By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies — Captain America: The Winter Soldier
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Three Stars)
U. S.: Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014
I. Man and Superman
In the mood for something super-duper, movie-wise? Something loud, fast, full of crash-bang and zip-zowie, and liable to make megazillions of dollars all around the world? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — which is the latest Marvel Comics super-hero spectacular — may be just your super-ticket.
I’m being facetious, but maybe not super-facetious. The movie, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, has a lot going for it, though I think it’s being somewhat overrated. A super-hero picture with a great two-faced super-villain, a super-jittery action camera, super-CGI tricks, super-credit teasers, a shrewdly super-paranoid script, and a sort of a heart, Captain America: The Winter Soldier definitely belongs in the upper echelon of Marveldom, somewhere under Iron Man and Spider-Man 2, and somewhere above The Hulk and X-Men. I wouldn’t call Winter Soldier a great show — it’s hard to call any of the modern super-hero movies great, including the best of them, The Dark Knight Trilogy — but it’s good of its kind.
It‘s better-written (by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus) and better-acted (by a cast headed by Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford) than usual, and it has lots of stuff aimed at (and best appreciated by) adults, along with the usual core teen audience. I had a good time watching it, except for the camera and cutting styles (more of that later), and I’m sure that the hordes of movie goers who’ll descend on it in millions will have a pretty good time at it too — though, if you’re a different kind of movie-lover, and unconcerned with profit-loss, you might wish that the 170 million bucks spent on it, were invested in 17 better and more ambitious but less costly movies — or eight, or four. Or even one.
But why get muddled up in ambition or high finance? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — another gaudy, expensive expansion of another super-tale from super-writer Stan Lee’s classic super-comic series of the ’60s and beyond — does what it’s damned well trying to do, with some style and panache. We should all be so lucky.
Winter Soldier was directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo — whose last feature outing was the 2006 Matt Dillon-Kate Hudson-Owen Wilson comedy You, Me and Dupree (with Seth Rogen in a minor part) — and it basically follows the super-hero playbook, but with some pizzazz and left-wing politics. In the first Captain America movie (C. A.: The First Avenger), Cap (Evans) — the nicely naïve one-time 90 pound weakling who became a scientifically altered and super-sized Marvel battler for truth, justice and the American Way — was put in a deep freeze after winning World War 2 and besting the evil Nazi masterminds of Hydra, only to be thawed out 70 years later just in time to hook up with much of the rest of the Marvel gang in The Avengers.
Here, in his own new movie, he finds himself bidding adieu to his 90something now-invalid WW2 lady-love Peggy Carter (the touching Hayley Atwell), who aged while he was frozen, and then joining the often furious-looking Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) his boos in S.H.I.E.L.D. (the international law-enforcing, peace-keeping, super-force — with both of them plummeting into a super-conspiracy thriller plot, borrowed from Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and other ’70s paranoid political thrillers. .
Joining him, on one side or another, are the drop-dead-gorgeous S.H.I.E.L.D. lady and ex-Russian. agent Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Johansson), World Security Council head and old Fury crony Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, in his super-hero movie debut, playing a government dude so cool that he turned down the Nobel Peace Prize); The Falcon, a.k.a. Sam Wilson (Mackie), a super-sidekick with robot wings; assorted French pirates; SPOILER ALERT and the seemingly unstoppable assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who was once a best buddy of Captain America’s, and (while in an amnesiac state since WW2) has been knocking off bigwigs for decades. END OF SPOILER.
Soon all of these characters and dozens more find themselves embroiled in heavy-duty super-hero-movie action — some of it aboard a hijacked French ship; some of it in another of those ubiquitous car-chase gun-battles that are constantly erupting in action movies and never seem to arouse much attention from nearby police or passersby; some of it in a very crowded elevator; and some of it in a dangerous new contraption called the helicarrier, a flying death ship that may well alter the face of world law enforcement and of super-hero-dom — or at least become the flying arena for another slam-bang super-hero battle — in this movie‘s slam-bang super-climax.
