Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

You know, in the theatre, when they revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. was simply a front for HYDRA, my first thought was “I wonder what that means for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I can only imagine how Joss Whedon felt.
A bit like Falcon, I'd imagine.
China went nuts for this movie. As one review said, "To love one's country isn't the same as loving one's government." And that pretty much sums up Cap’s direction since the ‘40s.

70's Thriller
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most grounded movie since the original Iron Man. Heck, in some ways, it's actually more grounded. And not just because Iron Man can fly. While the occasional plot element like a flying harness, a man’s mind in a computer, and helicarriers show up, the film feels more like a James Bond film than a superhero one. A James Bond film without martinis, fancy cars, or ladies with improbable puns for names.

This film was tonally different from anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe had seen at that point, which came as a breath of fresh air for people who were disappointed by the lackluster fantasy of Thor: The DarkWorld, or yet another sci-fi menace with a personal connection to Tony Stark in Iron Man 3.

There definitely seems to be a bit of Jason Bourne in the mix as well, with Cap resorting to slightly more brutal methods of attack as opposed to just bonking Nazis in the head with his shield, as well as some real-life disguise tricks when he eludes Strike with Black Widow.

Winter Soldier Adaptation
This is a very loose adaptation of the Winter Soldier story.
In the comics, the Red Skull is involved, everybody’s after the wish-granting Cosmic Cube, and Cap eventually uses it to restore Bucky’s old memories.

The choice to only adapt the comic story as far as the mere existence of Bucky as the Winter Soldier was not only a necessary idea, but a brilliant one.

First of all, the Cosmic Cube already exists in the MCU as the Tesseract, which was also retconned into being an Infinity Stone. So it’s not like you can count on there being more Cosmic Cubes, unlike the comics. And whipping out yet another Infinity Stone is quickly becoming a bit of a cliché, which the writers are at least trying to be wary of.

Of course, they could have had the Red Skull emerge from the Tesseract on Earth during the events of The Avengers and get involved with the plot… but Hugo Weaving didn’t want to return. At all. But that didn’t stop people from theorizing that the Red Skull returned in the disguise of Alexander Pierce, like when he hid out as Secretary of Defense….

But never mind all that. People theorize about how comic book movies will adapt the source material all the time. Which is why how they adapted the story line was pretty brilliant.

It was a smokescreen.

People were so busy trying to match up information about the film to the original comic book story that nobody managed to predict the larger twist. So while everybody was patting themselves on the back for already knowing that Bucky was the Winter Soldier, it left them wide open for the reveal that HYDRA was festering inside of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The HYDRA Conspiracy
HYDRA being instrumental in the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually taken from Johnathan Hickman’s run on Secret Warriors. Basically, in the comics, HYDRA had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. long ago, to the point that he had always been working for HYDRA.

He was not happy when he found out.
In the comics, this twist doesn’t quite work because of all those times Nick Fury actually foiled HYDRA. You’d think if HYDRA controlled Nick fury to any degree, they could throw him off the trail while they took over the world.

But this works brilliantly as a film twist because it’s shocking and doesn’t actually contradict anything in order to pull off the retcon. Instead of years of victory against HYDRA being retconned, HYDRA just disappears while gathering members and power. And making S.H.I.E.L.D. into HYDRA gives Cap a solid reason to abandon the world as a government agent to join the Avengers full-time.

This also works to explain some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shadier acts, like making weapons reverse-engineered from the Destroyer armor, and hiring civilians to reverse-engineer Chitauri weapons.
Not such a happy ending after all...
It also works to explain how Ivan Vanko got help with his evil plan in Iron Man 2 before Justin Hammer got involved, and how Loki got so many people helping him during The Avengers, even when you consider all the brainwashing. “S.H.I.E.L.D. has many enemies,” indeed.

“I told Romanoff she worked for lairs and killers, but she didn’t listen.”
And to top it all off, it gives the Avengers a reason to exist after S.H.I.E.L.D. has proven themselves to be capable of taking care of the world for several decades: by proving that they aren’t.

