Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel seems to have figured out the superhero movie formula. Ever since The Hulk (which was was a bit of s stinker) every single-hero movie has been a gradual improvement over the previous one. I think part of the success is the established shared continuity which allows new films to build on mistakes, or success of previous entries. Whenever something doesn’t work or doesn’t sit well with the audiences, it gets aggressively retconned and “corrected” in the next installment, while things that do work get referenced back giving the Marvel Cinematic universe feel large, complex and interconnected. It is a magical universe of infinite possibilities that allows them to blatantly defy the conventional Hollywood rules and expectations.

Most blockbuster movie franchises never get past the second sequel. Even much beloved, and once ground-breaking Nolanverse Batman re-imaging keeled over in the third installment. Marvel Studios have nine movies and a TV seires already in the bag which are either direct sequels to each other or very closely connected sharing same characters and themes. They have four more movies currently in production and another dozen in early planning, or drafting stages. The only movie franchises that even come close to this kind of output are the “cult classics” such as Nightmare on Elm Street (9 movies) or Friday the 13th (12 movies) which roughly have been releasing one sequel or re-imaging for each new generation of horror fans coming of age for the last 30 years. Marvel built their movie library in less than a decade, and unlike above-mentioned horror series (each of which had a number of atrocious flops and low budget cash-grabs), pretty much every installment was an absolute box office slam dunk, and an instant favorite both among the fans and movie critics. This is unprecedented. The techniques Marvel is using right now to make sweet, sweet love to our wallets every summer will be studied and taught in film schools of tomorrow.

The Winter Soldier Poster

Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie poster.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is yet another example of how Marvel Studios seems to be incapable of screwing up. Against all odds and all expectations they continuously find fresh and new things to do with their flagship heroes. Iron Man 3 was pretty much what you might have expected from an Iron Man movie. Thor: The Dark World was an interesting thematic escalation that showed logical progression and character development both for the main hero and Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most beloved villain. The latest Captain movie is a little bit of a re-invention, mostly because it has to be. The First Avenger was a cheerful rah, rah, go America patriotism and Natzi punching which was exactly what it needed to be to make the origin story work. But now that Steve Rogers is in the twenty first century and there are no more Natzi’s to punch, what do you do with him?

Marvel decided to put him in a Bourne Identity style spy thriller and surprisingly it works surprisingly well. Steve Rogers not only has to deal with the culture shock of living in the future, but also with being a soldier in a world which does not have designated bad guys anymore. Instead of fighting Nazis he now works for SHIELD where no one seems to be capable of ever telling the truth, everyone has an agenda or a secret mission and nothing is what it seems. He has to sink or swim in the sea of lies, subterfuge and secret plots. Does this work change him? Does it make him jaded? Nope.

Even while in midst of an escalating internal SHIELD spy intrigue Rogers sticks to his boy scout morals, and remains a beacon of idealism and honesty. You would think that someone like that would be eaten alive by the seasoned spies and career lairs but the exact opposite actually happens. Captain is far from being naive, and his unshakable moral compass works like spy kryptonite. Against all odds, this approach works, and it works amazingly well. It is really refreshing to have a likeable, relateable and morally unambiguous hero to not only exist but also persevere in a jaded and cynical environment of a modern spy thriller.

The movie is darker and grittier than any other Avengers offering so far. It grapples with actual topical real world issues such as morality of preemptive strikes against “potential future threats”, implications of allowing powerful top secret intelligence organizations operate without oversight, dangers of drone warfare and drone policing escalation and etc. But despite heavier subject matter it never feels pondering and gloomy like that awful recent Superman film. Captain doesn’t brood or skulk – he punches evil in the face, and this is why we love him. This is why he is the hero we need, and the hero we deserve.

Personally I am sick and tired of seeing the brooding anti-hero archetype being shoved into every super hero property out there. It was cool back when Nolan’s Batman did it the first time around, but the gritty, overwhelming realism quickly overstayed it’s welcome and became insufferable by the third movie. Captain America is a breath of fresh air: he is neither Bond nor Bourne nor Batman. He is a man out of time, and a character seemingly taken from a completely different movie. He doesn’t play spy games: he smashes through the conspiracies. He is the antibody that aggressively attacks and destroys the disease that plagued both SHIELD and Hollywood super hero adaptations in general.

Granted, making your characters nuanced is generally a good writing advance. Steve Rogers can at times be a bit one dimensional, or even somewhat dull. There are some, like New York Magazine’s Abraham Riesman who think Captain should be more of a jerk to make him more interesting:

Cap remains a fundamentally dull character on screen and in the comics: He only grips us because of his place in a larger story, not because his character is inherently fascinating.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Captain America has the potential to be much more interesting — but only if he’s a jerk.

