Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Three Days of the Captain

That goofy grin you saw on your comic-book-loving friends this past weekend can be found in the dictionary under Heaven, I Just Died And Went To.  Why are they wearing it?  Because they saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

On the plus side, it was better than Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, both of which felt like they needed at least one more rewrite. For the comic book aware among you, it combines the Ed Brubaker Cap run with the premise behind a couple of SHIELD story arcs.  And it actually makes a major change in the shared universe of Marvel's movies, and by major I mean quite literally something that’s been a constant since the first Iron Man movie.  You hear the phrase "This changes everything" so much in comic books that it's become about as believable as "This guy just died."  But in this case it actually does change everything, not least of which is the premise behind a certain TV show.  

On the minus side, you can clearly see the formula of these movies becoming more and more frozen, like something from a story workshop rather than an actual story: solid character stuff in the beginning, team-building and mystery-chasing in the middle, and lots of explosions in the last twenty minutes.  Followed by mid-credits teaser.  Followed by end-of-credits moment.  (That stands as (a) my fear that all things Disney eventually become formulaic and (b) my prediction for how Guardians Of The Galaxy will play out in August.)

Other pluses: Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson.  Robert Redford.  The Smithsonian exhibit. Jet Li Jenny Agutter. And the character of Steve Rogers. The writers get him, Chris Evans nails it, and the interaction between Steve/Cap and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a solid mix of innocence and experience. Plus you really get a sense of Steve Rogers as a model of the right kind of patriotism, and Captain America as a kick-ass super-soldier. When he hits bad guys, they scatter like bowling pins. When he runs at a door, the door ends up in splinters. And when he goes up against a jet, it’s the technological version of Legolas and the elephant—poor jet shoulda just stayed in its hangar.  In fact, all the action scenes and the hand-to-hand fighting scenes are pretty damn cool (although in some cases way-too-much edited).  Special kudos to the shield-slinging, though, which is way cooler here than in the first Cap movie.  And hell, they even made THIS guy look cool:

The movie is also very political, as in topical political. The directors have been up-front about seeing this film as a 70’s political thriller along the lines of Three Days Of The Condor (an echo which is strengthened by the presence of Robert Redford in the cast as SHIELD honcho Alexander Pierce). And within the imposed framework of a superhero action movie, they get that thriller vibe by going to several unexpected places as we and our heroes discover the secrets behind the deployment of a weapons system called Project Insight (Incite?), which is dedicated to targeting and calling down drone strikes on potential troublemakers before they become trouble, including at least one Marvel hero who doesn't have a movie yet. As Cap says, this isn’t freedom. But it is order, and the film makes a very clear equation between that kind of order and fascism. What it also manages to do is leave that equation just ambiguous enough so that there’s some gray to the argument. As one character says when faced with the choice of saving a family member with an Insight strike, “Not with your weapon.” What the movie doesn’t tell you is whether he’s objecting to the weapon itself, or just one particular group’s use of it.

Another prediction: you are probably going to hear a lot of talk about Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow getting a movie of her own. That would be a mistake. The Black Widow as a character works best the way she does in this movie: as a contrast to somebody who is her complete opposite, like Cap. She’s Rhoda Morgenstern—if she stars in her own show, she has to have her own Rhoda, which turns her into Mary Richards. Please don’t turn Black Widow into Mary Richards, okay, Marvel?

Alexander Pierce and the Black Widow
in happier times

As I mentioned, there’s a good chance you may tune out by the end, because a lot of the specific touches get (literally) blown away by the finale, which has the now-formulaic escalating explosions, countdown to disaster, people outrunning escalating explosions, comic book physics, and a lot of cross-cutting between simultaneous climactic battles—during which the heart of the movie (Cap and Winter Soldier) almost gets lost in all that splodey. (Which is all I’m going to say about THAT plotline.)

As for me, I loved it, and will probably see it again this week, because I have no life.  And by the way—if you’re into in-jokes and you haven’t seen the film yet, pay attention to the contents of Robert Redford’s refrigerator (especially the brand of salad dressing), and the Biblical quotation on a particular tombstone. If you have seen the film and didn’t notice these, get back to me offline and I’ll fill you in on what you missed. And you can fill me in on anything that I might have missed as well.

And because I still can’t believe this movie made Batroc The Leaper cool, here’s a Jack Kirby Batroc/Cap fight page from 1967:

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