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Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014)

All the President's Meh

Let's begin today with a game I'll call "Six Degrees of Community":

Co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo directed many episodes of NBC's cult comedy, as well as Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Late in the film, actor Danny Pudi pops up as a technician working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Universe's elite spy agency. On Community, Pudi plays Abed, a detached, living encyclopedia of pop culture references who occasionally registers as an actual person. Similarly, The Winter Soldier is a hodgepodge of scenes from better (and lesser) movies, which sometimes feels worthwhile--but mostly not.

As ideas go, this is a slightly stronger movie than Captain America: The First Avenger, which spent over two hours telling a ten-minute origin story. Reviewing it, I wrote that I'd wished for more of Steve Rogers' (Chris Evans as the titular superhero) struggle to understand modern warfare and corruption--having been transported from an age where the "good guys" and "bad guys" were far more distinctive. The Winter Soldier is, ostensibly, that movie, but it collapses under the weight of trying to service Oscar-season ambitions and pseudo-summer-blockbuster expectations.

You may have heard, as I did, that the sequel is the most mature comic-book movie Marvel has done yet--a tense, paranoid throwback to the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. That's definitely a perspective, but like most Marvel pictures, The Winter Soldier is only strong within the context of other Marvel movies.. If you've seen All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor, and The Conversation, then a simplistic "rogue government agencies" fantasy that's punctuated by explosions and lived out by characters with names like Nick Fury, Falcon, and Black Widow will likely do very little for you. This is still mass-audience entertainment, after all, and you're not going to get people who can't even pick up their popcorn buckets and empty soda cups after the lights come up to think deeply about drone programs and data-mining.

But I digress. What actually happens in this movie? Not much, really--which leads into our second game of the day, "Deja View". Below are two plot-point compilations from major summer blockbusters. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine how the hell Winter Soldier co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely haven't ended up in some kind of screenplay penitentiary.

A. An all-powerful police force works tirelessly to maintain peace and justice. They are ruled by a council whose meetings include holographic representations of overly confident bureaucrats. A trusted government official begins an insidious power grab via staged acts of war and assassination attempts. The villain's goals include the dissolution of the council from within and the re-establishment of a dark, ages-old order--achieved through the use of a massive drone army with orders to kill anyone who might pose a threat. Oh, and the Big Bad also employs a loyal stooge/expert warrior, who ends up burnt to a crisp but somehow salvaged at the end.

B. With corruption running rampant through the police force, the only person whom the story's hero can trust fakes his own death. Said passing is executed so poorly that only the most gullible members of the moviegoing audience can be seen wiping away tears--while those of us in the know do our best to stifle yawns. The "good guys" in this story also cross several moral and ethical lines in their pursuit of justice, employing hyper-surveillance technology to track criminals. By the end, the protagonists find themselves without a lifeline, and must strike out on their own to combat a broken system.

Sure, originality isn't everything, but shouldn't these hundred-plus-million-dollar productions at least aim for something more? Pricey actors, nerd-boner references to other comics properties, and computer effects so over-the-top that they create black holes of tension and believability at the moments when they're most crucial to the story will only carry a film so far.

Speaking of the cast, I've gotta hand it to Chris Evans. Through the first Captain America film, The Avengers, and this installment, he's found a more relatable footing for his character. Still a Boy Scout, but less wide-eyed about the goodness of the people around him, Cap has come into his own as a leader and a warrior with a strong moral center. Evans plays this wonderfully, and it's a damn shame his character is completely forgotten in large pockets of what is allegedly his own movie. The Winter Soldier is, at turns, Avengers 1.5, with too much unnecessary attention given to the struggles of S.H.I.E.L.D. officer Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and super-spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who is a hell of an actress--though Marvel seems to be doing its best to keep that a secret).

Then there's the "Winter Soldier" of the title. In The First Avenger, which largely took place in World War II, Sebastian Stan played Bucky Barnes, the charming, handsome best friend of scrawny loser Steve Rogers. After some government tinkering, Rogers became the ultra-buff Captain America, and Bucky one of his "Howling Commandoes". Bucky allegedly died on a mission involving the Nazi research division Hydra, but he was secretly frozen in time and resurrected as a mindless, ageless killing machine.

Stan does his best with a largely thankless role. Costumed like an emo action figure (complete with metal arm!) and directed to sulk for ninety-nine percent of his screen time, he serves as a glaring reminder that The Winter Soldier lacks a compelling central villain.* Sure, he's got his own Joker-esque theme, but because the trailers revealed his identity several months ago, the movie dumbly plays out a mystery the audience has already solved.

In the absence of story and abundant, interesting performances, all we're left with in action movies is, well, the action. Sadly, that's not even close to being a refuge here. The Winter Soldier suffers from inconsistency and claustrophobia where its combat sequences are concerned. Some fights are too close and too frenetically edited to make much sense of what's going on (or care, since Captain America is apparently invincible). Others are just flat, objective views of CGI explosions as ships/cars/motorcycles crash into buildings/ships/cars/motorcycles.

I give the filmmakers credit for an opening half-hour that showed the closest thing the Marvel universe has come to restraint since its films began (the bombast is dialed down in favor of characterization--but even Anthony Mackie's veteran/sidekick role is betrayed by the need to have him stop being the voice of reason and strategy and start falling off of buildings while firing two guns and sprouting metal wings). I should also be thankful, I guess, that the climax didn't involve heroes converging on a central metropolitan building with a deadly light beam shooting into/out of the sky. My, how far we've come.

As someone who grew up reading Marvel comics (and who maintained that addiction until about four years ago), I can say with authority that there are decades of rich stories that Markus, McFeely, and the Russos could have drawn on to tell a second Captain America tale. Instead, we must endure another glossy bag of clichés that content-hungry fans will no doubt gobble up because this winter has been so goddamned brutal (both inside and outside the multiplex). But this lack of innovation, this wholesale reliance on formula and branding, is not only insulting to those of us who demand brains and braun, no matter the season--it's downright unpatriotic.

*If you haven't figured out by now that Robert Redford, playing the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., is the aforementioned traitor--all I can say is, "Welcome to the movies!"

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