Fun with Franchises: Final Thoughts on The Marvel Universe – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
All right… we’ve watched the film, talked about it, had fun with it, and then we went and listed our favorite images from the film yesterday. Now all that’s left is to finish up with what we actually thought about the film as a whole.
This is our space to go over what we liked and didn’t like about each film we watch for Fun with Franchises. We talk about specific things as we get to them during the articles, and we’ll mention our general thoughts during them, but we don’t really ever get to sit and do broad strokes during the articles. So this is why we do these Final Thoughts. We get to take a step back and talk about the films as a whole, rather than discussing specific scenes or images. We’ll talk about how we felt about the film, how we liked it as a film, how we liked it as a member of its franchise, and where we think it falls within that franchise.
Again, it’s not very complicated, but it is a place to find out what we actually thought about certain movies, since, while we’re having fun with them in the articles, it may get difficult to tell sometimes. Because we’ll just rip things to shreds for fun, even if we love them.
So here are our final thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier:
Final Thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier:
This movie has me a little bummed out, because although we’ve spent every Sunday during this franchise lamenting wasted opportunities and failed attempts (“Bless me, Father, for Marvel sucks. It’s been a week since my last depression.”), this is one where they started with something resembling good intentions — that’s what makes it so hard to come to grips with their ultimate failure.
Comic book characters are as 2D as the paper they were first printed on. I know that’s heresy in the nerd community, but it turns out I’m not as nerdy as I thought. There are few characters here who really need to be known or paid attention to. Steve, Natasha, Nick, Pierce. Remove every other person in this movie and you still have a movie that can work; in fact, you have a movie unburdened by the deluge of secondary and tertiary characters that stall the plot. Sharon, Maria, Sam, Sitwell, Batroc (the French guy) and “Crossbones” (the bad SHIELD/HYDRA soldier) are all characters that I don’t really want to follow. I had to do a search on the cast just to get those names. There’s a problem, endemic in comic book movies, that found its way into this movie: characters as plot. Characters who fit a certain type and can be snapped together like LEGO bricks in different combinations to create unique products made up of wholly unoriginal and static parts. The more characters, the more detailed your mosaic can be, but it still lacks the dynamism of a well-developed plot. Take the main characters.
Steve Rogers starts out as the anachronistic soldier who’s already thinking about getting out because he has trust issues and doesn’t know what he’s fighting for anymore. His journey ends with his trust issues being justified and him leaving the fight after all. Natasha starts out as a team player whose ledger is red (whatever that means — you can’t just tell us that she has a rough past and never get to it) and ends as a team player whose ledger is read. Nick Fury starts as a guy who thinks he’s the boss and argues in favor of atrocious measures to police the world until realizing that it wasn’t under his control, at which point he fights back. Pierce is played as evil almost from the first moment and stays that way until he dies. His motivations are no different from Loki’s (“Order!” “Is this not simpler?”) and his allegiance to HYDRA limits what his character can really be. Okay, so he’s HYRDRA, but what makes him a maverick? What makes him any more interesting than any other bad guy stand in? If you remove Robert Redford from this, he becomes a much weaker villain. I’m only willing to really listen to what he has to say because he’s Robert Redford and they gave him shitty things to say to people.
When you think about the connection — spurious though it may be — to Three Days of the Condor, you have to realize that the problem they had with this movie is that it all still leads to world domination and a very tangible threat. The unseen conspiracy will always command our attention for longer than the immediate threat because immediate threats are just that — fleeting. We don’t get the whole picture in Condor for the entire film because piecing it together and trying to stay just a step ahead of your enemies (if and when they’re even known to you) is that much more frightening than a straight fight. Max von Sydow isn’t the villain you think he is, nor is Cliff Robertson the standard conspirator. Only in that context could we have scenes at the end of the movie between Redford and each of them that don’t end in murder. The villain is something larger: a way of thinking, pervasive in contemporary America and its intelligence community, sorely in need of illumination. We had some gunfire, some blood and some thrilling moments, but we watched that movie for the puzzle it presented us and the dilemma we were left with at the end. There were no commandos to kill or planes to shoot down. I don’t want to ruin the film for those of you who haven’t seen it, but those of you who have know that the ending comes down to the importance of information — how a little knowledge can kill you, if you don’t succeed in democratizing it.
