Thursday, 20 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

There's a moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier in which Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) has to ask his boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) for a favour. Pierce agrees to the favour, but only if Fury arranges for Iron Man to visit Pierce's young niece on her birthday. It's a throwaway moment, designed for a chuckle and to remind us of the wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but what it actually does, very swiftly and brutally, is make the point that even in his own film, Cap is nobody's first choice for a fun time. And on the basis of his second dedicated feature, it's not hard to see why.

Without its prequel's knockabout novelty value of being set in ye olde 1940s, CA:TWS is left adrift in the MCU without a USP. Seriously, what's it got to offer that the rest of The Avengers' stories haven't? A hero whose superpower is that he's quite strong? Come on. The only interesting thing about Steve Rogers is that he's a fish out of water; a man out of time, with different values and an outsider's view of the modern world. All of which worked well for him in The First Avenger and Marvel Avengers Assemble, but that arc was pretty much complete once he took part in a technologically advanced assault on an alien army from another dimension. The Winter Soldier gets Cap's diminishing confusion with the 21st century out of the way in the first twenty minutes and never refers to it again, rendering him as exciting and unique as magnolia-painted walls.
Spot the difference

In an attempt to inject some kind of socio-political message into a popcorn blockbuster, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely display all the incisive wit of a school assembly about how war is bad and governments are evil. There's a vague attempt to examine the well-worn irony of keeping massive fuck-off weapons as a means of peacekeeping, with Rogers mournfully complaining that "this isn't freedom, this is fear", but I'm fairly sure the same point was made in Marvel Avengers Assemble, and everyone forgot about it there too once the awesome pyrotechnics began. And if you thought the casting of Robert Redford and the Washington setting might lead to some seventies-era political paranoia, think again: Redford's sole purpose here is to chat to a hologrammatic Jim Robinson from Neighbours in what looks suspiciously like the Star Wars prequels' Jedi Council.

But, like the film itself, let's ignore the interesting stuff and get on with its failings as entertainment. With a hero who's already the least interesting person in the room, Captain America: The Winter Soldier's job is to empty that room and refill it with people even less interesting in order to make sure you notice him. And so, as well as the criminally wasted Redford - who said so much more with near-silence in All Is Lost than he does with all the inconsequential waffle he's given here - we have Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, who's ill-advisedly been given a major role despite being a character so lacking in character that she's incapable of sustaining more than a few scenes per film. Then there's Anthony Mackie, a charismatic actor lumbered with the black sidekick role that worked so well in Iron Man Three that it may as well be replicated here, right? (If you can name Mackie's character after you leave the cinema without being a fan of the comics, bravo.)
It's not Rhodey, you massive racist.

And then there's the titular Winter Soldier (not to be confused with the titular Captain America, who is not The Winter Soldier despite the title clumsily suggesting otherwise). Winty, as everyone should call him in order to diminish his menace, starts out mysterious but dull, and before long he's not even mysterious. An uninspired villain with a faux-tragic backstory, his mission is twofold: to sit awkwardly alongside the story's core without getting involved too much in the plot, and to extend every fight and shootout to interminable lengths. Prepare to facepalm as Winty, after a long and messy assault on one of our hero's vehicles, simply unleashes a gadget which flips the car over. Could have saved quite a lot of bother if you'd done that ten minutes earlier, Winty old fruit.

But it can't be all bad, right? Well, no, although boy does it try. Cap hanging out in museums to remember the old days is a nice touch, what with him being a museum piece himself, and there are some witty moments and lines - although for every "I'm 95, I'm not dead", there's an exchange like "It's a tough way to live..." "But it's a good way not to die". NOBODY talks like that. Not even superheroes. And Samuel L Jackson is always good value, but again he's hamstrung by the script: one moment affords him the perfect chance to deliver a world-class SLJ line with great vengeance and furious anger, but nobody's written one for him. That sound you can hear is a million fanboys being brought to the brink of orgasm before suddenly having a bucket of ice dumped over their nethers. Even the film's big reveal, an admirably brave plot turn which affects the past, present and future of the entire MCU, is explained at length in a ridiculous exposition scene by a "character" who has absolutely no reason to do so.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier's problems are perhaps encapsulated in one gag towards the end which I won't spoil here, but suffice to say that at the exact point when you think they've pulled off at least one brilliant, funny, surprising moment, it's immediately undone by a dumb - and worse, unnecessary - punchline. It's the kind of thing Joss Whedon or Drew Pearce would have nailed in their sleep, and it leaves the whole exercise reeking of what could have been. If Marvel want to keep making superhero films for the ages, they need to invest in writers and directors with vision and characters worth watching. Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man look bonkers enough to be worthwhile, but given the choice between Captain America 3 and Iron Man 4, on this evidence, I'm with Robert Redford's niece.


  1. Some great observations which most reviewers seem happy to ignore. I also had major problems with the script, particularly its made up as they went along feel.

  2. Agree with all of this and glad to see it getting pulled up elsewhere. Marvel have made their movie again, only worse this time.