While on the surface this might seem like a common sense advice, I don’t think I agree with it. In fact, I think Riesman’s ideas to improve Captain by making him a sexist, racist, homophobe (because, hey that’s a thing they did in that Mad Men and Rogers is sort of from that kind of shitty time period) is so awful I won’t even dignify it with a proper rebuttal. I’m fairly sure it is self explanatory why we shouldn’t turn a hero who wears stars and stripes as part of his costume into a hateful bigot. But let’s read between lines and pretend Riesman did not just write an essay begging Hollywood to be more bigoted and exclusionary (as if it needed any excuse). Let’s pretend his advice was just about adding conflict and nuance to one dimensional superheroes. I still don’t think it works.

Internally conflicted, nuanced protagonists don’t seem to work really well with the comic book hero narratives. Batman is a notable exception, but for him the internal turmoil is big part of the source material. Other heroes do not typically have this sort of baggage, and tacking it on actually diminishes them as characters. It backfired horribly in Man of Steel and it continues to suck out the fun out of each and every single Spider-Man reboot Sony feels compelled to churn out on an annual basis to keep their licenses from lapsing. I think as audiences we have had our share of overpowering, depressing, gritty realism, and we are done with it. We want our superheroes to be larger than life, and fight crazy space monsters rather than struggle with existential dread. The Avengers was the most successful and most beloved super-hero feature yet, and it didn’t even have an ounce of grimdark and despair. It did not need it. It wasn’t appropriate.

But if you want to make a film that is darker and more serious in tone and topic matter, do it the way The Winter Soldier did: juxtapose it against the larger than life superhero. Pepper your gritty settings with occasional idealists, optimists and selfless heroes. While such characters may seem dull on paper, they really stand out in the finished product. In a setting where everyone is jaded, morally compromised and dead inside someone like Steve Rogers becomes interesting precisely because he is more normal, adjusted and easier to relate to. Or, you know, don’t do any of these things and let Marvel continue dominating the box office until super heroes go out of style.

What did you think of the movie? Let me know in the comments.

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8 Responses to Captain America: The Winter Soldier

  1. “while things that do work get referenced back giving the Marvel Cinematic universe feel large, complex and interconnected.” That reads odd to me, maybe I am being dumb.

    I haven’t been watching the movies as much, but I am really loving Agents of Shield.

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  2. StuartB UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I thought it was fantastic and probably the best action movie I may see this year. In some ways, it reminded me of The Matrix in terms of action and fighting, but on a whole new level; he was truly superhuman at times, especially on the boat scene and “to your left”, but never not cartoony, if that makes sense. Looking forward to seeing it again.

    A few other things stuck out to me after seeing it. I sort of agree that, so far, Steve Rogers has been a pretty dull character. He’s awesome, he’s funny, but at the same time, he’s still mourning the death of his family, friends, and basically entire world from the 40s, as craptastic as it had gotten. And that leaves him feeling one-note, always “on duty”, never able to truly switch off. Hence “dull”. If Marvel wants to really twist the knife before the potential death of Steve in Avengers 3, ramp up his happiness. New love interest. An increasing sense of feeling part of our modern world. Resolution with Bucky. And then heroic sacrifice.

    Another thing I noticed: Steve Rogers kills in his movie. Perhaps this betrays my leanings in life, but it bugged me to no end when in Avengers when restarting the turbine, instead of acting like a trained soldier, Steve does pray and spray covering techniques that force the enemy to hide, rather than just take them out like a soldier would. It felt like both a modern liberal “superheroes don’t kill” message as well as Joss Whedon putting his own views into the film. Whenever Steve doesn’t act like a trained soldier, it pulls me out. Winter Soldier, on the other hand, seemed to just accept the fact that, yes, superheroes good or morally gray can and will take life if necessary. It’s not gratuitous, it’s not dwelt on, it’s just reality. And I appreciated it.

    Overall, Winter Soldier was utterly fantastic. I’m one of the few who thought First Avenger was the best phase 1 film because it felt like a superheroes meets Indiana Jones period piece, and it worked. Until I see Guardians in August, I imagine Winter Soldier will be my favorite Phase 2 film…although damn but Thor was good, and I really appreciated the different take on the Mandarin in IM3.

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  3. StuartB UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Have you ever noticed there is no every man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? There is no one character we as the audience can relate to. Do you think that may contribute to the success they are experiencing?

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  4. StuartB UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ StuartB:
    Not to hijack this whole thread, but I found this on Escapist:

    “Isn’t this kind of a ridiculous question? “Should” Superman kill villains? If Superman killed villains, he wouldn’t be Superman.”

    Frankly, I think that kind of thinking is bullshit. But I’m curious what others think.

