off like "The Raid 2", but over the course of the film, every single character gets shot, sometimes more than once.  The directorial team of the Russo Brothers have a great eye for action choreography, making for the best fight scenes you could see in theaters right now...  you know, aside from that much better action film from Indonesia.  But the action is crude and gritty, rather than off-the-walls and fantastic.  I always thought Marvel could be counted upon to remain the happy-go-lucky brand of superheroes, where everybody was grinning, the jokes never stopped flying, and the stories remained nicely un-serious.  Now all of a sudden with "Captain America 2", everybody is walking around like a World War just started - ironically there was a much more joyous mood during the actual World War of "Captain America 1".  It's odd because there's really nothing all that much more serious in this film than any of the others, only perhaps that the threats this time are entirely human conspiracies within our own government and a mighty dude with a robot arm.

Luckily there are still some nicely campy elements here and there, it isn't all a brood fest.  The evil mastermind of the conspiracy turns out to be a Nazi scientist whose brain has been transplanted into 1970s punchcard computers.  Garry Shandling***, of all people, turns out to be a major evil supporter, pledging his soul to Satan while lusting after young interns.  And really its hard to view "Captain America 2" as a Jason Borne film when the climax involves a man with iron wings flying around airships full of bad guys to fight a man with an iron fist.  Captain America himself seems a character incapable of brooding, its not what 1940s Americans did.  They just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, ate less, and worked themselves into lean incredibly handsome chiseled jaws.

Though the action beats might be on the level, the plot might have great twists which sees the return of Captain America's old enemies the Nazis Hydra**** in a very creative way, there is a small problem in that Captain America himself just isn't charismatic enough.  In the grand spectrum of Marvel characters, essentially only two really can hold a movie together:  Tony Stark and Loki.  When you don't have Tom Hiddleston or Robert Downey Jr., your movie is going to have personality problems.  Chris Evans is earnest enough for the role and he does a great job created a convincing Greatest Generation boyscout, and he's no Iron Man, you know?  He's nicely simple, its not "Man of Steel", at least.  Scartlett Johansson is probably worse, since her Black Widow character has never once been given a personality trait despite three or four movies.  Maybe a romance between the two heroes would been predictable and cliche, but it would have been something.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a slick modern blockbuster.  It could have very easily descended into mediocre by-the-numbers committee crap, but it turned out to be well-directed, solidly acted, and shockingly, had a great collection of practical effects in beautiful action sequences.  (You know, until the flying aircraft carriers which were fully CG, but even then the climax is more of a fist fight than a Star Wars laser brawl.)  Ignoring the rest of the silly Marvel expanded universe bullshit, "The Winter Soldier" stands well on its own as an action film.  I had my problems here and there, it was a little too dark for a film about a character as simplistic as Captain America, there is a very blatant and completely shameless fake-out death that should fool exactly nobody*****, but it was well-made and competent.  You cannot fault that. 

So Marvel took America out for a good time, it tried something new in bed, and it worked.  We howled and screamed in pleasure.  America had a great night.  I don't know if every night is going to work, there's a good chance this marriage is going to become routine and dull after a few years.  Marvel is definitely trying its hardest to be as creative and difficult as possible, what with "The Guardians of the Galaxy" coming out later this summer to push the boundaries of just how nerdy and weird a major blockbuster can be.  Maybe it will work, maybe it won't.  Until then, Marvel and Disney are going to grow richer and America is going to grow fatter, and everybody is happy.

* I was extremely worried that Marvel or Joss Whedon was going to force me to watch their ABC network show, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." in order to keep up with the various twists and turns of its ridiculous film universe.  Sorry, comic book geeks, nerds, and dorks, but I cannot bring myself to watch that show.  Agent Coulson coming back to life is the kind of nonsense superhero writing that makes the entire genre cheap and disposable.  YEAH, YOU HEARD ME, SUPERHERO FANS!   CHEAP AND DISPOSABLE.  Suck it.

** By far the coolest Washington, D.C. area museum.  Take your kids.

*** You might remember Garry Shandling from "Iron Man 2" when he played a Senator who grilled Tony Stark for his robot suit.  Actually odds are you forget everything about that movie, but let me remind you:  Garry Shandling was there and he grilled Tony Stark.  Weird little bit of minor continuity there, Marvel, I respect that.

**** Replacing the Nazis with HYDRA is still pussying out no matter what justification you use.  I only recently found out why they do this:  toys.  You cannot sell Nazi war tanks or Nazi action figures to children.  But its still just as despicable either way, HYDRA is entirely the same as Nazis only with a different name.  So it is not that Disney and Marvel has a problem selling toys modeled after horrible fascists out to conquer the world and butcher millions, its that they cannot sell one particular brand of horrible fascists out to conquer the world and butcher millions.  Marvel, fuck you.  At least be true to history, instead of this nonsense.

***** Remember what I said before about characters coming back to life too easily?   CHEAP AND DISPOSABLE.

1 comment:

  1. Well you have to remember that back when the Cap was first created they wanted kids to hate the Nazis with all their hearts, but they couldn't officially make Nazis products without pissing off some white- collared mom who's son became a skin head, because he found the swastika more interesting then the american flag. And I don't know about the rest of the comic book nerds, but I think I'm out growing the whole superhero scene (Except the animated movies, the DC ones are pretty good). The way their trying to cater to twelve year old boys is creeping me out and it's starting to feel like the anime scene. As a final note I don't think anyone like the Agents of SHIELD. That show is soooooooo boring! Seriously, if you're going to have a show based in a superhero, show some superheros! Or at least supervillains! Not weak as spy plots with a weak as sauce romantic triangle with the killer asian double spy and the bland as dirt rookie Chosen One.