Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Of late it pains me to watch a comic book film never mind write about a comic book film here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic. As much as I was raised and reared on these classic titles there is little to no interest to cover them or give them anymore exposure than they already have.

It's a rare day when I will actually watch a superhero film now. This will likely be my last for quite some time.

After initially walking away from the title, this was my second attempt at Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). It was in the library. It was free. It received rousing reviews. I'll make an exception to my unwritten rule not to engage comic book films any longer. I'm happy people enjoy them. I wish no ill will upon them, but I just cannot endure them any longer.

The first Captain America film (here), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), was a pleasant surprise. Perhaps it was partly due to director Joe Johnston's efforts and period establishment circa World War II. This fine origin picture for Captain America was quickly followed by the loud, haunting, nightmare that was The Avengers (2012). The sound and fury (no not Nick) was all just too much. It was the obnoxious superhero equivalent of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (2009).

Joss Whedon was heaped with praise after the massive success as writer and director. I guess it was packed with Whedon's trademark wit and writing style. It was hard to notice, but this is what I've been told to believe.

Unfortunately it was clear I had hit my wall when it came to Marvel pictures with the welcomed exception of the sci-fi-centric story for Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) coupled with great casting and director James Gunn's unconventional, vivid imagination and style.

Part of me was just simply exhausted by the comic book movie adaptations. They are slick. They are polished. They are pumped full of special effects, quick edits and stylized comic book-like production, but are sorely lacking in humanity or something.

I was a huge comic book fan as a kid. I wanted real live action comic book movies or television as a kid in the worst way. Kenneth Johnston's The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982) starring the late, great Bill Bixby remains the best yet for that character.

Today, as a viewing adult, I think to myself, be careful what you wish for. What seemed to work so well for me in color comic books as I fawned over each and every frame as a child has not translated quite as well for me as the special effects films that they are. It all comes off a little silly and suspending disbelief becomes a problem for me. Adapting the extraordinary sequences of panels drawn by George Perez or John Byrne, though nice efforts, still seem lacking. I know you could say I'm overthinking it or the grown up in me is getting in the way. But I'm actually not trying to do that. I just can't help it.

I certainly don't intend for my distaste of the comic book film to spill over. I intend in no way to cloud or shade your judgment or enjoyment of these pictures and likely would I. But if I'm to be completely honest with myself and you, I suppose I'm suffering from significant super hero fatigue. It's overwhelming and relentless. Some reviews seems to suggest these Marvel films are high cinema. We would be crazy to miss them. As I've discovered, it's me. I simply find the attempts to translate from comic book frame to moving picture to be uninteresting. These comic book films are beginning to bore me.

Case in point, apart from the underwhelming The Avengers that opened to standing ovations, X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) was another major let down and I did enjoy X-Men: First Class (2011). There were too many problems to count in X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The films stray from the source mythology significantly. Characters are different from the original story. The character designs are average at best. The design work established especially for the Sentinels were an abomination of epic proportions. What the hell were those things? They certainly weren't the Sentinels I remember from my childhood reading of X-Men #98.

Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine has been a highlight from the Marvel films. Guardians Of The Galaxy was an attempt at something different, a stand alone outer space yarn that worked on its own terms separate and apart from the pat linking that seems to happen with each successive Marvel film packaged with a cute little Easter Egg-styled ending hardly worth sitting through the credits for. It's all just a bit tiresome for this fan of science fiction and for someone looking for something a little deeper most of the time.

It seems the smaller, character-based films like Wolverine (2009, 2013) are more satisfying to a degree. The humanity in the films resonates much more. The bigger and noisier they get the more I glaze over and check out.

So yes, I'm sorry to say I've dried the well of good will when it comes to Marvel films.

This explains why my second attempt at viewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a big moment for me including writing a few words about it here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic. It was burning my hand. So I pulled it from the library. I didn't expend a dime on it. I even road my bike there. No gas. Calculating food to fuel the body is more difficult to quantify. I eat a lot.

Was Captain America: The Winter Soldier worth my time? Would it be another bag of super hero hot air from Marvel?

As I mentioned, the first Captain America film, drew nicely upon the humanity of Steve Rogers and the World War II backdrop. It made for a refreshing change of scenery. Johnston handled the human component with aplomb. His work on The Rocketeer (1991) and October Sky (1999) made him a perfect fit. Johnston would not direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was to be a bigger picture.

The opening salvo for this film, a rapid fire action sequence, moves so quickly it's actually rather difficult to enjoy. This improves markedly and remarkably for the remainder of the film. But that opening is chaotically poor.

