Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Posted on November 26, 2014

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In case you missed the Mighty Marvel Juggernaut that launched in 2008 with Iron Man, let me summarize:

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was a weak, sickly, scrawny dude with a heart of gold. Early in US involvement in World War II, he was chosen for a top secret experiment to create super soldiers. He was the first success in the experiment. The scientist (Stanley Tucci) who knew the critical chemical formula was murdered by an agent of Hydra, a previously unknown organization with ties to Hitler’s Germany. Steve became Captain America.

Captain America (according to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, AKA the MCU) became a USO propaganda tool until his best friend, Bucky Barnes, and a bunch of other soldiers were captured. Cap took off on his own and single-handedly busted up a Hydra base and rescued the guys. He also met the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), leader of Hydra.

Captain America then led a team of Howling Commandos against Hydra during the closing days of WWII in Europe. Eventually he caught up with the Red Skull just as the villain took off in a super bomber aimed for the East Coast of the United States. They fought, Cap won, and the plane crashed in the Arctic, where Cap was frozen alive.

Got all that?

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Cap in The Winter Soldier works for SHIELD (because someone really wanted the acronym to spell “shield”) in the modern day, and is a member of the Avengers. He and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) go on a SHIELD mission that raises a lot of questions about their organization. Meanwhile, he meets a veteran who helps fellow veterans readjust to civilian life, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Then a mysterious super-powered cyborg assassin (Sebastian Stan) shows up, Hydra reveals its infiltration of SHIELD, and all Hell breaks loose.

Short Version

Fun, but ultimately disappointing.

 

Long Version

There are plenty of good things to say about the movie.

For one, there’s Anthony Mackie. In the comic books, Captain America had an African-American partner in the modern day. That character was the Falcon. Anthony Mackie’s performance is warm, empathetic, and utterly believable. His meeting with Steve Rogers immediately felt like two guys who happen to hit it off. You believe they’re becoming friends. I can’t say enough about how happy I am with the way Marvel and Mackie brought Falcon to the screen.

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Then there’s Councilwoman Hawley. Yeah, she’s barely in the film, but come on! Jenny Agutter! I’ve been a fan for…well, let’s not embarrass the woman by talking about how long. Such a thrill for me to see her on the big screen again.

The reveal of Hydra, the action sequences, and the Winter Soldier himself are all terrific. Every moment with the Winter Soldier on-screen is electric. Cap’s struggle to reach his old friend, Bucky, trapped inside the brainwashed Winter Soldier is heartfelt and grounded. It’s what we want from Cap – to believe in the goodness, strength, and honor in each of us. That’s good stuff.

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It’s not enough to make this a great movie.

Look, I love Cap as much as the next fan – in fact, more than many. I got beat up a lot as a kid, and I was skinny until the Army got hold of me (and then I became merely wiry). It wasn’t until I hit 30 that my skinny days were truly behind me. The idea of a magic serum that could make me big and strong appealed to me.

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And that, really, was the secret of the heroes created by Marvel in the ‘60s. Yes, I know Captain America was originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, and was published in Marvel’s predecessor imprint, Timely Comics. That said, Marvel revived him in 1964 (by coincidence, the year I was born).

The secret was giving readers, usually kids and teens, something to identify with. The family squabbles of the Fantastic Four, the outsider status of the X-Men, the uncontrollable rage of the Hulk, the many struggles of Iron Man (maintaining two identities, substance abuse, communicating his brilliance), and even Thor’s struggles with his omniscient father Odin, were things that kids related to. All superhero comics are, to some extent, adolescent power fantasies. Marvel gave kids more than that. Marvel gave its characters problems and struggles that kids connected with on a visceral level.

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That’s why Captain America has been in print consistently for fifty years. Because kids understand having a different set of values than their parents or teachers. Because kids grok being asked to sacrifice morality for practicality. Kids are the smallest, least powerful, people among the teachers, parents, and other adults in their lives. Captain America makes sense to them.

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So, yeah, I love Captain America. He and G.I. Joe probably have equal culpability in my becoming an Army officer. I just felt disappointed by this movie. Here’s why.

First off, it suffers from middle movie syndrome. Middle movies can’t resolve anything, or there’s no reason for a third movie. The Two Towers is a good enough movie, but we all knew the big payoff was in Return of the King. The Empire Strikes Back was a rare case of a middle movie actually being very good.

In Cap’s case, his second movie also carries the burden of setting in motion some big things for the MCU, and Marvel Television. For one thing, it introduces Hydra into the present day. That continues to have huge repercussions for Agents of SHIELD. For another, it introduces us to an aged Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), reminding us of her relationship with Cap prior to the launch of her own TV series.

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Second off, it’s not a superhero movie so much as it’s an espionage movie with superheroes. That’s a bad fit for Captain America.

Captain America has many heroic qualities. He’s an Olympic-caliber athlete. He’s an extremely experienced soldier. He’s patriotic. He’s loyal. He’s supremely optimistic. I mean, the man has no quit in him.

So when you make a movie where he can’t trust anyone, where he doubts himself, and where his loyalty is tested, then he’s not really Captain America anymore.