I know most people want to say that this is a comic book film and should stay simple in that regard, but I would counter that after eight movies in this universe, it’s time for something new, and that Marvel owes it to us to deliver a more unique superhero film than we’ve gotten. I said this after Thor 2, but I really want to drive it home here. Too many times during this movie, I was getting into an action scene that kicked off with pretty standard, traditional effects, when dumb effects would appear out of nowhere and reduce my interest to zero. The elevator fight was really exhilarating and I even accepted him falling to the ground floor because he’s a superhero. But taking out a hovering gunship with your shield and then jumping off your motorcycle to perform a finishing move before somersaulting off? Now you’ve gone too far.
I expect that at SOME point, we’ll be out of the valley. That is to say, CGI action will jump the shark so badly that studios and filmmakers will recognize that visual filmmaking is only ever as good as the underlying story it seeks to tell. Once we’ve become so saturated by CGI explosions and fake aircraft and aliens, emotional appeals may begin to appear in the places that sensory appeals have dominated by movies like this. The only moment when I could have projected some emotion onto the screen is when Nick Fury is told that SHIELD has to be disbanded and scrapped altogether. We almost had a Morpheus moment of, “I have dreamed a dream…but now that dream is gone from me.” Instead, he swallowed and said, “I guess you’re giving the orders now.” There’s no time for inner conflict or any real invitation for the audience to participate in the thought experiment on their own. When you’ve defined the categories of “good” and “evil,” the only task that remains is to sort your characters into piles throughout the film. Giving that line some ambiguity, or letting the audience sort for themselves — those are the only ways to provide a pleasurable, tactile experience.
And that brings me to my last point, which is that the good and bad guys are so plainly distinguished on the surface that their underlying similarities are completely glossed over. I refuse to believe that I’m the only one who noticed the absurdness of Natasha’s testimony. “They were these jerks who were going to abuse the rule of law and declare themselves as better in the name of order and protection. We saved you from them. That makes us better than you, in the name of order and protection, and therefore, we are above the rule of law as well.” Basically, the only reason that these heroes are any better than the bad guys is that they haven’t killed innocents that we know of. They’re still technically vigilantes who have acted independently of the government and have zero oversight and will continue as such because we need them. As I said in the article, this is so far up Ayn Rand’s ass, it’s giving her John Galt-stones. A decent movie would have shed some light on just how messed up a theory that is, and how these heroes have some major soul-searching to do before they can appreciate that they and the villains are two sides of the same coin. Captain America, in particular, is the kind of guy who should have been stepping forward to cooperate with authorities and recognizing that he had been and would likely continue to be complicit in a system with many of the same flaws as the one he helped to defeat. You know, in line with his character, like when he offered himself up for disciplinary action to Tommy Lee Jones in the first movie. Nope. We had to end on that note of, “Well, we blew up the bad guys, who were bad, so the good guys are clearly good and that’s all that done.”
I don’t want to say that I had such high hopes for this, but even as we might say that this is one of the top Marvel movies, it only serves to showcase how problematic their style and conventions have become. When you start with something potentially good and put it through the mill the way they did, it makes you that much more regretful.
My Final Thoughts:
It’s weird. I somehow have both a higher and lower opinion of this movie after seeing it again for this series. When it came out, my response was, “Okay. This is probably the best they can do.” I thought it was fine. Not great, not terrible. Definitely better than most of Marvel, but nothing I’d really say, “Oh fuck, that was amazing.”
But I realized — they were actually telling a story here, they tried to do something interesting, the fight scenes were well done and they tried (somewhat) to keep them grounded in realism over CGI (which I cannot say for every single other movie in this franchise (outside of maybe the first Captain America). Though they still fell into the usual Marvel traps, which is why I said this was the best they can probably do. It’s hard to see Marvel topping something like this, given the things they’re really interested in. Because that’s the stuff that bogs down the films anyway. So it takes good films and makes them okay, and okay films and makes them bad. And then Thor 2.
