Friday, June 20, 2014

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford

“We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things."
-- Christopher Nolan, explaining that his BATMAN films don’t have any particular subtext or message.

"It's hard to make a political film that's not topical. That's what makes a political thriller different from just a thriller. ...we love topicality, so we kept pushing to [have] scenes that, fortunately or unfortunately, played out [during the time that] Snowden outed the NSA. That stuff was already in the zeitgeist. We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties — Obama talking about who they would kill... We wanted to put all of that into the film because it would be a contrast to [Captain America]'s greatest-generation [way of thinking]."
--Anthony Russo, co-director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

"The question is where do you stop? If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there's 1,000? What if we find out there's 10,000? What if it's a million? At what point do you stop?"
--Joe Russo, co-director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Well friends, you know that I hate to say that I told you so, but as I am a gentleman, honor requires me to accept the credit when I’m proven correct. I’ve been on record supporting the Marvel films, which started off a little rocky but gradually seem to have managed to find the perfect tone for superhero movies, somewhere solidly in that sweet spot between the dour, self-consciously grown-up DC movies and the shiny, empty-headed nothing of THE FANTASTIC FOUR (a Marvel property, but not made through Marvel studios due to the movie rights being held by Fox, long story). Oh, there were doubts at first. There are those who called me mad, or unfair, or a variety of homophobic slurs, because I said that Nolan’s BATMAN films were ponderous and silly, and that at least Marvel remembered that superheroes were supposed to be fun. But I persevered. And now they’ve done it, they got where they were going.

There were hints of it happening early on; the first IRON MAN, for all its clunkiness, found the right tone and established a precedent for finding the absolute perfect actor to become the face of these larger-than-life characters. But then their HULK reboot with Ed Norton was just an utterly lifeless, dishwater-dull unmitigated failure, and IRON MAN 2 was a rambling bloated mess that totally squandered a great cast in a tangled junkyard of boring action and turgid plottiness. Those two were dire enough that I didn’t bother with the original THOR or CAPTAIN AMERICA PART ONE: THIS IS THE FIRST ONE while they were in theaters. But once I finally did get around to experiencing the one-two punch of those two movies and THE AVENGERS, I became a convert. This is how comic book movies were meant to be: colorful, imaginative, broad, and completely unashamed about their ridiculous premises while still treating them with respect.
With the new CAPTAIN AMERICA PART 2: THE SECOND ONE : WINTER SOLIDER RISING (presumably the third one will be subtitled YEAR OF THE PIG*) out, though, I may have to re-evaluate those other ones, because this is good enough to take it to the next level. It keeps everything we liked about the previous generation of Marvel films -- perfectly cast protagonist, a cheerful embrace of the cartoonish universe he inhabits, large-scale action balanced with charming character moments-- and adds something I never realized they were missing: a hint --but an unmistakable one-- of something to say about the world.

Hi kids. Captain America here, and I'd like to talk to you about an issue which is very close to my heart: Auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Now, I know, I know, that just makes you conjure images of all that postmodern deconstructionist mumbo jumbo from Zack Snyder’s Not Alan Moore’s flawed but enjoyable WATCHMEN or its subsequent hanger-ons (KICK-ASS, SUPER, etc), or, Nolan’s grimly ponderous BATMANS, or even worse, Snyder’s soul-deadening MAN OF STEEL. But fear not! It’s not like that at all; those movies are so dire because they fancy themselves important. This one doesn’t feel like that, it’s just that as it happens the comic book universe they’ve created lends itself rather gracefully to a few subtle but commendable allegories for the world we’re living in right now.

Which honestly is nothing revolutionary. Marvel has a long history of doing this sort of thing in comic form. They’ve been subtly commenting on all kinds of social issues for decades. Not in a “very special issue” kind of way, but rather just by incorporating little elements of reality into their fantasy world as a subtext. The fire-and-brimstone anti-mutant Preacher William Stryker from 1982’s God Loves, Man Kills comes to mind: he evokes the anger of right wing backlash embodied by guys like Jerry Falwell and asks us to imagine what it’s like to be the target of that anger, but without specifically being a one-to-one surrogate for any particular person or incident. It’s still a comic book, and it has heroes in costume fighting giant robots with superpowers. But there’s just something a little more resonant in the conflict, something a bit more relatable than fighting a guy made out of electricity who wants to destroy the world.

That’s what the movie is like; it reminds me of reading those old stories, how seriously the books take it all while still including a bunch of giant robots and stuff. That’s what great pulp is all about: superficially ridiculous trappings earnestly married with something which digs a little deeper. Comics are the opera of our time: the one medium which is completely unafraid to go over-the-top broad to capture the sometimes silly but also genuinely potent extremes of human experience. I mean, we remember how The Dark Phoenix Saga ends, right? On the moon, fighting in a gladiatorial battle against an army of Space superheroes (spoiler)? And yet, that final moment with Jean and Scott… these are characters with this long and fraught history together, broadly drawn but deeply felt. That ending, man, it’s the silliest thing in the world, but it cuts deep all the same. Maybe even deeper because of the utter earnestness in storytelling that is an absolute prerequisite to write a good moon-battle-with-space-gladiators tale with any conviction.