II. The Children of Stan Lee
Watching Captain America: the Winter Soldier — with its crashing cars, blazing guns, soaring helicarriers and vicious mano-a-mano fights galore — I was entertained and diverted. But I also began to wonder as I watched if our whole movie culture hasn’t gone a little nuts. Sooner than we like to think, certainly in another century, there may not be oil to make gas for these conspicuously wasteful cars, these planes, these helicarriers. Sooner than we think, we may get involved in crazy new wars, which may decimate whole cities. Sooner than we think, there may be worse villains, a sturdier brand of fascism, and no Captain America to clean their clocks. I know. it sounds paranoid, but….
These nightmare fantasies of the teen-targeted super-hero action movies (or SHAMS) and young adult movies (or YAMs) — so wildly popular with younger audiences — are fashioned out of the Marvel comic books of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is when Marvel Comics main-man writer-editor Stan Lee wrote a lot of his best stuff and when I read a lot of it), and this Captain America (created for the comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is a left-wing movie that makes its villains part of the military-industrial complex: self-righteous militarists who want to take over the world, and programmed mercenaries like the Winter Soldier himself.
It was a moderate conservative U. S. President of the ‘50s, ex-WW2 commanding general Dwight Eisenhower, who warned us about the military-industrial complex in his last speech as president in the ‘60s– and who would have known better? The first Captain America was set back in World War II, the war Eisenhower and his armies won, the time of the now-storied Greatest Generation, and of an America struggling out of the Depression and then the war against Hitler and Nazism. And what happens in this movie is a collision of the spirit of that generation (as we remember it not only from comic books but from movies like The Story of G. I. Joe and The Best Years of Our Lives) and the conflicts and compromises of today — with Captain America, another World War 2 vet, reappearing from cold storage, all decked out in a fancy costume and fancy super-powers, ready to take on fascism again, wherever he finds it.
The movies (or the comics) are the place to go for fantasies like this — whether about the military-industrial complex, or just about flying over Metropolis with Lois Lane. But they should also be the place to go for great stories about living, breathing people and realistic events that touch us more deeply, that make use of the resources of the most inclusive art form ever invented, the one with the most resources, a form that can make use of theater, music, all the visual arts, all the aural arts and all the performance arts as well — plus all of history, all literature, and whatever’s going on right outside the multiplex..
Is it a bad joke that this truly super art form is now often most expensively used to make ultra-costly versions of old comic books (even good old comic books) and new young adult novels (even good ones), intended for a world-wide audience of teenagers, and people who seem to want to be teenagers? Are we so steeped in teen fantasies, with all these Shams and Yams, that the real world and all the magnificent stories you can cull from it are relegated mostly to the smaller budgets and cheaper seats? (Even though those movies are also the ones most of the movie-making professionals vote for come awards time?)
I’m not saying you need more money to tell ambitious, rich, human stories like, say, the ones that were nominated for the Oscars this year: 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, Captain Phillips, The Great Gatsby, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers’ Club and the others –including my idea of a great contemporary action-adventure movie, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug? It amazes me to see the way literacy and realism and ideas are relegated to the lesser production and marketing budgets, and the way teen tastes, instead of being part of the whole movie market, tend to dominate it.
I suppose you could say that the current movies based on the Marvel or D. C. comics, besides being fantasy/science fiction, are part of the adventure or epic tradition that has been a movie mainstay since The Birth of a Nation, Cabiria and Intolerance. But they’re still formula movies, adhering to a locked-in, if sometimes amusing, pattern: stories that are repeated over and over, They’re comic book movies. In excelsis.
One of the things that made the Stan Lee-written Marvel comics so different was their brash, jokey, tongue in cheek sensibility, something shared by both the heroes and villains, and best displayed in in their wise-cracking duels and fights. (Other comic heroes used the same device, but Marvel did it better.) Another is the sense of a recognizable real world that existed outside and fed into the story — a world of teen or personal angst, war, racism, politics, the daily news and pop culture (things that this movie taps too). Relevance was a Stan Lee hallmark, and Lee, now 91 (and one of this movie’s executive producers), does another of his Hitchcockian cameos in this show. He plays a museum guard who discovers that the Captain America costume has been stolen right off the dummy, and moans “I’m so fired!”
