Thursday, April 23, 2015

Film Friday: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Blue Thunder. I noted that Blue Thunder was a truly stupid film, but you didn't care because it was fun. Well, in 2014, Marvel put out a sequel to the first Captain America movie. This was called Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, like Blue Thunder, Captain America: TWS was stupid but quite enjoyable.


For being a superhero movie, Captain America: TWS has a surprisingly complex and interesting plot. The story starts when Samuel L. Jackson (Samuel L. Jackson) gets attacked by the Washington D.C. police for DWB. But these aren’t real cops. No. They are a private army under the control of a guy in body armor who is an unbelievable (i.e. not credible) badasp. Well, Mr. Jackson refuses to die, and he and his car KITT fight back. After wasting most of the bad guys, Mr. Jackson seems to escape but has suffered major wounds.
Mr. Jackson now travels to the lousy apartment of Captain America (Chris Evans), who has befriended a random black dude with post traumatic stress syndrome. Jackson tells the Captain that his secret organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. is full of people he doesn’t trust and he asks the Captain to somethingsomething with a data stick.

Soon, Jackson dies and Condor (Robert Red-Ford) takes over the agency. When this happens, the Captain discovers that some sizable percentage of S.H.I.E.L.D., including all the top managers, are actually bad guys. They decide to hunt him down because they realize he will never help them. Soon the good Captain is on the run with Scarlett Johansson (if that is her real name).
As they run, they are chased by this mystery figure who is “the Winter Soldier” (John Kerry). It turns out that through some vague and unexplained process, the Winter Solider is really Bucky, Captain America’s sidekick from the 1940s. He’s been brainwashed by the bad guys and now fights for them with his memory erased.

Anyhoo, they race to an old S.H.I.E.L.D. base that looks like it was abandoned at the end of WWII and they discover a supercomputer made of old sticks and bits of string. Inside this computer, someone preserved the consciousness of supervillain Armin Zola. They also discover that Hydra has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. to the point of controlling it entirely except for Samuel L. Of course, Samuel L. isn’t really dead because you can’t kill Mr. Jackson.
Naturally, this means that the Captain must sneak back into S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ and destroy their latest weapons before they can be used to conquer the planet. Then the CGI machine gets turned on until the movie ends.

Stupid, But Fun

Wow is this film stupid. No part of it makes sense. How in the world can Hydra infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades and no one knows? If everyone thinks the Captain is a bad guy, why not call in the other Avengers to help catch him? It’s not like anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. can do it on their own. There is absolutely no reason for the inclusion in the film of Bucky as The Winter Soldier, nor does it make sense that Hydra waited this long to use him. Did they expect that one day the Captain would be thawed out?
You know what? I don’t even want to think about it. This movie is stupid and you have to ignore a LOT for it to work.

That said, however, the film does work. And what makes it work is similar to what made Blue Thunder work despite all the silliness. In Captain America: TWS, just as in Blue Thunder, you overlook the plot holes because the film keeps you too entertained to worry about it. It does that by giving you likable characters, clever dialog that engages your mind once in a while, little surprises throughout, and they do an excellent job presenting the action scenes.

Taking the action scenes first, what this film does which is so rare in superhero films today is that it uses short fight scenes, which are spread throughout the plot. By comparison, most action films these days turn on the old CGI machine and let the “action” run for twenty to thirty minutes at a time. That’s far too long for anyone except the most diehard nerd to care about. So by keeping the action scenes shorter, this film never causes its audience to zone out.

Moreover, the action scenes have two additional things going for them in Captain America: TWS. First, since you like the characters and care about them, you actually do care how the fights end. It’s the rare superhero film where I can say that’s true. When the Green Whogivesashit is fighting the big stinky fart monster, it’s impossible to care about the outcome. Either Ryan Reynolds wins and we need to endure a sequel or the fart monster wins and... well, somethingsomething. In this instance, the fights have meaning because we think Mr. Jackson was killed and we don’t want to see other people we like get killed.
Further, the fight scenes here have some suspense. We don’t know who will win each fight, nor do we know the consequences of winning or losing. That makes these fights more interesting. By comparison, in the circle jerk known as The Man of Steel you watch two guys who cannot even be scratched punch it out for an hour as they knock holes in buildings. Boooooring.