Here are the positives: there’s a mystery plot to this movie. Fury gets merc’d and there’s some shady shit going down, and we have to figure it out. Cool. Action sequences — him vs Baltroc, and to an extent the boat sequence itself, the Fury chase (all of it), the elevator fight (just the elevator part), and the highway chase — bordering on the practical without a lot of CGI. Limited storytelling — they pretty much keep this to a Captain America story, despite some unnecessary flourishes. Overall, good stuff.
Now the downsides: the mystery plot. It’s not a mystery for very long. “Oh shit, someone’s out to kill us, let’s go figure out what’s on this hard drive. Oh look, the answer is in Jersey.” And then they get the answer, and it all happens in like 20 minutes. The thing that makes mystery movies good is not finding out until the last minute. Then it’s like, “Oh shit, HYDRA? We gotta stop them,” and then action. Here it’s “Oh shit, HYDRA, let’s go hang out with that random black friend I made, and then get some wings, and kidnap a senator, and then get attacked, and then go talk to Fury and see what we’re gonna do about this.” They need to have extended the mystery, which would have made the film more interesting on the whole. There is no real mystery here.
Falcon — why? What purpose is this character serving? Cool you wanna give him a friend and a friend who is also a war veteran. But don’t give him wings and don’t make him part of the climax. Just not necessary. Set him up for the next one to do it. As cliche as it is, I’d have been cool with him helping him out as a friend, and then, at the very end, when he wants to come with him, he does the whole, “I never said I was a pilot.” Or whatever that line is. I’m fine with that. This is unnecessary world building. Get us used to the character, then have them do more. This guy isn’t a hero, he’s just a dude with wings. Don’t give him the wings so soon. It’s like with Rhodey. He’s just a friend in the first one, and then he gets the suit. It’s a bit difference because they changed actors, but that’s what it is. We accept him as War Machine because that’s where he’s going. Establish a believable character before you throw them into the shit. And on the opposite side — Sharon Carter. Doesn’t show up until later, barely exists, and is shoehorned into the action to give her more screen time. Why? Either commit or just show glimpses for later. This way does not work. I’m okay with Crossbones, or whatever that guy’s STRIKE name is. The only thing with him is that weird turn he takes from sort of cool with Cap and understanding of what he’s going through to just cold-blooded murderer and evil guy. That’s just weak writing for you. And then Baltroc — he gets in and out easily enough. I’m fine with that. But overall, you have too many characters, and Colin voiced the same concerns. You can do a lot more with a smaller story and bigger implications than you have with loud action. Because the smaller story makes the characters mean more.
Next — the CGI. Why do you guys have to throw in unnecessary CGI all over the place? Did you think people would be bored by hand to hand combat? That scene with the jet on the SHIELD bridge is ridiculous. And I honestly didn’t give a fuck about almost any of that helicarrier stuff at the end. They start with these world annihilation plots, and then try to one-up themselves in terms of spectacle. “Oh, we had one helicarrier in Avengers — here’s three!” Why? The crux of this story is that HYDRA is still alive and Bucky is still alive. Focus on that. The action sequences were fine. That entire third act sequence is unnecessary. If you had the confrontation with Pierce go exactly as is, have Mackie fight Crossbones as-is (that’s his way of helping out), and then scale down the confrontation to Steve vs Bucky on a bridge or something, with just them, you’d have done yourself way more of a service than the way you handled this.
