CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Enviable talent combines to bring a powerful beginning, middle, and end to a classic superheroic tale. Then they combine again to make another hour or so of movie.
Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
With Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Hugo Weaving (The Red Skull), Haley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Tommy Lee Jones (Col. Chester Phillips), Toby Jones (Arnim Zola), and Samuel Jackson (Nick Fury)
Spoiler alert: severe
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
If Captain America: The First Avenger gave us half of one of the best superhero films ever made and half of one of the dullest, Captain America: The Winter Soldier can certainly claim to be more even.
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based hardly at all on the comic by Ed Brubaker)
With the above, as appropriate, as well as Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), and Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce)
Spoiler alert: severe, but basically nonexistent if you've read any Captain America comics, or possibly if you've previously been exposed to any form of fictional narrative whatsoever
Because his situation is so uniquely suitable to drama, comedy, action, intrigue, and all of the other stuff a human goes to the movies to see (except premarital sex), Captain America has always been the most intrinsically exciting character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is more of a flaw than a feature, though, as neither of his own movies have wound up all that good.
The First Avenger is a film that you have to respect for the idiosyncrasy of its very concept. It's a superhero movie set in the actual Golden Age of comic book superheroes, the 1940s. Then you watch it—and it is exactly as awesome as you could have ever possibly hoped, but sadly not for its entire running time.
With the help of Benjamin Button technology, Chris Evans establishes Steve Rogers as a hero of profound likeability and a pronounced lack of crybaby tendencies long before he comes close to becoming anything resembling the paragon of masculine Aryan superhumanity that is Captain America. While Bruce Wayne was weeping into piles of money because his parents predeceased him, Steve Rogers was scrambling on the mean streets of Brooklyn and trying to get to Europe so he could personally punch Hitler in the face with his tiny, childlike fists.
Born according to a veritable genetic recipe for bitterness, Steve Rogers faces adversity like a real American: finding deserving foreigners and projecting his own self-loathing onto them.
It's inspiring at the same time that it's kind of kid-matinee harrowing, and when he volunteers to be pumped full of serum and rays, you can sort of see the sublimated suicidality floating up into his superego and spilling out of his face as pure, distilled patriotism. Throw in a cool chase scene, Tommy Lee Jones humorously shouting at people, and a military establishment that, once it's created the superman, deploys him as a mockery, a mere propaganda object, rather than as the real soldier he dreamt of being, and you have a first and second act that are essentially perfect. The third act, involving Cap going AWOL so he can actually participate in the coolest war of them all, pays off on their promise. And then... you have another act?
Except it's not another "act." This Captain America story is over once he frees the Howling Commandos from the clutches of HYDRA; but he's not frozen yet, so while we might be finished, we're not done. That's why an entirely second movie begins here. Having something like forty-five minutes to develop, it gets compressed into the rotest possible form Joe Johnston, Chris Markus, and Stephen McFeely could imagine. Major supporting character and best friend Bucky Barnes perishes without fanfare in a scene that barely exists, and in its departure from the comics only serves to sabotage the climax of the film.
A misstep, yes, but even then it seems impossible that First Avenger can end quite so flatly. It is, the comics reader knows, a direct adaptation of the fucking awesomest Captain America story of them all. The Red Skull, Nazi superman, has acquired the fabled Cosmic Cube, and he is going to use its power to fly a superplane across the Atlantic, where he will unleash its full destructive force upon our continent and snatch a German victory from the jaws of defeat.
You may also call it the Tesseract, if you wish to be acutely boring. If you are the makers of The First Avenger, there is no evidence to suggest that by this point you didn't.
Unfortunately, this is the most banal adaptation of the seminal Stan Lee/Jack Kirby super-classic two-parter from Tales of Suspense #80-81 possible. Instead of identifying the strengths of the concepts they've seized upon—which, for over an hour, everyone involved had done with commendable gusto—First Avenger is content now to simply play them out at their most basic level, delivering a soulless pulp story that recalls not Johnston's Rocketeer at all, but Sky Captain, a film so inexplicably bad that I sometimes wonder if I even watched it, but I did (twice). I imagine that if one delved deep into each line, each cut, and each composition, one would find an objective film theoretical reason why all the urgency drains from First Avenger like lifeblood; but all I know is that it does.