These solo stories allow for greater dramatic power which is a plus, but it all feels a little hollow or insincere and spread thin the more the ensemble grows.

There is of course the political subtext of the film. There's an anti-police moment between Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury character and metro police suggesting blacks are targeted. You can always count on Hollywood. Liberal activist Robert Redford fills the screen with his presence joyfully playing the power villain and making a good profit off of it.

Generally it's a good political insurrection story and an engaging action film complete with a Michael Mann, Heat-styled action sequence and suspense. The Winter Soldier makes a worthy adversary too.

With The Avengers, to me, nothing ever felt truly at stake and Loki and the film's villains simply bored me to tears as silly. The Winter Soldier genuinely and credibly takes the Captain America character to a new level even if it is a little short on character.

The political intrigue and conspiracy aspects are fine and certainly more impressive than most superhero films. The action sequences are truly astonishing in spots. It balances the tension and action to good effect. You simply check out and just enjoy the intensity of the picture on its own terms. The Winter Soldier is also a little more fearsome than the previous Red Skull. And Johansson continues to bring such power to her characters in film. She is the Black Widow for a reason and that character really gets to shine here.

In the end, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a solid, quality superhero film. Is it a must see experience? Not really. Perhaps I'm spoiled by all of the quality writing on television today. Fargo. Breaking Bad. Battlestar Galactica. Homeland. The list goes on and on. Superhero films today feel superfluous and passable devoid of heart and soul (though this is better than most). The mind numbs as the action drones on. It certainly wouldn't be Marvel if it wasn't epic and accomplished in the Might Marvel Manner. But by God the action and these genre films go on and on. I understand this is escapist entertainment (and Nick Fury has a terrific sequence to pull off a great one), but precisely the kind of entertainment I make every effort to escape from nowadays. Investing in films like Her (2013) and Lost In Translation (2003) (I know I have Scarlett on the mind) are far more rewarding than a Marvel film. And I understand its apples and oranges. But there is a familiarity to these films. There is a kind of James Bond, paint-by-numbers quality to the superhero film that seems to settle in. But I guess I draw the line at Bond formula and willingly embrace that hero.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fine enough picture for what it is, but certainly unessential unless you are an avid comic book collector and more importantly a collector of Marvel comics films I suppose. If you enjoy the mythological weave of the worlds these heroes inhabit minus considerable psychological depth by all means.

Even though Captain America: The Winter Solider didn't leave me in the cold, they rarely get my attention like a good comic book once did as a kid. This film was about what I expected. There were no real surprises or profoundly moving human moments where I relished the experience. Sure Scarlett looks amazing in spandex. Her bosoms and ass are highlighted to perfection here, but it's still not enough to keep my eyes glued to one of these pictures any longer. These films make money and will continue to propagate like rabbits.

At the end of three hours (there was a lot of remote pausing), I can say with a good degree of confidence I could have passed the library by on my bike that day and been none the wiser or picked up something with less testosterone and spandex. At this point these superhero films are beginning to feel like nails on a chalk board. And about all of those guns liberal Hollywood so abhors...come now... it's all a bit comic-al really. Though not my cup of tea of late, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a solid super hero romp and story. For what it is they don't come much better.


John Kenneth Muir said...

SFF: Great review!

Like you, I feel bored to tears with modern Marvel superhero films. The Avengers is agonizingly dull. Thor is agonizingly dull. Thor 2 is more agonizingly dull than I believed was possible. I agree with you, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is solid, especially in such company.

I look forward to the day when superhero movies are again few and far between, and there is again some passion and ingenuity -- as well as artistry -- involved in the making of them. right now, it's just one more "product" off the automated assembly line.

I miss the days of Richard Donner's Superman, or Tim Burton's Batman...the days of individual inspiration, not "asset management."


Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Boy, "asset management", isn't that the truth.

Donner's stuff, now there was some heart in that original, and II, in the same fashion as Johnson and Bixby's Hulk.

Something is seriously missing here.

Cannon said...

First thing's first, I can't say I share your enthusiasm for Guardians of the Galaxy.

Per Marvel’s mission to 'Phase' construct its branching franchise, the above merely continued what has since become said endeavor’s reining trait: disposability. I’ve yet to see a single Marvel entry since-and-including the overrated 2008 Iron Man that I care to own or revisit with any regularity, which is not to say I haven’t enjoyed to varying degrees each one of them on some basic level. I have, particularly when first seeing them theatrically with healthy-sized audiences. Yet I find none of them lastingly memorable, or even all that inspired, honestly. On one hand they’re bright, colorful and typically replete with all manner of charm and personality, on the other they’re plastically cheap looking and almost always either nonsensical with story content or innately insincere, or both. Guardians of the Galaxy is a "both".