But… hey, Tony, what happened to "In a few hours, I'll know every dirty secret S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever tried to hide”?
“It was a lot of secrets, I didn’t have time to read them all.”
Right. And you didn’t read any of the ones that were released after Black Widow put everything on the internet?
“I had better things to do, like…”
Building Ultron?
“…Shut up.”
And didn’t your privatization of world peace resemble HYDRA’s goals here? Peace through superior firepower?
“You have reached the Life Model Decoy of Tony Stark…”

But since I mentioned it,  Widow’s solution to put everything on the internet not only should have tipped off the Avengers that Coulson was brought back to life in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but now all those HYDRA weapons probably have their blueprints on the internet. Sure hope North Korea didn’t get their hands on them.

In the end, making the villains into a former-Nazi organization ensures that the audience is going to be on the same page of the tricky Freedom vs. Security debate. Speaking of which….

Freedom vs. Security
This... is a complicated real life issue.

There are pros and cons to each side.

Is it worth sacrificing a few personal freedoms to prevent greater tragedy?

Or is this just, as Cap himself said, putting a gun to everybody's head and calling it "protection"?

Marvel's Civil War (from the comics, not the film adaptation) tried and failed miserably to explore this, mostly hampered by the fact that writers supporting each side kept vilifying the other to ridiculous extremes, which I'll go into more detail about when I cover that event and its film adaptation.

But in one comic, the Pro-Registration side would feature reasonable people with reasonable solutions to reckless superhumans, like inviting them to an Avengers academy. And in another comic, they'd be a bunch of fascists who detained people indefinitely without trial. Instead of a fair debate, it was the comic book equivalent of two kids making up ridiculous lies while trying to tattle on each other.

I'd be lying if I said that this film was 100% fair to both sides, though. I mean, when one side of the debate is literally represented by a Nazi organization.... Yeah, it's pretty easy to see who the filmmakers agree with.

But Nick Fury wasn't a part of HYDRA, and he managed to hold his own in a debate with Captain America. Fury genuinely believed that Project Insight was the best way to protect the world. And though it goes unsaid, his rationale seems to be that if you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide, right?

Except that this unwarranted invasion of privacy is in flagrant disregard of several rights America affords its citizens, essentially a mixture of wiretapping with constant surveillance.

Imagine if you had a personal police officer following you around, taser at the ready. As soon as you broke the law in any way, he would fire it at you. And he would always be there. In your car. In your home. When you go to the store.

Yeah, you'd want some privacy, wouldn't you? Well, then they have a satellite in orbit that can scan DNA, privacy is dead.

The issue is a complicated one, but one that's not worth debating on a real life level here. Mainly because the film exaggerates the villains to such ridiculous extremes by giving them a way to monitor each individual 100% of the time and making them Nazis.

And no matter how you feel about modern-day privacy/security issues, I think we can all agree that giving Nazis flying guns that can kill "undesirables" en masse is a bad thing. And that's where the debate kind of falls apart, because Captain America's argument is never taken to the same ridiculous extreme. So even if you lean more toward the security side of the freedom/security debate, you're still probably going to side against the Nazis.

Long story short, this movie works well as an allegory for the real life debate, but isn’t really apllicable to the real life debate due to exaggerating one side over the other with Nazis and a dastardly scheme. Which makes sense, since the filmmakers understandably didn’t want the audience agreeing with HYDRA.

Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)
…was not in this film. But he was originally scripted to have a scene where he goes after Cap… only to warn him about a tracking device during their fight before taking a dive to let the Star-Spangled Man go.
As it is, one can only imagine his confusion when he got back from some mission and discovered that S.H.I.E.L.D. was no more.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans)
First of all, he definitely got a power boost after complaints that he was barely impressive compared to the other Avengers.

For the first time since The First Avenger, we get to see Steve Rogers as he truly is. In The Avengers, he was still adjusting to this new time period, and using his job for S.H.I.E.L.D. as a way to distract himself from being stuck in the future. By the time this movie starts, he’s definitely loosened up, even teasing a stranger with continual on-your-left-ing before striking up a friendship.

