The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups – Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

10 thoughts on “The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

  1. 1

    Interesting perspective. This echoes what I saw as a similar bit of timidity in ‘The Dark Knight,’ which teases the idea of Batman as fascist (in his willingness to, among other things, adopt massively widespread surveillance to capture the Joker) but which ultimately assured us that it’s okay, because we can trust Batman to use his power wisely and only as needed.

    It would have been a hell of a thing if Fury had turned out to be the villain all along–not because of a resurgent Hydra, but out of the sincere belief that the only way to assure peace and order is to preemptively eliminate anyone who poses a threat to it. It would have been in keeping with his ‘ends justify the means’ mindset, as when he manufacted the bloody trading cards which motivated the Avengers to unite. It would probably have ended Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would have made a much more powerful film and would still have allowed the big season 1 arc of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

  2. 2

    It would probably have ended Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

    Not necessarily – look at how they’ve handled Loki post-Avengers.

  3. 3

    Wow, and I totally thought that you were going to go with the ‘What the fuck did they do with all that dirt they dug out from underneath Washington DC with no-one noticing’ angle…

  4. 5

    I think it’s only timid in the terms the author sets and demands, which are terms I don’t agree that Marvel had promised. And what they did deliver was ballsy and unexpected for another reason.

    It sounds like the storyline he wants is “Civil War”, which encompasses all the aspects he wrote about wanting. Moral ambiguity at its finest. So much so that there is no villain (at first). Just heroes fighting each other along ideological lines. And I still don’t know who was right.

  5. 6

    Why should Cap “reexamine” his beliefs if there is no good reason to do so, other than to pander to those who want everyone to have clay feet?

    and indeed, where is the shock of why someone would have access to servers on the outside of the ship 🙂

  6. 7

    @hexidecima, I think that’s sort of the point. They could have made a film where there was a legitimate reason for Cap for reexamine his beliefs. For example, imagine Hydra isn’t even an element in the film. Project Insight would be just as totalitarian and horrifying, but now instead of Cap saying “Well, it’s the brainchild of a bunch of evil Nazis, so obviously I should oppose it,” he might have to say “Despite my misgivings, this may be what we need to do in order to protect ourselves in a world with gods, superhumans, and aliens attacking Manhattan.” In other words, when lives are truly on the line, does Cap hold to his stated principles, or does he accept that the end may justify the means?

    That wouldn’t necessarily have been a better movie, but I think it would have been interesting.

  7. 8

    @rory (#7)

    I think all else being equal, it would have been a better film then, simply because putting your protagonist’s beliefs on the line automatically makes for better writing. (They could also, of course, have have him do a face-heel turn and then a heel-face turn, regaining who he was before the climax.)

  8. 9

    @Alex (#8),

    I’m inclined to agree. If they’d kept Fury as the man in charge, it also sets up an interesting conflict where Cap choosing to adhere to his principles means fighting not only against the guy who thawed him out and gave him a purpose, but also against his best friend and former comrade at arms. It could also add some interesting weight to the relationship with Black Widow, since she’s more comfortable moving in a world of moral ambiguity and his idealism seems to be rubbing off on her a bit by the end.

    I didn’t dislike the movie we got, but I feel like the movie we’re talking about would have been more interesting.

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