Warning! Massive spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the most ambitious and impressive undertakings in cinema history. I doubt if anything so audacious has ever been done in film. Marvel/Disney have for years been weaving together their movies (and now TV series) together to make this incredible shared narrative.
It’s been massively successful and most of the movies have been good to very good. Perhaps my favorite character to emerge from the MCU is Steve Rogers/Captain America. Unfortunately both stand-alone Captain America movies have been bad.
Before I go much further I should say that I don’t come at this as a fan of Marvel comic books. Growing up I read very few Marvel books. I was a DC guy, particularly a fan of Superman. So when I go to see a Marvel movie I’m judging it almost entirely as a film. I doubt if I’ve ever read a Captain America comic book.
The character of Captain America as written is this naive caricature of a nationalistic do-gooder who sees things in black and white. It would be so easy for the character to be portrayed in a goofy, unbelievable way. What sells the character and makes him one of my favorites in the MCU is the actor that plays him, Chris Evans. Evans gives the character a level of complete sincerity, to the point you feel like you could follow him through a brick wall. I can’t imagine any other actor pulling this off so completely. Evans makes the character rise above the silly star-spangled costume.
While Evans is fantastic, the stand-alone movies he’s been put in have been atrocious. The problem for me is one of cognitive dissonance. Up until the movie Captain America: The First Avenger, the MCU had delivered us a world essentially just like our own, with heroes that you could almost believe could exist in the real world. Tony Stark was a wealthy weapons manufacturer who built a flying battle suit. Ok, there are similar, if more rudimentary, contraptions in real life. You could almost imagine Elon Musk actually becoming Iron Man. Likewise Bruce Banner as the Hulk is a scientist whose experiments with gamma radiation have unintended consequences. Even Thor was setup as an alien playing off of the Arthur Clarke maxim that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
So while I could suspend my disbelief that these heroes could arise (or in Thor’s case reappear) in the present day, my cognitive dissonance began with the first Captain America movie when the MCU literally re-wrote the real history of WWII. I didn’t mind the idea that the U.S. government covertly created a super soldier serum that turned a scrawny Steve Rogers with pluck into the ripped Captain America, but a massive army of ray gun-wielding Nazis was too much. And on top of that they were extremely goofy and cartoonish bad guys. Making matters worse, the ending was badly written.
Now probably that was all in keeping with the comics, but I wanted something that was a little more believable. Frankly, I loved the idea of a period comic book movie, but I really wanted The First Avenger to be a dark, gritty, realistic WWII movie along the lines of Battleground, only with Captain America.
While I liked The Avengers, it only caused my MCU cognitive dissonance to grow with the introduction of the heli-carrier, a flying aircraft character operated by the clandestine government agency SHIELD, headed by Nick Fury. It was definitely a cool ship, but completely unbelievable.
So going into Captain America: The Winter Soldier I actually had a lot of hope that I would enjoy the film. After all, the only MCU movie I considered bad was the first Captain America film (I haven’t yet seen Iron Man 3 or Thor 2), so the odds were I’d enjoy it. At least they were done with the goofy Nazis with ray guns, right?
It’s hard to summarize the plot of this movie because it’s so complicated and has so many different moving pieces. I was so confused after the first forty-five minutes that I knew I would need to watch the movie again just to understand everything that was going on (I haven’t done that yet).
Steve Rogers is beginning to feel uneasy about working for SHIELD. He’s not sure if he can trust Nick Fury and doesn’t find find the battles he’s fighting as clear cut as they were to him in his WWII days. Meanwhile the bureaucrat that Fury reports to (Robert Redford) is building a clandestine fleet of heli-carriers/satellites that will identify and eliminate perceived threats before they lead to terrorist attacks. But there’s more! Nick Fury is attacked and nearly killed by commandos led by a mysterious dude called the winter soldier with a fierce mechanical arm, leaving Steve Rogers, Black Widow, and a new hero called Falcon to try to figure out what’s going on while simultaneously evading SHIELD and the Winter Soldier. When eventually we learn that Hydra (the ray gun Nazis from the first movie) not only wasn’t wiped out but in fact covertly infiltrated and co-opted SHIELD decades ago and is now behind Redford’s heli-carrier plan I groaned internally. I really thought we had moved past those guys.