But at the same time, he still hasn’t adjusted to the shades-of-grey world that war operates in now. The first film got criticized more than a bit for romanticizing the 1940s, which is why Fury brings up the nasty stuff the “Greatest Generation” did, and why this film delves deep into the gray-and-grey points of view.
With the aliens, it was easy. Kill the aliens before they killed all the humans. But when politics get involved, and both sides are operating under shades of grey… it’s hard to figure out what side to be on.

Thank goodness for Nazis, huh? Makes it easy to recognize the bad guys when they’re Nazis.

There are times where he even seems suicidal, like when he seems to accept his fate in the Potomac. Could this be a result of losing the only thing that gave him purpose in the 21st century? Perhaps Sam saw Steve’s need for therapy when he invited him to the VA office. He says it’s to make him look good in front of the girl at the front desk… but there isn’t any front desk.

But Cap’s growth as a character sets the stage for future conflicts between him and Tony Stark, and striking out on his own is giving him a bit of a trial by fire when it comes to leading a team without any orders coming from the top. And for a soldier, that takes some doing to be the one making decisions.
Sure, Cap’s no stranger to leading, but that was always against a predetermined threat. Nazis. Aliens. Here, Cap has to determine what the threat even is. And that will also cause a bit of friction down the line between him and Stark….

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen)
There was an infamous moment during the Age of Ultron press tour where Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans used words like “slut” and “whore” to describe Black Widow. And take a look at Renner’s apology.

Renner: “Mind you, we are talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior, Conan, but if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut. Just saying. I’d be a slut. Just saying.”

By all accounts, the press tour was a horrible experience for everyone involved (I’ll cover that more when I get to Age of Ultron), leading to this regrettable slut-shaming moment of locker room humor that was delivered in the middle of an interview. Not that I’m trying to excuse what he said. Far from it.

But… in the middle of Renner’s sexist slut-shaming, there’s kind of a point.

Natasha Romanoff is the MCU’s serial pseudo-love-interest. In each movie, she’s altered to fit whatever they need her to do.

In Iron Man 2, she’s there to act as a fake-out love interest, making us think that she’s going to try and steal Tony away from Pepper. Also, eye candy.

In The Avengers, she suddenly manifests a close relationship with Hawkeye that looks like it could turn romantic at any second.

In this film, she gets the same thing with Steve. And they further tease romantic possibilities by having her kiss Cap.

Black Widow continually changes in each film in order to conform to what women are expected to do in movies. Namely, be in relationships with the male characters.Certainly, she has her badass moments here, and they seem to be addressing her tendency to act like a love interest short of getting together with a hero… but it’s only going to get worse by Age of Ultron, where she suddenly manifests an attraction to Bruce Banner.

So while Natasha Romanoff is a wonderful source of badassery and snark, and while she’s not just a source of fanservice for the guys, the MCU’s treatment of the character isn’t on par with her male counterparts quite yet.

Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie)
Sam Wilson, on the other hand, is a big step up.

First of all, the racial discrepancy is quickly being addressed since complaints that the Avengers are a bit white. Heck, that’s why Mackie took the role; not just to be Cap’s partner, but to be one of Marvel’s first black superheroes, immortalized in film. In fact, he basically contacted them and begged for any role before lucking out and hitting the jackpot.

Some people have criticized that his relationship with Cap is a bit sudden, but I think it makes sense. After all, they’re both soldiers who lost a good friend overseas and find themselves looking for a purpose back home. Why wouldn't these guys strike up a fast friendship? In fact, Chris Evans and Anthony Mackie clicked as friends that fast in real life.

Sharon "Kate" Carter/Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp)
She had such little impact that I actually forgot to include her in this Review for a while. Oops!

But this classic Captain America love interest gets no time to build chemistry with Cap, while Black Widow gets numerous scenes with him that could work to build a romantic relationship. Seriously, watch any quiet drama scene between Natasha and Steve; you could naturally add a make out session to quite a few of them. It helps that ScarJo and Chris Evans are friends in real life, while VanCamp is working to create similar chemistry onscreen.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)
Finally, Nick Fury gets in on the action, despite spending most of the movie out of action.

When Nicholas J. Fury is in the dark about what’s happening in S.H.I.E.L.D., you know something’s up. Luckily, his elevator story and debate with Captain America firmly puts him on the side of the good guys, even if he disagrees with Cap on what’s best for the world. It’s a great way to keep the Security side of the Freedom/Security debate from looking too bad when HYDRA hijacks that half of the argument.