Second most emotionally moving moment in nerdom, after that time Optimus turned brown.

Anyway, this new Capn’ movie is spot-on in capturing that feel. It has all of comic books’ silliest conventions, but, like its protagonist, it's so earnest and committed to what it’s doing that you’ve almost got no choice but to just swallow your cynicism and go with it. And it’s a good thing too, because come on, Captain America? What could possibly be cornier than this half-century old icon of American militaristic nationalism? I mean, that’s a real tough sell after Vietnam, after Kent State, Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, the Cold War, Iran-Contra, CIA drug trafficking, Partisanship, War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, extraordinary rendition, targeted killings, NSA spying, James Clapper just flat out lying to Congress with no consequences whatsoever, just recently finding out the CIA actively subverted a congressional investigation about it by deleting evidence from investigators’ computers, just to name a few things off the top of my head. Pretty hard to be the guy wearing the flag on his chest, taking orders from these clowns, knowing all that.

And to the movie’s credit, that’s the whole point here. Cap’s main conflict this time is not with some volcano-lair supervillain that can be defeated by a good punching. It’s with the system itself, the one giving him orders. The conflict is not with the guy he’s got to punch, it’s over who to punch, and under what circumstances, and how hard, and why. And what it says about him when he does it.

See, back in Cap’s heyday, right and wrong seemed a lot simpler. Hitler was so unambiguously evil that you could just be a good solider, follow orders. You could ignore the politics of it, listen to your general when he told you who to kill, and then go kill them. But 75 years later, things aren’t so black-and-white. Suddenly, S.H.I.E.L.D. is getting Cap involved in a bunch of shady, cloak-and-dagger intrigue, going after morally ambiguous targets for morally ambiguous reasons. He can’t afford to simply follow orders anymore, can’t afford to simply be a soldier, a defender of abstract concepts like freedom and justice. He’s got to decide if the people giving the orders are worth following, and if they’re not, what to do instead.

To it's credit, the movie tactfully avoids ironic flag imagery. But, just in case you worried that it was gonna be soft on terrorism, it does begin with Cap beating the tar out of an uppity Frenchman.

Although the movie doesn’t dwell on it, there’s something very tragic about all this. Steve “Cap’n Ammurrica” Rodgers has arrived in the present so recently that he’s still adjusting to living in this alien world (he has a list of things he still need to learn about, which includes Disco, Star Wars/Trek, Thai food) and he’s been a real good sport about everyone he ever knew being dead or senile. He’s got no life here whatsoever, no roots, no social circle, and he’s been trying to fill that space with work (recall, he recently was involved re: an alien invasion destroying the world). But even his work has changed: he’s still an ass-kicker, but he can’t take for granted that he’s being told to kick the right asses anymore, and it’s all he’s good at, hell, all he’s got. I mean, he’s a lonely guy; even when he’s got a chance to connect with other people, he’s got very little in common with them. He’s missed nearly a century of American culture, he doesn’t get the twitters or enjoy the music of Girl Talk or get your Austin Powers references. When he’s not on missions, he’s hanging out with his nearly 100 year-old ex-girlfriend, who thought he was dead for the last 70 years. I’m guessing they never got to consummate that relationship, although the movie isn’t explicit about it.

But despite these setbacks, Steve wants to do the right thing. He’s considering leaving the profession after he learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. is building a fleet of gigantic death stars drone battleships to conquer/protect the world (built, no doubt, by Facebook’s war division), but before he can, it turns out that he’s got more immediate problems: someone from inside the organization is trying to kill him and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, COMING TO AMERICA) and he’s gotta go on the lam with adorable little Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, HOME ALONE 3) to find out who and why.

What follows is a pretty effective 70’s-style paranoid thriller. Who can he trust? What dastardly secrets are being kept behind the veil of honest legitimacy put forward by this secretive lawless multinational paramilitary outfit?

So... I see you've redecorated in here?

The answers are enjoyably comic-booky (an evil supercomputer that runs on punch cards can and will become involved) as are their solutions (big action sequences, explosions, running down hallways to escape from explosions, etc) but the questions give the whole enterprise an unexpected potency. I think a lot of Americans right now feel depressingly alienated from the forces in power, and extremely uncomfortable with what we’re being told needs to be done “for our protection.” The nice thing here is that questioning the morality of our actions doesn’t make Captain America any less American -- it means the American thing to do is to do the right thing, not to just follow orders and pat ourselves on the back. It has some strong parallels to the recent Marvel Civil War, where Captain America has to turn into a rebel against the government to protect the rights of the people. It’s shocking, in a way, to see such a strident symbol of American nationalism turn against the system, but in a strange way it’s also kind of inspiring: America isn’t about the structures of power, it’s about the things we do, the people we are. What it means to be American, or Captain America, hasn’t changed; it’s just that the world has changed, and in response we have to evolve a bit.