Pithy jokes, pop-songs and 80s references. Did I miss anything? Guardians is a space fantasy only in some half-assed cursory manner. Ya know... fantasy isn’t just a video store Netflix section or an excuse to cosplay your characters. Fantasy is a departure from reality fundamentally as a means to examine the latter metaphorically. All the best fantasy features monsters or magic or other worlds etc. that taps into something deeply rooted in the human psyche and maybe even concludes with one or two universal wisdoms; escapism is really only the surface-level effect or byproduct.

The Star Wars saga (or even just the OT for the sake of canned worms), for example, is space fantasy right down to the very core—cinematic world-building that, in my opinion, has yet to be rivaled, driven by grand themes and archetypical forces, primarily through image, music and broad, stagey gestures in writing and performances.

I’m baffled by the endless comments from fans and critics alike that praised Guardians as some kind of worthy Star Wars equivalent. Imagine if the climax to Return of the Jedi reduced everything to a stupid gag where Luke starts hip-hop dancing in front of Darth Vader. Star Wars was always laced with absurdist humor but never at the expense of its mythic proportions, or of its commitment to authentic pulp wonder and (space) operatic melodrama.

Does anybody even remember the episodic villain in Guardians or it's who-gives-a-shit plotline? Oh, but at one point its hero cracks a MacGuffin reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark to glaze over the simple fact its own Infinity Stone drivel is completely dead of any thematic weight or imagination -- flashing a 'get out of caring about story' free card by making glib jokes about how it doesn’t care about the story -- only to later glaze over that as well with some teary-eyed goodbye between Groot and Raccoon that's about as consequential as Kirk's death scene from Into Darkness it's all okay, right? Wrong. Guardians is a textbook emperor with no clothes that bounces clumsily between smarmy self-awareness and tacked-on sentimental platitudes. Seriously, fuck that movie.

Cannon said...

Winter Soldier is better. It maintains a fulcrum of earnestness in Steve Rogers' struggle to uphold antique values in a modern politicized world and to redeem a lost war buddy turned brainwashed. Still, it's not anything worth enshrining. A couple action sequences stand out with some physical verve and street-level intensity, Cap and Falcon make for some enduring bros, and I'll happily take my ScarJo in Gap civvies and with a straightened do. But there's no escaping JKM's aforementioned "automated assembly line" description. This one's no less prepackaged than the others, just a little sturdier in premise and more straightforward in its intent.

I also think its pretense as a "political thriller" of the Marvel movieverse makes for a pretty silly association. It's as if the comic book movie fandom, both behind the camera and from the audience, is trying to legitimize the content in question by making some relative comparison to Three Days of the Condor or whatever Tom Clancy adaptation. Sorry, it's still just a dumb comic book movie, with superpowers, brightly colored costumes etc. Throwing in Redford for some token monologues about justified government corruption doesn't change that; frankly, I found the actor's legacy persona awkwardly forced into the proceedings—he just looked kinda lost.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...


You always bring a sharp, unfiltered, honest assessment to any conversation. You always bring something unexpected and new to the conversation much like John's remarks earlier.

You also frame your analysis in such a way that makes me re-think certain things I may or may not have seen.

I will admit to you that I have cooled a bit on my earlier Guardians enthusiasm, but I certainly prefer it over a number of films. It's sci-fi trappings also may have distracted me a bit from some of the problems you so eloquently mention here.

If it's any indicator, and I think this is a good one, I don't own Guardians nor have an interest in buying it. If I love something I tend to normally want a copy of a film for the archive. So that should speak volumes about my interest in revisiting it.

Still, Chris Pratt was a huge selling point and since my son and daughter are huge fans we did rent it from the library and we did watch it again at no charge. ;)

So like you I too have enjoyed some aspects of these films but I don't own a single Marvel film. At least I don't think so. Watchmen is my one superhero picture I own and I would like to see it again one day.

Key words you mention to associate with the Marvel films in general terms:

Speaking to Guardians specifically, it was a good bit of fun thanks to its humor (for me) and it definitely should not be compared to Star Wars outside of its space adventure component.

But I have to admit you make some outstanding points about the lack of substance to these films, Guardians too, and your breakdown of the ending and the villain is a great case in point.

You also allude to the Star Trek reboots and I think a lot of what you say is applicable to those films too for me, which speaks to my disinterest in revisiting those films. By the way, again, I own neither of those Star Trek films yet I do have all of the series on Blu-Ray or DVD.

"fuck that movie."

But yes, tell us how you really feel.