Now the Black Widow was a spy before she ever joined SHIELD. For her, this kind of doubt and mistrust is second nature. She rules this movie, and deserves her own film. Seriously, Hollywood.

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Third off, there are the second-tier bad guys (the ones who aren’t the Winter Soldier or Andrew Pierce, who I’ll talk about later). Ugh.

Let’s start with Batroc “Ze Leepair”. That’s “the leaper” for those unfamiliar with bad French accents. Batroc is not the worst villain in the Marvel universe. He’s not even among the ten worst. He is, however, stupid, and poorly used in this film.

Batroc is a champion of savate, a real-world martial art that originated, they say, in the port of Marseille. Savate has a lot of kicking, thought not as much as kick-boxing, but it’s Marvel’s reasoning for Batroc having powerful leg muscles that make him good at jumping.

That’s it. That’s his whole schtick

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The movie treats him poorly because they give us no build-up. He’s just there, contributing to the feeling that this middle-movie was a grab-bag that Marvel used to throw a bunch of characters and groups at us for better use later.

Despite his sudden appearance early in the film, he instantly requires Captain America’s full attention because….I don’t know. Physically, Batroc was always supposed to be a threat for Cap, but usually ended up being a punching bag. He’s not smart, and the movie doesn’t show him being tough, strong, and fast – at least, not enough to impress us.

Part of the problem is they cast a UFC fighter who only had three acting credits to his name before this. Seriously. If you’re going to cast a kickboxing impressive enough to require Captain America to defeat him, cast Jean-Claude Van Damme. Or change up the character a bit and cast Tony Jaa. Or get really “with it” and cast Iko Uwais from The Raid.

Now let’s move to Crossbones. What’s that you say? Crossbones doesn’t appear in this movie? Oh, but he does. Brock Rumlow leads the SHIELD agents, actually Hydra agents, who try to arrest Captain America. Brock Rumlow is Crossbones. So once again, The Winter Soldier exists to serve us stuff that will pay off later.captain-america-2-4

And, again, he’s just some guy. Frank Grillo has a long list of credits but he’s never stood out to me before. We get no background on him. He’s just a SHIELD team leader who turns out to be a turncoat. Suddenly he’s a threat to Cap? Whatever.

That brings me to…ugh, I can barely say it…Arnim Zola. In Marvel comics, Arnim Zola is a scientist who works for Hydra in WWII. One of his earliest inventions is a way to imprint human consciousness in artificial brains. He most often appeared in the comic books as a face on a computer screen…in the chest of a headless android body.

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Nothing against Toby Jones, who played the human version of Zola in the first Captain America movie and flashbacks in this one. Mr. Jones is terrific. However, the character is just awful. Basically, it’s a recording to be played if Cap ever shows up, and a virus within SHIELD’s computers. No super-intelligence. No computers too advanced to have existed in WWII. Nope, just some 1970s era mainframes under dust covers and Zola’s face on computer screens.

Now, that said, the culmination of Zola’s plan is impressive. He comes this close to killing Captain America and Black Widow. It’s genuinely scary, and part of why I said the reveal of Hydra was a good thing in the film.

However, his tiny part in the first movie doesn’t set up this master planner. It’s only in the flashback interrogation sequences in this movie that we see signs of it. That’s just not satisfying.

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Finally, there’s Alexander Pierce. That’s right, you heard me. I’m calling out Robert Redford himself. Pierce has history with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). He has none with Captain America. He wraps himself in the American flag, and trots out some war stories, but the mere fact that you cast Robert Redford means we know he’s integral to the story. You don’t cast Redford for a throwaway scene. Because of that, as soon as he appears on screen, the audience knows he’s the Chekhov gun that must go off in Act Three.

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And when he does reveal himself, as he must, he gets taken out by a distraction using disguise technology that is a known part of the SHIELD arsenal. I mean holy crap, people. Look at what the press routinely digs up about politicians. Pierce maintains a blemish-free image for decades, and then he gets taken out by something he should have seen coming? Weak.

Granted, the surprise reappearance of Nick Fury had to throw a kink in his plans.

Conclusion

I saw this movie months ago, and only just now got around to writing about it because it’s taken me this long to get comfortable with not enjoying it as much as my inner ten-year-old wanted to.

If you’re a Captain America fan, nothing I say matters. You’ve already seen this movie at least once. I’m right there with you. I paid to see it in the theater, and I rarely do that anymore. There’s enough stuff in this movie to give you a major nerd-gasm.

If you’re a fan of the MCU in general, you should rent this if you haven’t seen it yet. It sets up the next Captain America movie, and there’s probably some payoff in the next Avengers movie, too.

This movie marked the turning point for TV’s Agents of SHIELD. That show is now leading development in the Marvel universe (hint – if you don’t know anything about the Kree and the Inhumans, do some research). Once this movie came out, Agents of SHIELD could face Hydra, and that’s been nothing but good for the show.

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If you’re just looking for a good action movie, or a good espionage movie, you can do better than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It makes me sad to say that.

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Posted in: Movies