Plus, wouldn’t it have been more interested if you didn’t reveal that Fury was alive until he stepped off that helicopter? Picture this — Hill shows up and saves them. Cool. Then they go off to that bunker to figure out what to do. And now they have to sit down and make real decisions about what to do, without Fury to guide them. Do we trust that Fury was telling us the truth? Was the Zola computer actually knowledgable? Maybe the missile was just because we put the flash drive in and had nothing to do with Zola. Do we want to wage war on SHIELD without having all the facts first? I’m much more interested in that scenario. The scenario where, while we know in our hearts Fury is right and is a good guy, we don’t know just how much of a good guy, and we don’t know if Redford is evil and is HYDRA or not. How much of SHIELD are we destroying by doing this? Is HYDRA a big percentage, a little percentage? What are we actually going to do? They gloss over that by doing the simple “it all goes” exchange, which is kind of a gloss-over of what is actually an interesting dynamic. Plus, again — and this is purely wishful thinking and my love of Robert Redford speaking (because it was heartbreaking to see him have to stoop to saying the words “Hail HYDRA”) — what if Pierce was actually just trying to do the right thing, thought Fury was fucking it up, and had him killed because he had the wrong information? And HYDRA was there all along, and he realizes that his blindness to what he wanted prevented him from seeing HYDRA and ultimately fucked everything up. And he can still die. But of course that’s taking this a step further and actually trying to turn this into a different movie instead of a better version of the same movie.
Colin raised a good point — it’s about the journey to the answer, and not the answer. You want the threat solved. In a superhero movie, once there is a threat, we know it’ll all work out in the end and good will win out. However fleeting and however minor that may be. Sure, SPECTRE never gets its comeuppance, but they are thwarted at the end of each movie. So here, one we know it’s HYDRA and who the bad guys are, it’s not as interesting. The only interesting thing is the Bucky thing, which is like 25% maximum of that entire final sequence. That’s the only thing we’re emotionally invested in, and the movie doesn’t even treat it as anything more than, “Oh yeah, this is also happening.” They really should have spent more time before figuring out who it is, because that’s what maintains interest in this kind of plot, rather than getting in and out in two hours with explosions. I know that’s what Marvel ultimately wants to do, but come on, guys, you show the ability to get really close to something good and then don’t do it. You’re not gonna earn less money by just changing some things. People are in.
Aren’t there entire comic arcs built around this? There have to have been. “Oh my god, who is this person causing all this chaos and all this destruction?” And they go out in search of them for issues and issues, sometimes getting sidetracked with other immediate threats. And then they reveal the big bad person and it’s this whole thing. I know there are Batman arcs where that happens. The character is revealed to be someone else and the whole thing changes and that character even potentially kills another character and it’s a huge deal. Even going back to SPECTRE — it takes five movies to get to Blofeld. But once you get that Blofeld reveal, it’s like, “Whoa, shit. Things are different now.” Blofeld really, when you think about it, only exists in what — one movie? I guess three. You Only Live Twice, and then there’s the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Diamonds Are Forever. But based on the one movie, and all the set up before that, Blofeld is known as Bond’s arch nemesis. And it’s really only the Donald Pleasance version (look at Austin Powers. Which version did they use?). You can actually keep a threat hidden for a while, guys. It’s not the worst thing in the world. Your major villain can get away with it, if a lesser villain is gonna take the fall.
The other thing — shades of gray. This whole movie is about shades of gray, and yet, when you get right down to it — good guys. Bad guys. No one’s in between. Not a single person. Eventually the line comes down like an Iron CurtainMan, and people are one or the other, and there’s no in between. But yeah “the world’s not that simple anymore.”
My problem with this ultimately is that they really had the chance to make something very good, and the only reason I have so many problems with it is because I wanted to see them make something good. You think I thought that hard about what could make Iron Man 3 better? No. A different movie, is pretty much it. So all of these critiques are with a grain of disappointment because — of all the Marvel movies, this came the closest. Guardians only got there because it was different and weird (in terms of setting and characters) and fun. No other Marvel movie outside of the first Iron Man is any fun. This was a chance for them to be serious and be good. And they just didn’t get there, and that’s why I feel so bad about it.
Though of course, that still all comes with the caveat that this movie remains one of the top four they’ve ever done. Which is where I wanted to end my thoughts. Without going too much into it, because we will do that in about a week, I honestly, if I had to pick between both Captain America movies, would take the first one. This by all accounts is a better product — but I still prefer the first one.
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Tomorrow we start Guardians of the Galaxy.
(See the rest of the Fun with Franchises articles here.)