When this Red Skull seeks to directly use the Cube, he does not gain the powers of a god, dreaming dreams of intergalactic domination; and this Captain America must not use subterfuge and a well-placed kick to the spine to wake him up to his mortality. He just gets disintegrated, or possibly telported, or possibly—who cares?
Not me. This Red Skull is a villain unworthy of the hero that Chris Evans, the writers, and CGI have created. Hugo Weaving, ordinarily superb, is on autopilot; they've abandoned the swastikas and Hugo Boss for the less-offensive, less-interesting production design and costuming of HYDRA; and even the Skull's makeup, in this big-budget tentpole, arguably isn't as effective as the obvious mask they used, however briefly, in the shit-budget, half-forgotten Captain America they made in 1990. (Hell, even their fight scene from the opening of the '90 film might be superior to the climactic battle in First Avenger, in tone if not in technique; that movie's Skull, while inexcusably not German, at least shows a real personality, when he frames his fisticuffs with Cap as an English lesson.)
"How you say, 'Il Cranio Roso'? No, don't tell me. I know: 'Pink. Skull.' "
But that obligatory Raiders riff sure is complete, if missing practically everything that its cinematic forebear had going for it; so now Cap, for reasons I don't fully remember but which I am certain don't make complete sense, can crash the plane into the Arctic. First Avenger's mission is thus accomplished, turning out to be less a story about how Steve Rogers came to be frozen in 1945, than an excuse for it, so that Joss Whedon's movie could happen—and, for my purposes here, I'm including the last few minutes of First Avenger, that Whedon directed.
With these few minutes, and the two and a half hours into which they led, I could forgive First Avenger its sins, because The Avengers handled Steve Rogers, a man out of time, with a flawless ease. Whedon penned the single best line in any Marvel movie, and one of the most perfectly efficient lines of dialogue I've ever heard. It draws a virtually complete character in the space of a mere fourteen words: "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure He doesn't dress like that." It's needless to belabor why this is so great; the thing speaks for itself. And I was right back where I was before the other shoe dropped in First Avenger: loving the shit out of Steve Rogers.
So, once again, I was ready to see Cap take to the screen. Bring on The Winter Soldier!
And Clark Kent is Superman. I don't think that's even a spoiler, though the movie does treat it like a surprise, so who's to say?
The long-delayed resuscitation of Bucky Barnes happened like a decade ago. In the source material's most famous story, Bucky was also on that Nazi death plane, and he too plummeted into the deep freeze. But Bucky, being just some guy, died. Except this is comics, everybody!; and so, no, eventually he didn't.
His frozen body was recovered by the USSR, who super-soldierized him, put a cybernetic arm on him for good measure, and brainwashed him into becoming their secret weapon, which they kept in cryonic suspension unless he was being used. Winter Soldier tells, sort of, basically the same story, albeit with minor and semi-sensical amendments that bring it in line with his character's fate in First Avenger.
And guess what? Not a word of it fucking matters. But I just get ahead of myself.
I don't know from exactly whence the concept of the just-in-time warrior came. I suppose it must be older than 1992's Universal Soldier. But presumably that's what James Robinson was cribbing from, when he experimented with the concept of the defrostable soldier as part of a rebooted Cap's backstory in the late 90s, albeit in the context of the alternate universe of Marvel's short-lived Heroes Reborn line. If the execution left something to be desired, it was a pretty cool idea: Cap in Korea, Cap in 'Nam, Cap liberating Granada, and so forth.
It was Ed Brubaker, however, who not too long ago brought the idea fully into the 616 or "real" Marvel Universe, when he related—for better or for worse—the secret history of what had been comics' most permanently-dead character.
The idea has it all: great big dollops of gooey character drama and the can't-miss themes of alienation of the military from civilian society and the objectification of soldiers; plus—once you have a human weapon who is so uniquely awesome you simply must freeze and mindwipe him in order to retain his services—those gonzo scenes of over-the-top ultra-violence which we all crave become practically unavoidable.