Enjoyed your thoughts on the matter as always Cannon.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...


Re: Winter Soldier

I think your point about the second Captain America film being tied closely with its description of a "political thriller" are exactly right. It was always an attempt at legitimizing or giving the film some kind of gravitas. I mean no matter how you slice it, it's a comic book film.

Anyway, I'm grateful for your additional remarks here.
They are definitely worth reading.


J.D. Lafrance said...

Well, all I can say as a life-long comic book fan, esp. Marvel Comics, this current crop of movies is what I've been waiting to see ever since I cracked open my first issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA. For me, people of my generation have finally gotten into a position of power where they are able to get these films made they way they should be. The technology has finally caught up as well allowing guys like Joss Whedon to finally pay homage to Jack Kirby's legendary splash pages in AGE OF ULTRON.

I would argue that many of these films are not assembly-line products cranked out with no personality or humanity. For better or worse, many of them are stamped with an individual filmmaker's imprint beit the Shakespearean grandeur Kenneth Branagh brought to THOR or the retro action/adventure vibe Joe Johnston brought to the first CAPTAIN AMERICA film or Shane Black transforming IRON MAN 3 into a Shane Black buddy action movie. Are all of the Marvel films this distinctive? Of course not. THOR 2 is a little on the bland side and I would say that many of the Marvel movie suffer from generic bad guys but I think that what saves many of them, for me, is that the heroes are so larger than life, so imbued with personality and charisma, thanks due in large part to the impeccable casting, that the lack of depth or personality to some of the baddies is a minor quibble.

Are these Marvel movies high art? Of course not but for me they are pure escapist entertainment that I enjoy. I think that a lot of care and heart have gone into each and every one of these Marvel movies. Some work better than others - that's just the nature of the beast.

I would rank THE WINTER SOLDIER among the very best of Marvel's output because it isn't just your standard superhero movie. It aspires to be something MORE as it fuses the paranoid conspiracy thriller with the superhero movie and does so very successfully, IMO. While it checks off all the usual boxes - car chases, shoot-outs, fights, etc. it also delves into Captain America's psyche - his attempts to orient himself in a contemporary world without losing touch with his values while also showing how said values clash with the way things are now. Chris Evans does a really nice job of conveying all this between action set pieces.

I also like that they make the Winter Soldier something of a tragic character - once the buddy of Cap, he was wounded and left for dead in service of his country only to be picked up the bad guys and transformed into some kind of nearly invincible Manchurian Candidate. When Cap recognizes him as Bucky and then does everything he can to try and reach him, to try and pull some humanity, what he used to be all those years ago, is when the film really gets cooking and gives it some depth or at least something to care about. Their friendship is really the glue that holds this film together and I am looking forward to CIVIL WAR to see how it develops.

Anyways, just my two cents.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

And an invaluable two cents it is my friend as always. Thoughtful, considered evaluation.

Yes, I read your review and it was indeed a pensive breakdown of one of the better super hero films.

It's great to hear your impassioned viewpoint on these films and you are definitely with an audience who genuinely enjoys these pictures. It feels like there are two camps of thought on these films... two groups if you will... the good guys and the bad guys. Just kidding.

I think a case is definitely made for Captain America as a quality super story. aND I agree with you, I really enjoy Chris Evans in general. I think the writers and actors do their best to infuse the picture with the substance for a good story and performances.

And I like your point about comic book kids who have grown up coupled with technology that makes it all possible allowing for the creation of pictures that clearly a majority audience really wants to see. As far as I'm concerned they are harmless enough and clearly comic book fans are having a lot of fun with them.

But like you, I thought I would lend my voice to the discussion on super hero films.

You have to admit, for films that are not considered "high art" they do generate a good deal of discussion. They indeed represent an aspect of our existing popular culture and where filmmaking has arrived at in the 21st Century. and of course there is room for other films, but these are indeed the ones getting a great deal of attention.

Thanks J.D.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Man, I loved this one, but I hear ya. Avengers: Age of Ultron was a let down precisely because they always want to go bigger and louder...of course it was still a cool film, but by now they gotta try something else other than CGI spectacles, they have to add that human emotion, that intensity and sure, why not, smaller scale stories. Which is why I think you will dig Ant-Man. It's not your typical Marvel movie, and it yet it satasfied in ways that the "bigger" films didn't.

But I have to say, The Winter Soldier makes for such a cool character and visual, love the way that character looks.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Love the comments Fran. You definitely get what I'm throwing down. But I know fans like yourself are willing to forgive these pictures for their emotional shortcomings.

I guess I'm a bit beleaguered in this way. Great to hear from TFC.