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  5. i don’t know… i cant stand him.
    i prefer those dark characters with depth. And there ARE a whole lot of them, not just Batman. Most have one dominant aspect that is blown way out of proportion. But beeing a “superhero” already makes you the good one. You shouldn’t have beeing that you main character-definition or else you will just become a second superman. Noone really likes superman. He’s too perfect, too morally superior.
    Oh he has the best toys when it comes to powers and he kinda defined the genre, but that doesn’t make him a well written character. For this he needs to lie to Lois about Clark!=Superman, miss every appointment and beeing overall imperfect. Clark is what makes Superman a character.
    Captain America has no Clark.

    other “darker” Chars:
    * Hancock
    * Hulk
    * Wolverine
    * Daredevil
    * Rorschach
    * cat woman
    * even Hellboy seems deeper than Cap

    if selling Weapons, sleeping with hundreds of women and beeing an overall asshole doesnt make you dark enogh for this list? Then you’re Iron Man.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Ah, this sentence is in some weird quantum state between:

    “things that do work get referenced back, making the Marvel Cinematic universe feel large, complex and interconnected”

    and

    “while things that do work get referenced back, giving the Marvel Cinematic universe large, complex and interconnected feeling and texture”

    @ StuartB:

    They do have “normal” everyman characters, but in supporting roles rather than leads. For example that’s more or less the role of Darcy in Thor. So there is that.

    As for the killing thing: it didn’t really bother me that much. I never really read Captain comics precisely because I found the concept of him a bit dull. As a result I’m not really familiar with his stance on killing, but I think the movies make it seem that he accepts that using deadly force is sometimes necessary though he personally prefers to avoid it at all cost (hence carrying a shield instead of a gun).

    I think seeing Superman or Batman kill would bother me much more. After all Clark is supposed to be an all-American farm boy with wholesome upbringing on the Kent farm, and Batman’s whole reason for donning cape was to prevent senseless death like that of his parents. Refusal to take lives is part of their character concept. Steve on the other hand served in the army during WWII and was presumably trained to kill.

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    To be honest, I never read Cap comics precisely because of this reason: he seemed dull. He was low powered (compared to a lot of other heroes) and morally superior and sometimes preachy. But I honestly think the movies make it work. I think part of it is that Chris Evans really sells it.

    And I do agree that dark does work well in prose and comics but Holywood really lays it on thick in these movies. Nolan is undeniably the master of this sort of film, and he did very well with the first two Batman movies but it just did not work for the third one. I don’t know if it was because he totally just phoned it in, or because the audiences got overexposed to gritty realism got sick of it.

    Hancock was great (well, up until the third act when it went of the rails) but it wasn’t really dark. Yes, he was a brooding anti-hero but the film was an action-comedy and his moodiness was played for laughs a lot. Similar thing happened to Hulk.

    They tried going dark and gritty with Ed Norton’s movie, but it did not work. Then they re-invented him for Avengers. They made Banner quirky and jittery rather instead of being haunted and tortured. Instead of having the Hulk roar and behave like a wounded animal they gave him one liner quips and fun action sequences. And all of a sudden everyone fell in love with him.

    Wolverine and Hellboy are way cooler than Captain just by definition. That said, I still am having post-traumatic flashbacks to that Origins movie. I’m really hoping Days of Future Past is going to redeem him a bit.

    Daredevil and Catwoman are good characters, but they had some really awful movies so they are not really in the same league as Captain. I’ll take Christ Evan’s Steve Rogers over Ben Afflecks Daredevil (though I’m kinda looking forward to see what he does with Batman) or Haley Berry’s Catwoman (she is a perfect Storm though).

    Rorschach is a bit different because Watchmen is basically a deconstruction of the super-hero story.

    Honestly, I think Whedon really nailed the dynamic in the Avengers. Steve is the boy scout, Tony is the bad boy, Thor is the stuck up rich kid, Banner is the nerd, Black Widow is 2 cool 4 school, Hawkeye is a bro, Coulson is the fan boi, etc.. It works.

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  7. Jason *StDoodle* Wood UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Luke Maciak wrote:
    Honestly, I think Whedon really nailed the dynamic in the Avengers. Steve is the boy scout, Tony is the bad boy, Thor is the stuck up rich kid, Banner is the nerd, Black Widow is 2 cool 4 school, Hawkeye is a bro, Coulson is the fan boi, etc.. It works.

    I *just now* realized that Whedon’s Marvelverse is basically a mash-up of traditional comics / action and a John Hughes movie…

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Jason *StDoodle* Wood wrote:

    I *just now* realized that Whedon’s Marvelverse is basically a mash-up of traditional comics / action and a John Hughes movie…

    Yep. It totally checks out:

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