by Paul Deines
At least once a year, I find myself mysteriously transported to the multiplex to see the new installment of the Avengers franchise. Without any interest in the Marvel universe (I was a DC kid) or residual investment from previous installments, I nonetheless seem to see each of these movies in the theater.
And I’m generally the kill-joy on the way out, bitching all the way to the bar about the series’ myriad flaws. That said, I mostly enjoyed most of the first Captain America picture. Its jaunty 1940s setting and the gawky, earnest lead performance by Chris Evans won me over, but the film’s final moment where Captain America is transported to modern day sank it for me. I knew all the retro analogue fun would be gone in Part 2, and for the most part it is. So why did I go?
To begin with, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, they of the amazing Dungeons and Dragons episode of Community, just to name one of their television achievements. They are smart dudes, and they’ve stated in interviews that they were inspired by the paranoid thrillers of the sixties and seventies, feverish classics like The Manchurian Candidate, Marathon Man, and (my favorite) The Parallax View. So this is closer to my wheelhouse. And sure enough, the middle act of The Winter Soldier concerns a crypto-fascist conspiracy that has infiltrated the power structure, and like the above classics, the Russos’ narrative finds our virtuous, truth-seeking protagonist suspected of treason.
The meat of this movie is a cat and mouse chase with Captain America and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow being chased by former allies, led by a game Robert Redford as a sort of Washington lobbyist-cum-Defense-attaché for S.H.I.E.L.D. All this is surprisingly juicy, but then Evans and Johansson team up with (a serviceable) Anthony Mackie to fight it out. Then the movie becomes a retread of everything we’ve seen before.
The seams have really started to show for these movies. For one, the tradition of adding teasers to the end of each installment has proceeded beyond the insufferable to the point that they have all the gravity of a “on the next…” gag from Arrested Development (another Russo property). It’s the nature of comic book storytelling to shuffle the deck without really changing anything, but there’s something infuriating about a movie like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which asks us to be moved by a major character’s death and then gives us the gotcha reversal we saw coming from a mile away.
What’s more, as with the engine-repair sequence in The Avengers and the Stark army climax of Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier’s last act suffers from a reliance on video-game-cinematic-quality special effects. This time, it’s another free-for-all involving airborne aircraft carriers. For a franchise with such deep pockets and such a deep bench of talent both in front of and behind the camera, these sequences are migraine-inducingly shoddy. I get the feeling that the effects team keeps assuring non-action directors like Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh that they’ll spruce it up in post and then not.
But the CGI air-giants aside, this movie’s action sequences are fairly grounded. There’s a thrilling car chase involving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that culminates in the unsettlingly quiet introduction of the titular soldier (whose identity is abundantly obvious even if you haven’t read the source comic). Unfortunately, since the Winter Soldier’s weapon of choice is the assault rifle, most combat involving him involves a lot of characters ducking behind cars. I can forgive all this, though, because of an enthralling fight in an elevator, expertly tense in a slow burn manner reminiscent of the Cold War thrillers the Russos have cited.
So what more can I say now that I didn’t say a year ago? Perhaps these movies are the perfect honey-trap for me. I can’t help myself from plunking down my $15 for them (Christ, I’m definitely seeing the bonkers-looking Guardians of the Galaxy). So, maybe I should stop complaining. The movie is at minimum fast-paced and bright, and for the time being, there’s at least one comic book property not being mangled by Zack Snyder.
That’s what we call cold comfort.