As we keep on barreling forward toward Marvel’s Phase Three films and pretending it will be meaningfully different from Phase Two or Phase One, Marvel continues to pass the time along the way by merrily trucking along with more of the same. Well, I should be generous – each film is ever-so-slightly different while still managing to lie easily within the series’ collective less-than-notable ambitions. For this 2014 sequel to the competent 2011 cheer-fest, things get a little bit darker and more socially confused as the filmmakers choose to mash-up their consummate action-stravaganza with a political thriller that aims to reshape the Marvel Cinematic Universe (that the filmmakers are under the impression the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-defined enough to be meaningfully “reshaped” speaks more to the egos at play than anything else, as well as the film’s self-conscious bid for serious-film status). Unfortunately, and as is becoming a common problem for this series, the film’s ambitions are somewhat undone by the all-encompassing fact that it just had to go and be a Marvel film. That it is one of the better ones while still being essentially an also-ran should tell you all you need to know about how you’ll come down in the end. But either way, solid filmmaking in the name of a somewhat tepid goal continues to be the name of the game, for better or for worse.
The Winter Soldier is at its best when it’s at its smallest. The film opens with a pleasingly everyday, in-the-moment character bit where Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), now trapped out of time in the 2010s, meets Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) on a morning jog. Immediately afterward, it gets right into the heat of the moment with some crash-and-bang bone crackin’ in the film’s best action scene, which not coincidentally is also its shortest, tersest, most direct, least grand, and most fleet-footed. Best of all, directors Anthony and Joe Russo really display a knack for staging and framing action through a series of long, wide shots that allow the action to show itself and give it a little room to breathe (the nervy score and some quavering camerawork ain’t too shabby either). Of course, eventually they realize this is a modern action movie and mid-way through the film switch to an onslaught of unnecessary edits and never regain their sense. Still, the earlier action scenes are real corkers, and that’s worth a fair bit while it lasts.
At the same time, the film has larger aspirations than just being another mighty marvel – it wants to be the kind of film you can take home to your parents as well. But the rampant claims that the film is some sort of tribute to, or at least heavily indebted to, the surfeit of stupendous 1970s paranoia thrillers, seem more like wishful thinking than anything else. If anything, this film approximates the idea of a paranoia thriller in the sense that it has a man and has a government and makes that man question that government. The narrative, as it is, has a government official (Robert Redford) out to do all manner of bad things to people the Marvel Universe would have us think are bad so that the “good” of the world can continue living. Echoes of US drone strikes, government surveillance, and all manner of other such modern concerns abound, and the film makes no real bid to hide its very open-faced commentary on governments who kill for the sake of others. Somewhere in the middle, of course, the Cap gets involved, his patron organization Shield is thrown into serious doubt, and things get messier for a man who almost prides himself on his one-note goody-two-shoes morality.
But approximating the idea of something and understanding it are two different things, and the claims that this film is an ode to those old paranoid thrillers of old beg the question of whether any of those people making the claims see anything in movies other than their broadest intentions. Those ’70s films dealt with paranoia thematically, yes, but they also knew paranoia in their bones. Paranoia submerged itself in the uneasy camera, in the look of the film, in the harsh edits that cut like a sharply-worded editorial and pierced the celluloid itself. The films didn’t just deal with paranoia, they felt it at their unshakable cores – it suffocated them. The Winter Soldier knows none of this – too often it acts like what it is, a big special effects extravaganza unevenly coated with a thin layer of thriller mechanics and unease about the world.
The second, and broader, problem is that the film’s political commentary, which it invites (and is thus fair game for criticism), amounts to little more than pointing out how “bad” it is for states to use their power to kill and then reminding that “good” people are usually in control of those states and this actually makes it okay for them to use such power. It’s not only simple but deeply problematic – the film relies almost childishly on the ol’ nostalgia card of “everything the US did in Captain America’s time was acceptable because it was for a moral purpose, but now in the 2010s we have no morality anymore and isn’t the world so much worse now for it?”. The 1940s were a simpler time only insofar as people put all of the crippling, dehumanizing effort in the world to make it seem as such, and to sand over silence dissent, but the film doesn’t want us to think that. When the film’s most radical claim is “the US is good but the current government is bad” and it completely refuses to challenge imminently the social systems upon which US society bases its government, well, why bother with such un-nuanced pseudo-depth at all except to seem intelligent?
The film’s 2011 predecessor avoided this pratfall by being entirely and completely cotton candy and making no qualms about its openly false and idealized version of the 1940s – it was not a recreation of the 1940s as they were lived but as they were imagined in fantastical, cheery, golly-shucks and gee-whiz filmmaking. This sequel aims for something more grounded and comes up flustered about how to invest nuance into the fundamentally simple worldview of blockbuster filmmaking. At its worst, it tries to critique US social policy but essentially comes away arguing the problems are the result of only a few individuals who should be put down and that good ol’ Cap marks the “true” core of the US and its ability to use violence to do good for the world. In other words, not only is it simplistic, but it shoots itself in the foot by coping out of virtually every argument it sets up, mostly legitimizing that particular US brand of violence it says it would like to critique, and rendering its conclusions in their tamest, lamest versions possible.
It’s altogether pleasing then that the film works on a much less demanding, simpler level, one that has much less to do with a paranoid camera and much more to do with subtle, low-key character moments that explore how these characters have lived and breathed over time. It’s to the film’s benefit that there is a clear feeling of the passage of time, giving its theme of fitting into a society that may not want you some decent character weight. The film’s opening scene, for instance, has a little fun with Cap’s distance to the world around him, but the jokes have a little bite. A few barbs between Evans and Johansson’s Black Widow at least circle around the classic wordplay-for-physical-contact spirit of semi-screwball ’40s romance, and if they don’t howl with laughter, they jab more subtly in the rib and leave a pained bruise of surprising staying power. If the film’s larger political questions over-assert themselves, the quieter moments that deal more broadly (yet with more pinpoint humanism) with human loneliness creep up on you and force you to have at least a little human insight with your big ol’ ‘splosions.