The ordinary course when treating such a concept is, naturally, to make it absolutely central to the plot. In a Captain America story, the arcane conscription of Bucky Barnes and all his meaningless battles accrue an additional resonance, that of a dark mirror to Steve Rogers, who sacrificed himself to win a war that he fully understood. Thus, while in any story it would seem like an atrocious waste to almost completely ignore all of this, in a Cap story it seems like it would be practically impossible.
It's an anti-miracle!
In Winter Soldier, the subtitular character gets, at a maximum, ten lines of dialogue; fewer, if you are reluctant to count "ARGH!" With one exception—where the presumably incredibly complex process of brainwashing is reduced to the dry footnote of simply slapping electrodes upon Bucky's head and having him recite that "ARGH!"—the Winter Soldier is never onscreen and talking unless it is an action sequence. (In these, Steve Rogers furrows his brow in earnest confusion, and surely we cannot blame him.)
The intention, perhaps, was to render the Winter Soldier an intriguing enigma; the unfortunate result is a character so vegetative that it strains plausibility that he can actually comprehend and follow any orders in the first place.
Those action sequences are, nevertheless, the moments where the film comes alive—at least in theory. Unfortunately, what certainly looked like some superb stuntwork and fight choreography was left out to thaw and spoil for good in the Russos' and Jeffrey Fords' editing room.
Though who can say for sure if it was good in the first place? There isn't very much left after their interpretation of the footage, which drills straight through Chaos Cinema and arrives at dadaism, suggesting "montage" less than "William Burroughs getting fucked up and trying to read the future in the juxtaposition of superheroic flying kicks."
The future I see is this: Marvel continuing to drunkenly shoot their properties in the head by hiring journeyman directors to guide major works of action cinema.
There are shots where the cutters manage to restrain their compulsive self-harm for a moment, and actually permit the Soldier to loom into the frame. These shots retain an odd power. A musclebound man with anime hair, a ninja mask, and a robot arm spangled with a Soviet star should look a bit goofy—and, paradoxically, still does. But Sebastian Stan (and his stuntmen), perhaps with the assistance of the Russos' staging (and their stunt coordinators), somehow imbue their creation with a genuine menace.
The achievement here cannot be overlooked; but that mild compliment is damning too, because all the other truly compelling elements are too absent to even slightly distract from this, the poorly-cut quasi-spectacle of a cyborg punching the shit out of things with his super-arm.
To fill the void, Winter Soldier instead undertakes to adapt that other famous Cap tale: Steve Rogers Is Disillusioned With the Military-Industrial Complex. Winter Soldier is the gelded retelling of that story's most notable iteration. Once upon a time in the satanic 70s, Captain America discovered that the leader of a fascist secret society was also, probably, the very same man as the leader of the free world. In Winter Soldier, however, Cap and allies eventually catch up to where the audience arrived about an hour before: the obvious villain is, indeed, the obvious villain.
This is Robert Redford, effectively stunt cast, as the man giving the Winter Soldier his orders. He is Alexander Pierce, described as "the Secretary"... of something, anyway, never stated but presumably rather official. Actually, I think he's the Secretary-General of some kind of World Government, which has been a weird, stupid, and baffling wrinkle to the Marvel Cinematic Universe since The Avengers, and is rendered even more opaque here. But whatever all this specifically signifies, he's even more of a boss than our previous boss, Nick Fury, director of the superspy agency SHIELD.
So prepare to be shocked to your ideological foundations as this fictional person you've never seen before, in charge of a fictional intelligence organization that is (apparently) subject to a fictional sovereign authority, turns out to also be a high-ranking member of a third fictional organization that hates freedom.
The stinging political satire gets a little muddled in the translation. Also that lamp is hideous.
In fairness, they didn't actually utter the name "Nixon" in the Steve Englehart comic either, but that had the advantage of being written when the world was new (as well as that of at least taking place in a non-fictional building).
Winter Soldier's sinister bureaucrat remains an effective threat, but all those heavy, unbelievably on-the-nose declarations about how security and totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin deflate in the face of the fact that the plot of Winter Soldier can be summed up in the sentence "Joe McCarthy was right." Nor does it help that the climax involves Captain America himself getting on the PA in SHIELD headquarters and calling for his own night of the long knives. If anything, the reality of the world within Winter Soldier demands a lot more spying, because HYDRA really is everywhere.
