CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014, directed by Anthony & Joe Russo, 136 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger is the ninth in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” franchise and to paraphrase classic rock titans Foreigner, it feels like the ninth time. Directed by TV directors/feature film failures The Russo Brothers (of the Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me and Dupree) Cap’s latest adventure, subtitled The Winter Soldier, hits all the expected marks of an $170 million profit-reaper but its shameless calculations do little to break this entry out of the increasingly oppressive Marvel formula.
Marvel Studios is counting on the fact that people love formulas and it would be foolish to bet against them. Since the Iron Man series has been perhaps the most fulfilling of their productions, it is easy to imagine how they could have just as easily substituted Robert Downey and his metallic suit for bland Chis Evans’ patriotic hero in this adventure. Here Cap has caught wind that the spy group S.H.I.E.L.D. has signed on to protect America with a surveillance plan to spy on everyone everywhere (where do they come up with this stuff, right?). But the program’s evil overlord Alexander Pierce (The Sundance Kid) is planning on a two million person offensive-by-drone killing everyone who is suspected of resistance. Assisted by The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the winged hero The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Captain America hopes to bring down the giant spaceships of death before they can launch.
In a stretch for relevance it has become de rigueur that some under-baked politics worm its way into the plot so be assured that the morality of government surveillance gets batted around for a line or two. Is The Black Widow really a bit like Edward Snowden, when the Russian-American spider-lady dumps secrets on-line? There is that evil death-from-above drone plan too, the difference being it is carried out by a rogue element in the government and not The President on dubious legal grounds. A whiff of subversion perhaps, but it isn’t enough to fill more than a nostril.
For a special effects extravaganza, the most engaging parts are the where the fine cast gets to banter a little, like when Cap is out for a jog and runs laps around his African American best-buddy (another popular trope) or the spectacle of Robert Redford making his first appearance in such blockbuster junk. Less thrilling are the edited-into-incoherence fight scenes, machine guns that can’t hit their targets, the 9-11-channeling destruction of a major metropolitan area and the last minute thwarting of a doomsday countdown.
Despite the modern sheen, the action here is more predictable than it was in the silent era. Critics often say this corniness captures the comic book tone but they should go back and look at some of the newsprint source material. In the low-rent, low-stakes economy of comic books there has been a lot of free-flying genre-breaking narratives, all set loose in a form where location changes and mad spectacle were always just a flick of the pen away. The chemistry in a collaboration like the one between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee aimed at 50,000 readers bears little similarity to the assembly of an army of minions to put together a $170 million picture that appeals to the size audience needed to milk a profit.
I’d argue that the whiz-bang imagination and crazy flights of fantasy that characterized the best of the comic book medium is only occasionally approached in the translation to film, and it is even less likely when hampered by the expectations of a sequel. Looking back at the last 25 years of Hollywood’s fascination with comic book narrative, it never got better than Sam Raimi’s 1990 film Darkman (which hits all the conventions without actually being comic-derived.) Despite the minor overhauls of films like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, the comic book film is as aching for a complete overhaul as the western was when the genre hit the 1970s. If Hollywood really was a comic book movie, some super hero would swoop in right now and save us.