Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford

I wasn’t going to talk about Three Days of the Condor, but a little poking around and it turns out that the people who wrote the movie wanted to talk about Three Days of the Condor, so let’s talk about Three Days of the Condor. At the end of that movie, Turner, after dodging the mass murder of his colleagues, manages to uncover the conspiracy from above that condemned them (and him!) to death. He has it out with a CIA bigwig after going to the New York Times and telling them his story. It ends with one of the great rejoinders in movie history. “They’ll print it,” Turner says. The bookish desk analyst has been changed by his three days. He held a woman hostage in her apartment and had some not entirely consensual sex with her. He has outmaneuvered and then had a surprisingly straightforward head-to-head with the assassin who should have shot him down. He has found a rat king of wickedness in the highest levels of his government. He lives in a time when that kind of political malfeasance has still been, if not punished flat out, been met with condemnation in the press and in popular opinion. He was a nobody who is now riding high. Higgins, the CIA heavy, replies, “How do you know?” It’s a stunning moment. There is a limit to the decency of one man, a ceiling on what he can accomplish alone, and to be honest it’s hardly guaranteed that Turner will get to a seventh or eighth day of the Condor. This is not even cynical; this is pessimism born of hard experience, as Freddie Mercury declaimed, of not wanting to be a candidate for Vietnam or Watergate.

I wasn’t going to talk about The Parallax View, but a little poking around and it turns out that the people who wrote the movie wanted to talk about The Parallax View, so let’s talk about The Parallax View. We can keep this shorter. At the end of the movie, the people from Parallax outmaneuver the journalist, Frady, kill him, and frame him for an assassination he’d tried to prevent. I don’t know if this manages to cross the line to cynical, but it also takes a deeply pessimistic view of the situation, one that isn’t just “How do you know?” but “We will bury you before you can even find out?”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does, I think, try to transplant this kind of ’70s political thriller atmosphere to the movie. Hydra is creating a surveillance system via algorithm which will not merely listen to all their phone calls or gather data on their browsing habits, but blow them away from a satellite platform, which, to be honest, it seems like President Hawley will probably put together with a little help from Bezos and Zuck. It reflects some of the general concerns we have about our government being able to intrude on us at any moment while nodding to a more recent political thriller like Minority Report to help fill in the gaps. It puts Captain America (Evans) on the run after he refuses to answer a pertinent question about the presumed assassination of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), making Evans just the newest hot guy, after Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, to get put on the run by mysterious killers after his hide. (I don’t want to overstate things too much here, but Chris Evans in glasses telling people he’s going on a honeymoon to New Jersey is god-level himbo.) He must figure out who they are, defend himself along the way, and make sure the wrongdoers are brought to justice. Turner, it is implied, will fail. Frady absolutely fails. Steve Rogers, with a little help from his ex-KGB, now ex-SHIELD buddy, Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), a basically lobotomized version of Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker, and surprise-not-dead-actually Nick Fury, succeeds. It requires him to hold his own in multiple fistfights with his brainwashed best friend from World War II, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan, who I really do not understand the appeal of), weather a missile attack which blows up the basement he and Natasha were scurrying around in, and survive the destruction of a flying aircraft carrier. At that point, SHIELD (I’m not putting periods between all of those letters every time, are you kidding) is deemed too corrupt to continue existing, Hydra is forced to regroup elsewhere, there’s some minor but presumably immaterial fallout for SHIELD’s non-Hydra members, Cap and Sam (Mackie) decide to look for Bucky, and the world has, fortunately, been saved again. You may have noticed that the endings of Three Days of the CondorThe Parallax View, and Winter Soldier have a very strong “one of these things is not like the other” vibe. I realize that the rules about punishing bad people in MCU movies are even stronger and immutable than they were in like, ’40s noir, but let me offer an analogy to explain why this movie’s genre problem is, to me, so profound. Imagine, adult readers, your favorite whiskey cocktail. Now imagine it exactly the same, but replace the whiskey with apple juice.

This doesn’t even begin to approach the movie’s other genre problem, which is the inevitable “why do we have superheroes, exactly?” problem that most superhero movies and franchises get to eventually. The better ones, or at least the ones where you’re supposed to keep your brain turned on, tend to address this problem pretty quickly; The Incredibles begins from this point. Heck, even a movie as frequently maligned as Iron Man 2 tried to approach the thorny problem of an individual who is a citizen of one nation who can bring a not insignificant percentage of his nation’s military might to bear all by himself. But I gotta say, it’s really something for the government to say to Natasha, “You know, you probably should be in prison after all the extralegal killing and stuff you’ve done,” and she’s like, “Yeah, but you need me to protect you” which is, incidentally, the same argument Nick Fury made when he was getting played by Hydra and the same argument everyone in Hydra made throughout! Just because the right person is saying, “Yeah, but you need me to protect you” doesn’t make the argument right or logical! Winter Soldier fails enormously on the self-justification for the characters acting as they do, just as it fails enormously on why it’s putting on a ’70s conspiracy movie mask. There has to be more to screenwriting than a mood board and an obsession with a three-act plot. Without characterization and context it’s not much more than spitting in the wind.

Now that we’ve gotten the whole “is this a good movie?” thing out of the way, Winter Soldier is emphatically at its most watchable when it’s Cap and Black Widow on the road together. (Its best action sequence, just to get that out there, is definitely the one where Nick Fury pushes an SUV through D.C. at rush hour; it’s a genuinely edgy, legible sequence.) It’s not just because Chris Evans is, once again, quite hot in his Williamsburg Saturday afternoon get-up, or because Scarlett Johansson, with her third hairdo in three movies, seems very out of place wearing that de rigueur barista hoodie. The two of them have chemistry. They are easy together, and while the cover story they give at the Apple Store is that they are young lovers on the go, they seem more like friends in the second season of a sitcom than they do soulmates. After a shared kiss meant to keep their identities quiet, their banter together is the kind of quiet funny that people who get each other share back and forth (“Was that your first kiss since 1945?” she asks. After flailing a little, he lands on “I’m ninety-five, not dead.”) The little cheek kiss at the end of the movie is a little much for me, as it’s always a deeply unnatural thing for people to do in American movies since, oh, World War I, but it hardly negates what might be the first real friendship I’ve seen in a dozen of these movies.

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