Part of my problem with Iron Man 2 was that Iron Man once again faced off against a guy in an Iron Man-like suit. Can’t Iron Man fight a different kind of foe? Similarly, must Captain America battle Hydra in every movie? Why can’t Captain America fight a bad guy in a robot suit and Iron Man battle some other kind of bad guy? You get the point.
I did actually kind of like making SHIELD the bad guy. They’ve always come across as creepy and Big Brotherish and even have a Naziesque emblem. It would have been really bold for Nick Fury to have turned out to be a bad guy, but apparently he’s one of like twenty SHIELD agents who actually weren’t working for Hydra. I also like the idea of incorporating real-world concerns like government spying, drone attacks, and pre-crime into the plot, though a good deal of that social commentary is spoiled by making the goofy Hydra responsible. In retrospect Star Trek Into Darkness actually did a better job at handling social commentary and it was a much worse film overall. In the end SHIELD is apparently disbanded (which I suspect has big implications for the SHIELD TV show) with the handful of good SHIELD agents now working for other, equally sinister real-world government agencies to round up all the Hydra agents they can find.
Another thing that bugged me is how little the Winter Soldier actually played into the plot of the movie. They really should have called the movie, Captain America: The Shield Falls or Captain America: A House Divided. Something like that. Basically the Winter Soldier turns out to be Steve’s friend from WWII brainwashed into being a Hydra/Soviet operative, and they definitely foreshadowed his potential bigger involvement in upcoming MCU films, but he really wasn’t all that crucial to this film.
I also have gotten really frustrated with the tendency for Hollywood blockbusters to go over the top with massive CGI set pieces. Think the heli-carrier in The Avengers was a little over the top? Deal with three of them in this movie! To paraphrase Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “Your CGI artists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Contrast Winter Soldier with the first Thor movie. The latter essentially took place entirely within a small southwestern town! In general I prefer these movies when they’re smaller and more grounded. Another accurate title for this film could have been Captain America: ‘Splosions!
There were also a lot of movie clichés in this film. The final sequence where the Winter Soldier tries to stop Captain America from inserting the control chip into the heli-carrier’s computer core was extremely similar in plot and look to the scene at the end of Serenity where the parliament operative tries to stop Mal from sending out the regime-toppling broadcast in the transmission computer core thingy. There’s also a scene where the Hydra controllers are counting down to bringing the heli-carriers’ weapons systems online that is comically similar to the Death Star coming in range of the rebel base at the end of Star Wars.
Now for some little gripes:
Scarlett Johansson’s acting is incredibly wooden. Based on what little we know about Black Widow and her past she’s a character that should have some interesting nuances, but Johansson plays her like she’s carved from stone.
I know they can’t assemble the Avengers for every situation, though they could have used them here, but why couldn’t they at least have had Hawkeye? He is, like Black Widow, an actual SHIELD agent after all. Is he a Hydra operative too? The movie never tells us, but it would be a good thing to find out.
I almost laughed out loud both times characters used a laser torch to escape from a vehicle. A laser torch that can cut through the roof or floor of a car? I can see that. But also cutting through several feet of asphalt, rock, and whatever else is under the car? That’s just goofy.
Another unintentionally comical scene involves Black Widow removing a digital face mask she’d been using to make herself look like a different person. No movie should remind the audience of Mission Impossible II.
Look, I get that my expectations are probably a little off here, but I’d like to see the MCU movies stay a little more grounded, at least in the stand-alone films. I absolutely love Chris Evans’s portrayal of Captain America, but he’s only contracted for a couple more movies. I fear we may never get to see him in a good Captain America film, and that’s sad. Still, I’m looking forward to Guardians Of The Galaxy. And Marvel’s got some upcoming competition from Fox’s new X-Men film. Yes, X-Men is a Marvel property, but they don’t own the film rights to the franchise. X-Men: First Class was one of the best comic book movies yet, so I have high hopes for the sequel.