And watching him and Pierce out-gambit each other leads to some great moments.

Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez)
Boy, his patsy act was good, wasn’t it?

Many people are bummed that Jasper Sitwell has been retconned into a bad guy since his One-Shot appearances, but others prefer to think that the HYDRA brainwashing was used on him, as well. Some even harbor a hope that he’ll come back, despite being hit by a truck. After all, it happened to Coulson, right?


Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo)
Known as the racist, superpowered Crossbones in the comics, Rumlow starts off as a perfectly nice Strike operative before gradually becoming more and more antagonistic. By the end of the movie, he’s a HYDRA-loving nut who can’t wait for a fight.

The transformation is gradual, and there’s a vague feeling of uneasiness that the character gives you leading up to his attack on Cap. It’s actually very well done.

Arnim Zola (Toby Jones)
Zola finally resembles his comic counterpart… in time to be killed off. Although an earlier draft had him escaping the explosion in the robot body from his blueprints in the first film

Foreshadowing that never happened.
It seems a little out of character for Zola to be intent on rebuilding HYDRA, since he only seemed to be in it for the science, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. retconned HYDRA into an ancient cult that got sidetracked by Johann Schmidt and the Nazis. So it’s very possible Zola was one of HYDRA’s “old guard” who took the opportunity to put it back the way it was “supposed” to be.

But that’s just more speculation on my part. The HYDRA twist encourages a lot of that.

Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre)
I’m a sucker for minor villains getting their butts kicked in cameos, and this did not disappoint. MMA champ Georges St-Pierre did wonders to make the Leaper look like a threat.

It's pretty amazing, actually.
Still, the bit where Pierce specifically points out Batroc is Algerian (he was very French in the comics) seems a little tacked-on to avoid offending the French too much, even after the attempts to make him a badass.

Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)
This film’s tribute to The Empire Strikes Back features yet another lost arm. This one, however, we don’t get to see cut off.

Sebastian Stan doesn’t get much time to actually act in this movie, since he’s mostly playing a human weapon, but the scenes where he’s beginning to remember look very traumatizing. Slowly, but surely, the cracks in the HYDRA brainwashing are letting his past life seep through, and he just can't reconcile that with what he now thinks of himself: a weapon.

Zola called him the “Fist of HYDRA.” And he is. At no point is he concerned about his own safety or wellbeing. Because he goes out, does his mission, and returns to get patched up. He’s not there to protect himself, he’s there to do a job. He’s the anti-Captain America, from his outfit to his attitude.

When he goes back out against Cap, it’s clear that Cap’s face is now associated with bad feelings, rather than confusing ones. His pained cries of “you’re my mission” seem more like he’s trying to convince himself instead of Cap.

Bucky’s recreation at the hands of HYDRA is a tragic one, but the ending gives hope for a brighter future.

Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford)
Pierce is a far cry from past MCU villains. He’s not a deformed Nazi, or a Norse god, or a supergenius. He’s just a decent human being who wants to save the world from itself through evil means.

That’s not a universal interpretation of the character, but that’s the one I hold. Alexander Pierce is an affable guy, who seems completely reasonable. At no point does he ever seem like a bad human being, just a misguided one who nevertheless will see out his goals to their conclusion. He’s not a Nazi who wants to take over the world; all of his speeches are about improving the world. Sure, he could be lying, but there’s nothing to indicate that he is.

The man genuinely seems to be an extremist with the best of intentions. And that makes him an interesting character, played by an amazing actor. Thank goodness he decided to do this movie for his kids.

Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann)
The gleefully ridiculous German kind of ruins the tone of the previous couple hours, but reminds us what universe we’re watching. And it sets up for the character’s next appearance.

Where he loses faster than Professor X racing the Flash.
The effects are par for the course for the MCU. By which I mean amazing.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Winter Soldier’s metal arm, which utilizes the traditional horizontal lines of comic book robotic arms.

Don't let Tony Stark read that.
Though I have to criticize Zola’s falling Matrix text as opposed to a video simulation of his face.

