Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) directed by Anthony & Joe Russo

When Iron Man was released in 2008 it was a shot across the bows of the superhero genre. A combination of great dialogue, brilliant casting and slick pop-inflected direction added up to a film that, while easily recognisable as a Hollywood blockbuster, possessed something new and unique.  But six years on, with nine Marvel films and a TV show under their belt, what was once shiny and new is now slightly and predictable. Audiences know the score with Marvel movies so they have to mix things up - be it through the buddy cop comedy caper of Iron Man III or the upcoming bonkers-looking space opera Guardians of the Galaxy. So what's new for Captain America and his buddies in SHIELD?  Well Marvel has decided to get political, and boy is it a mess.

The Winter Soldier revolves around a simple question; what if the goodies were (wait for it) secretly baddies? SHIELD, who have always been depicted as US Homeland Security on steroids were treading pretty questionable moral ground in The Avengers and as The Winter Soldier opens we find them wading through even murkier waters.  They're building a fleet of enormous flying gunships capable, as a proud Nick Fury explains, of eliminating threats before they even have a chance to harm anyone.  This doesn't sit right with the upstanding Captain America, who blithely notes: "This isn't freedom. This is fear."  

This all sets the stage for a twisty-turny tale of double-crosses and betrayals interspersed with car chases, huge explosions and burly guys punching each other to no obvious effect. It's pretty clear what the Russo brothers are going for:  All the President's Men with superheroes.  They've even cast Robert Redford, who obligingly leans against windows overlooking Washington and hammily pronounces guff like "In order to build a better world, sometimes you need to tear the old one down." (During this scene a huge, blinking neon arrow is pointing at Redford reading "He's the baddie!".)  

I suspect that knowing that Captain America is a pretty boring superhero, they put in this guy, an even MORE boring superhero, to make Cap seem more interesting in comparison.
There's a whole bunch wrong here but it all boils down to simple cowardice. The film is obviously the product of a post Wikileaks/Snowden world, drawing none-too-subtle parallels between the mass surveillance of SHIELD and the evil shit the NSA has been up to.  The problem is that though the film sternly wags its finger at this sort of thing via the totemic 'golden generation' figure of Captain America, it just doesn't have the guts to be outright condemnatory. The end product is a castrated film, one that wears the trappings of a political thriller but without the politics - rendering it impossibly slight at best and dangerously simplistic at worst.

The biggest flaw is that with agencies like the NSA and GCHQ et al being genuinely supervillainous in real life there's very little room for exaggeration. So the film becomes an infantile exploration of what might happen in a mass-surveillance society if there were a few superheroes about, which feels vaguely masturbatory.  But hey, a bit of wish fulfilment isn't such a bad thing right? At the very least it should be cathartic watching a muscular man in a brightly coloured costume decking the person who ordered all this surveillance.

It's not - primarily because the crux of the film is two quasi-fascist organisations squaring off against each other. The anti-democratic Fury-knows-best tight uniforms and black ops wetwork world of SHIELD versus HYDRA, literal Nazis.  It's Nazis versus Nazis folks, and the film expects you to root for the 'good' Nazis. If this weren't merely an episode in an ongoing multi-billion dollar franchise it could have shaken things up, but it's almost obliged to return to the status quo by the time the credits roll.  Nothing can change too much in Marvel's world, so in place of actual politics the film settles for criticising the mass surveillance of citizens by painting it as an attack on the incredibly nebulous concept of 'freedom'.

Easy on the eyeliner there son.
We're in George W Bush country here folks, the extent of Captain America's political nous expressed as "The price of freedom is high... and it's a price I'm willing to pay!".  Listening to doggerel like this you want to slap the film around the head - it's rubbish like this that created the very situation you're criticising!  The conclusion it arrives at is that mass state surveillance is an alien intrusion into the fine process of US militarism and that once you've gotten rid of that problem everything will be just hunky-dory and we can go back to the 'regular' military state. So The Winter Soldier ultimately finds itself in the perverse position of arguing that we merely need the 'right' kind of fascism.

Frankly it's a bit of a mess elsewhere too. Chris Evans does the best he can, but it's difficult to get away from the fact that Captain America is a pretty dull superhero.  Things aren't helped by giving him a partner who can fly (which is ready salted crisps as far as superpowers go) and one that can shoot people.  The titular Winter Soldier is a non-character, having maybe 4 or 5 lines in the entire film, spending most of his screentime glaring petulantly like a teenage goth forced to go on holiday to Disneyworld. 

It's all a bit of a shame. If this film had a bit more bravery and brains it could have been a great piece of subversive agitprop with a huge potential audience.  As it is it's just a dumb blockbuster with pretensions of relevance working studiously through the established Marvel movie formula. A formula that's looking increasingly creaky as the countless sequels tick by.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on general release.

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