Winter Soldier wins points, however, for Pierce's wicked plan, beyond Blofeldian in its stupendously cartoonish scope. SHIELD has been secretly building advanced new helicarriers, which are linked to a new satellite surveillance system that can (literally) read terrorist DNA from space. In turn, these satellites are linked to a computer system which is loaded with a devious algorithm that can, by reading their identity disks online, register every potential rogue program on the Grid. Once their perfect system is up and running, the shadow government represented by Pierce will deploy it immediately, killing 20 million outright and cowing the whole world into submission with their show of force.
If the end result is a confused and spatially confusing race against time to remove one set of electronic macguffins within the helicarriers and replace it with another set so that they will shoot at each other, and if Cap never even confronts Pierce, let alone witnesses him commit suicide so that he can cry a single tear and whisper "no," you still can't fault anybody here for lack of ambition, only execution. Hail HYDRA, I guess.
On the minus side, this is in the trailer. So go see the new Captain America movie and you too can be absolutely thrilled by knowing exactly who wins and how for the entire last half fucking hour.
Such, then, is the film. It has fully three big ideas, any one of which could have easily carried a highly successful superhero narrative. (And there's even a fourth! That is, if you count Steve Rogers' ongoing inability to get along in modern life, newly reframed as a metaphor for the difficulties of soldiers returning to the civilian world, instead of as a metaphor for the disappearance of Greatest Generation gentility in the face of hippies.) All of these ideas are pretty great. (Although Cap as an old man unable to get kids off his lawn and unsure if he wants them to remains more interesting to me than a vet who hasn't figured out how to use his points on USAJobs.)
In the end Winter Soldier simply fails to breathe life into any of these ideas, even with two superb performances. One is given by Redford, who finds the heart of his villain as a jaded but dedicated civil servant who just also happens to be a fascist. The other is from Evans, who still can't help but be the perfect Steve Rogers despite not being handed a lot to be Steve Rogers with.
The screenwriters, again Markus and McFeely, are no strangers to big ideas. But here, they struggle just to find their point. And, discounting the handful of jokes that land, they even struggle to be funny, which after The First Avenger, Pain & Gain and Thor: The Dark World—each at turns hilarious—comes as a real surprise. It is all a bit of a disappointment.
After all, I couldn't help but expect that, in the wake of squaring capitalism's circle, the men who wrote the smartest and the boldest movie of 2013 were going to tackle the eternal struggle between liberty and security with the same degree of nuance. And of course I was excited about their return to Marvel's most potentially fascinating character, for whom they did so much in The First Avenger, last hour issues notwithstanding.
Perhaps their failure to say very much about anything at all has to do with the fact that, hey, it's a couple hundred million worth of superhero bombast, and attempts to broach serious subjects in that environment are bound to wind up clumsy if not outright inconsequential. But it's no excuse, as there are hundreds of good, grounded, uncontroversial Cap stories that could have been told. And ones that deliver substantially better thriller mechanics and action sequences, at that.
Like the aforementioned Winter Soldier movie they deliberately didn't write.
There was only one way to make the notion I think they're driving at really work—well, short of having Sadler reprise his role from Iron Man 3 for that Englehart moment. If the truth that Markus and McFeely really wanted to reveal is not that enemies are everywhere, but that the thing we have most to fear always has been fear itself—well, more really is the pity that Samuel Jackson plays a well-liked character and still has two more pictures left in his contract, isn't it?
I mean, can you imagine if Redford had turned out to be the good guy? It would've broken my Goddamned mind.
Score, The First Avenger: 6/10
Score, The Winter Soldier: 5/10
P.S.: "Why aren't Thor and Iron Man helping?" they cry. By Christ, is there any complaint more contemptible than the fanboyish inability to understand that this is a Captain America movie?
P.P.S.: OK—Arnim Zola was way, way, way fucking cool. I want to see the movie that's about that for more than five minutes. Well, there is Transcendence. But is Johnny Depp's brain on ancient reel-to-reels, just as good for uploading your consciousness as they are for fully transcribing the sound of Enya's "Orinoco Flow"? I didn't damn think so.
P.P.P.S.: That guy was supposed to be Crossbones? Whatever you say, rummy. (Actually, this makes me like the movie slightly more.)