III. Condors and Candidates
General Lee aside, the presence of Robert Redford as would-be world order tyrant Alexander Pierce instantly summons up the politics of both the ’70s and right now. And the fact that Pierce is such an ambiguous character, both thickens the plot and heightens the paranoia. Redford, the good movie liberal, in his superstar heyday, used to specialize in ambiguous guys and flawed golden boys. When he wasn’t a good bad man, like The Sundance Kid, or a good guy trapped in a bad or equivocal world, as he was in Three Days of the Condor or All the President’s Men, he could be an American idol or winner who sold out or had hidden dark depths, like he is in The Candidate or Downhill Racer or Inside Daisy Clover.
But he’s rarely been as ambiguous, or deceptive, or as villainous, as Pierce. Watching him play the part, you can sense his enjoyment: Redford brings back the breezy, smart charm he had in such abundance in movies like The Sting and Spy Games, and it’s a welcome return. But he’s also sending up his old golden boy image, and he’s added a hint of amorality or fascistic tendencies that makes the character both double-edged and compelling, the way his buddy Paul Newman was in Hud.
The rest of the cast, (except for the equally spot-on Jackson as Nick Fury) are mostly younger guys (and gals), golden young winners of our age who could slide by on their looks and personality (as Redford once could have, but often chose not to). Next to Redford and Jackson, they seem lighter, less substantial and (face it) less charismatic. (Johansson may be the exception.) These relative youngsters (Evans, Mackie, Stan) are all good in the movie, but they really need their super-powers to compete (Cap with his super-shield, Falcon with his super-wings, Black Widow with her super-karate, Winter with his super-arm), whereas Redford can command the screen and the battlefield, with just himself and his super-grin. He’s really the best thing in the movie,
The writers, McFeely and Markus, also wrote Pain and Gain. a vicious but funny movie about a particularly rotten modern reality, and the first Chris Evans Captain America, which was exciting and at times moving. So they’ve proven again they can write intelligent, amusing stuff, even in a heavily formatted, nearly straitjacketed narrative structure like this one. If you’re surprised by anything that happens here, even the movie’s big “reveal,” you either haven’t seen another Marvel super-hero movie, or , in that one “surprise” case, you don’t know the original comic book story. (I didn’t.) But you can guess it.
As for the directors, the Russos, who’ve done mostly darkish comedy in their previous feature outings (they also spent time with Arrested Development on TV), they’re good with the human, dramatic or humorous elements — though I thought the two best scenes in the movie, visually, were the two credit-teasers, which turn out to have been done (or so I’ve read) by Joss Whedon. And I really didn’t like most of the Captain America: Winter Soldier action scenes (which of course may be done by many other people than just the directors.) The movie’s elaborate scenes of action and violence are shot in a hectic, bang-your-eyes and smack-you-silly style that includes a lot of herky-jerky hand-held camera — as well as extremely rapid-fire edits that seem to average one cut or so per second. (To be fair, the cutting of the action scenes in a lot of contemporary thrill movies is just as fast, and just as irritating. )
The combination of jittery camera and whip-fast cutting makes those scenes hard (for me at least) to enjoy — especially after seeing and enjoying the majestic, beautifully shot action and deluge scenes in last week’s Noah — or ruminating recently on the work (in Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo) of a real action master, Akira Kurosawa: a Shakespeare of the action-adventure movie (as was his idol John Ford), and also one of the greatest film directors and editors who ever lived.
I wish the Russos and their editor, Jeffrey Ford (no relation, as far as I know), would take some time out to watch and study how the battle and swordfight scenes in those three great Japanese movies of the ‘50s are staged and cut — so furiously, so impeccably, with such savage grace and flawless style — before they shoot or cut another action scene themselves . I’d hate to see the Nervous Nellie shooting and editing style in this movie and others, become de rigueur for action pictures.
Of course, the Russos and Ford are following a dominant mode and style of today here. But it’s a frantic, overwrought style — even if they and others might feel that Seven Samurai, and the hundreds of pictures inspired and influenced by it, are old-fashioned movies, which should be put in the deep freeze forn a while with Captain America. If they do, they’re wrong. Kurosawa was the sensei, the super-director. Like Redford, he was a monarch of the domain we’ve ceded, unwisely, to a world of adolescents.