Though I will admit it looks better than the ASCII art alternative.
And I like the inclusion of Cap’s S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform from the comics having darker tones to represent the darker themes at work, before ditching them for the brighter colors he used to wear.

At least they got rid of this goofy outfit.
Nothing too memorable. But Henry Jackman….

No relation.
…’s score evokes the mood of a spy thriller rather than a superhero movie. So while it’s certainly good, there’s really nothing you’re left humming. But the Winter Soldier theme, which sounds like the soundtrack is screaming in pain, perfectly evokes the terror that the Winter Soldier has not only gone through, but inflicts. Kudos.

Best Actor: Robert Redford
He brings his classic talent and charm to the uncharacteristically villainous role.

Best Character: Alexander Pierce
Certainly different than previous villains, and that’s a welcome change after the standard Final Act Rampage that most MCU villains have.

Best Line: Fury's Elevator Story
Not only is it a great anecdote, it informs us why Nick Fury is doing what he’s doing, setting him apart from the motivations of the bad guys who aim for the same initial goal. True story: Samuel L. Jackson’s grandpa was an elevator operator.

Final Thoughts
The MCU's first attempt at doing something a little more thought-provoking and a little more Jason Bourne. And it works surprisingly well. Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is full of offbeat risks that paid off in the end, and this was the best example of that… until the next movie came out, that is.

Next time, we’ll be taking a look at the far-flung parts of the universe that aren't part of the Nine Realms. See you then! Bring a Walkman.


  1. "A James Bond film without martinis, fancy cars, or ladies with improbable puns for names."

    Yeah, those are all Stark's department.

    Also, implying that Joss Whedon worked on Agents of SHIELD. Hah.

    - That One Anon

    1. I'll believe "Pepper Potts" as a real name over "Pussy Galore" any day.

  2. "Although an earlier draft had him escaping the explosion in the robot body from his blueprints in the first film"

    Am I the only one who can't take this seriously? I just picture Zola Computer spotting rockets flying, growing arms and legs and going "Nope." while running off.

    - Faceless Enigma

    1. No, you're not. That's why the scene was cut. Not even the filmmakers could take it seriously.

  3. This was a really good movie. It was well-written, thought-provoking.

    And yet, as much as I like this movie, I...
    I actually like Age of Ultron more... *Hides.*
    I can't help it. I love Vision, I love MCU!Ultron, I love Wanda and Pietro and Vision is a Precious Cinnamon Roll and Ultron's a snarky bastard and AAAAA there's so much good in it despite the not-so-good scenes!
    (Also, Tony's always had a bad habit of doing stupid things when emotional, so building Ultron is not out of character. Besides, it could've been that the Mind Stone influenced him to do it.)

    (I'm a Troper, okay? I read the Fridge Brilliance/Horror pages for the MCU Movies! They make sense out of the movie that most people don't notice!)

    Also, referring to Natasha, I actually have a bit of a rationale for Widow's behavior throughout the movies.

    All the ship-teases are her subconscious way of getting close to the other Avengers, because even though she consciously knows she can trust them, she's still subconsciously waiting for the other shoe to drop. Getting close to them would let her know their weaknesses.
    She can't stop putting up an act, and that's why she's always changing her characterization.

    And as for AOU, here's how I interpret the Banner Affair:
    Black Widow has never really had much agency in her life, even after joining SHIELD. When SHIELD fell, she truly gained freedom. Her attraction to Banner, even if it was forced, was due to her beginning to make her own choices in pursuing men.
    (She was ordered to get close to Stark, she's Platonic Life Partners with Hawkeye, and she got close to Steve out of necessity.)
    Even if she and Bruce didn't last as a couple, it mattered because it was her choice, and not anyone else's.

    (That's just my interpretation, and I'm not trying to force it or be a jerk about it. It's perfectly okay if you disagree with me.
    Then again, I'm a person who sees the good in schlock, so I could just be trying to make sense out of bad writing.)

    As much as I may love the Avengers-related movies, as much as I enjoy Civil War and AOU, none of them are as insanely awesome and just plain fun as the next film.

    Get in, losers. We're going to be like Kevin Bacon.
    *Ooga Chaka intensifies.*