Given that, I got a few quibbles with the way things turn out (SPOILERS AHOY THERE FOLKS!) since after making a logical and effective case against the abuses of power by the government, they retreat a little by the end and excuse everything with a lame cop-out. Oh, I guess we can trust the government after all, it’s just an evil cabal of ex-Nazi infiltrators who are causing the problems. I guess maybe that could be an analogy for the Tea Party, but really it kinda soft-pedals the main issue: we shouldn’t have a death star drone armada because nobody should have that kind of power, not because someone should, but not Nazis. Similarly, it would be a lot more interesting if [[DOUBLE SECRET SPOILERS, EVEN MORE SPOILERY THAN BEFORE]] Cap’s old buddy Shaw had genuinely been convinced that the US was irredeemably corrupt and that he had to fight it, instead of the lame brainwashing thing which makes him kind of a non-character. I mean, it’s interesting to give Cap his own doubts about the morality of what he’s doing, how much better would it be to have a villain who was more like Magneto, who legitimately has a point but maybe takes it just a little further than our hero is comfortable with. As it is, Cap isn’t really asked to seriously consider if Shaw is right, since Shaw himself doesn’t even really know what he’s doing. And of course, if I may say so the solution Cap’n A comes up with isn’t necessarily feasible for every American. (END O’ SPOILERS) But you know, baby steps. It’s nice to just have a movie which acknowledges how we feel, even if it doesn’t quite offer a solution for those of us who haven’t been dosed with Super Solider Serum.

One other thing I like? There’s an interesting little exchange between Nick Fury and our hero where Fury talks a little bit about his grandfather, a elevator operator. He doesn’t explicitly say it, but here he is today, ordering death star drone armadas to control the world, while his granddad was living in a society where the best work he could get was pushing up and down buttons for rich people. What society was that, by the way? Why, the one Steve Rodgers spent most of his life living in! Guess that kind of shoots a hole in the ol’ “back in the day, things were a lot simpler” theory, don’t it? Maybe 1940’s Captain America should have thought a little harder about who was allowed to benefit from the freedom he was fighting for. This kind of horseshit is nothing new, it’s just that in modern times we don’t have the luxury of not thinking about it like they had back in the day. Or that white men had, anyway.

Good guys wear black. Bad guys wear suits.

Anyway, WINTER SOLIDER mostly isn’t about that stuff, but just having it as part of the text makes the whole film much more satisfying. You get all the action and comic book hijinks you would usually get, but just a little more meat there so it’s not quite as disposable. You don’t have to really focus on these themes if you don’t want to, I’m sure you can just go in and watch the explosions without thinking too seriously about American geopolitical strategy. But commendably, they’re not just some lightly suggestive subtext, either; these are the central conflicts of the movie, and the movie takes them as seriously and expects you to do so as well, at least as much as you do with the guy with bird wings or the hovercars. 

And that’s the key to the film’s success right there: take everything seriously in the context of the story, just don’t take yourself too seriously. I complained that Nolan’s BATMAN movies bring up a bunch of interesting question which they have no real intention of exploring, while also somehow managing to be enormously ponderous and self-important. So a movie that can bring up real legitimate issues, and integrate them organically into a story which is thoroughly entertaining, and do it without betraying the inherent good-hearted silliness of its universe… well, I think that’s what I’ve been waiting all these years to be able to say about a Superhero film.** Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN movies probably came the closest, but he always seemed to be fighting the studio to make those work properly. Here, Marvel seems like it’s comfortable with its own universe in a way which Sony wasn’t, and as a result these movies seem to be finding their footing more and more easily. This one was from the directors of YOU, ME, AND DUPREE, so there you go.

CAPTAIN AMERICA PART 2 THIS TIME THE WINTER SOLDIER doesn’t think it’s gonna change your mind about the issues, or reinvent the genre, or teach you something about what it means to be human. But it does think that if you’re going to make a comic book film, you ought to try and make a good one. If Marvel sticks to that philosophy, we’ll probably still have a bunch of questionable political bullshit going on. But at least we’ll have some solid superhero flicks to keep us from getting too depressed about it.

*Get it? They’re both classic black and white period documentaries about the Vietnam war. No, nobody?

**Since they were trying so hard to please me, I gotta also appreciate that this is the rare film which takes place mostly around Washington DC which generally speaking actually looks like Washington DC, plus a gigantic megalithic S.H.E.I.L.D. headquarters which is sitting right on top of Teddy Roosevelt island. Fucking S.H.E.I.L.D. always with the cloak-and-dagger shit, and now they done fucked with Teddy? This shit will not stand.

Does this guy seem a little Aspen-casual for a WINTER soldier? Let's get a parka on this fucker, jesus, you're screwing up the whole gimmick, dude. How are you gonna say "freeze" and shoot someone with a cold ray if you're not even wearing a ski cap?

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