Thursday, May 15, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

We're so deep into Marvel sequels and prequels and spin-offs at this point that the standard run-down of past histories and origin stories writers that might generally accompany this sort of write-up feels 1. near impossible, and 2. totally unnecessary.  It's not-so hyperbolic to claim that the whole damn world runs to the theater each time another one of these movies drops, and the Avengers franchise in particular catches the bulk of that cash.  From that line-up, Captain America has remained one of the less prominent action figures in the bunch, but what he stands for is at once familiar and understood. In the stylized 1940's of the first film, patriotism came easily. In the contemporary political space of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the landscape has become blurry. The Nazis are gone, and the threats aren't so clear anymore. S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't just battling pyrotechnic-wielding super-villains or armies, they're dealing with pirates, cyberterrorists, and threats from within their own infrastructure.

We're reacquainted with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he does laps around the DC landmarks populating the National Mall.  Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument; daylight breaking over the Potomac. The film seems interested in this sense of place, and grounding itself firmly in these specific landscapes becomes key in situating Captain America firmly in our reality. He's cast as the righteous everyman, observant and well-meaning, not caught up in any of the bravado or detachment of his Avengers cohort. Still, he's lost a lot of the liveliness of his earlier self and doesn't seem to know where his place is anymore. We see him attempt to deal with the dissonance between his distant past and his present, and we understand that he's sort of trapped in time. There's an exhibition on his WWII legacy at the Air and Space Museum, he's a nationally recognized figure, the love of his life is wrinkled and dying in a hospital bed, ravaged by Alzheimers. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is his closest friend, and she suggests, constantly, that he ask out various women around their shared offices. Steve, though, doesn't want to play the game. Instead, he lives quietly in a drab apartment, makes hospital visits, and seems reluctant each time Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. throws a new mission his way.
This is how Winter Soldier normalizes a lab-created demigod.  Marvel opted for a similar route in Iron Man 3, in plaguing Tony Stark with anxiety and post traumatic stress, but the Captain in more level-headed, and the film is of a different kind.  It's an action film, but more in line with the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s than the sort of comic book rinse and repeat cycle we've become used to seeing.  The film even drags Robert Redford along for the ride as a sort of appropriate pop cultural cue. Because Winter Soldier is built more off of script and substance, intrigue and plot twists than explosive set-pieces, it's difficult to discuss the movie further without ruining the smaller subtleties.  All that can be said is the exhaustion we feel at the end of the film is of a different type than what we've grown used to from most summer effects movies.  Here it's the result of a type of disillusionment, a disappointment in systems and countries and the world as we struggle to understand it.  Evans remains brilliantly cast as Rogers; clean-cut in a way that doesn't grate and capable of throwing out the sort of quick-witted response that speaks to a real personality beneath the action figure look.  We side with Rogers because we want to believe him, and Evans allows us to.  Captain America becomes the somber center in the midst of chaos. Though the adventure may take us to places unlikely and through materials well outside of the ordinary, Winter Soldier feels rather oddly plausible and, interestingly, smarter than your average. When Captain America doesn't know who he's fighting for anymore, that's a sad state of affairs.

It's worth noting, too, that Black Widow steps it up in this movie. She's moving out of the shadows here, and Johansson has figured out how to transition her into a fully fleshed out character even when she's trapped by a supporting role. Her own film is on its way, and now we may actually care.

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