This film also does something else clever: it gives you constant little surprises. Indeed, throughout this film, almost every significant scene results in some revelation that adds to the plot. Few other superhero films do that. Most consider the generic twists (i.e. discovery of superpowers, when average loser morphs into supervillain, the fake victory of the bad guy, the discovery of the secret weapon/secret villain) to be enough. But they don’t feed you little things to keep the story interesting between those well-worn points. This film does. It was also packed with clever little moments in the dialog that play the cultural reference game, which is something people really like because it connects the film to their lives.
Finally, this film works because you really like the characters. Captain America is a dull character, but Evans plays him in a way that makes him endearing. Scarlett Johansson plays the hooker with the heart of gold very convincingly and Anthony Mackie plays the cool best friend you wish you had. Both are traditionally characters with strong appeal. And Samuel L. Jackson plays Motherf*cking Samuel L. Jackson, who is always compelling. It’s hard not to like these people and they pull you into their plight as they struggle to land the plot in a good way.

Once again, there is a lesson here. The lesson is that you don’t even need a super smart film to make a good film. All you really need is to do the things that good story-telling normally requires: put engaging characters on the screen and let them fight for stakes that interest the audience. That’s a pretty low standard. So why can’t more films, especially superhero films, at least achieve that bar?



Kit said...

"All you really need is to do the things that good story-telling normally requires: put engaging characters on the screen and let them fight for stakes that interest the audience"

I agree. Also, I've found that an interesting enough main character or characters can raise up a mediocre film.
I will disagree on one thing, I think Marvel as, for the most part, pulled that off, despite the occasional miss.

Kit said...

Oh, and the Honest Trailers take: LINK

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Compelling characters can raise a mediocre film. One thing that will never raise a film, however, is CGI.

Marvel does much better than DC. I will say that for sure. But they have some turds too.

The Honest Trailer guys get this one right. :)

Kit said...

"Compelling characters can raise a mediocre film. One thing that will never raise a film, however, is CGI."


ScottDS said...

I enjoyed this film, especially the 70s paranoid conspiracy vibe the filmmakers were going for.

But I can't say much of it sticks with me. Ditto for pretty much all the other big superhero movies. It's reached a saturation point, at least with me, and I feel no rush to see them on opening day.

Some folks say, "Well, it's like back when westerns were popular." And to that, I reply, "But you didn't need to see Shane to understand a reference in The Searchers!"

Having said that, these films are more often than not a lot of fun and I like that little kids still have cinematic heroes to look up to.

wulfscott said...

"Compelling characters can raise a mediocre film. One thing that will never raise a film, however, is CGI."
'Blasphemy!! Burn the heretics!!': Peter Jackson.
Interesting analysis. I saw Blue Thunder in the theater when it came out; it was entertaining. A few minor plot holes (big enough to fly a helicopter through), but I liked the film. Never felt like it was good enough to see again, though.
I haven't seen Capt. America TWS yet, but it sounds like it would not be a waste of time, especially as I liked Captain America: the First Avenger. tFA did something right, though, in that it went into why Steve Rogers was chosen to be the super soldier: he already had the qualities. Similarly, Doctor Schmidt was already smart, arrogant, and considered himself above everyone else, so he started as a villain, and then gained super powers. I had a problem with his minions in Hydra, though, as who wants to work for someone who is as likely to shoot you as say hello? I think recruitment would be a problem. The Green slacker, otoh, was not a superhero even after getting the ring, I don't see how he was even a test pilot!
That is my main problem with superhero movies, the characters may be super, but they are usually not really heroes. What is there to get us interested in them or their conflicts? As you mention, Andrew, the formula is used (gain powers, train a little, discover villain/scheme/device, and cgi takes it from there), but that does nothing for story or character. The movie becomes generic, so that we don't even care that New York is trashed (again!), defeat of the supervillain is anticlimactic or even boring, if we're still watching. The filmmaker depends on using a character that is already defined as a hero, but doesn't show us any heroism or character development.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This was an entertaining, but forgettable film.

I am not as kind regarding the superhero films. Some are quite good, but many are just awful.

I think the comparison to westerns misses a key point. In particular, Westerns are character stories that take place in a western setting with western trappings (guns, horses, hats, etc.). To make those films work, however, you must combine them with another genre to make a workable movie. In other words, you can't tell "a western." You can only tell a story that takes place as a western. And the end result is that westerns offer a massive variety of types.

Superhero films aren't that. Superhero films are a subgenre of action films with very specific rules. Consequently, you can tell "a superhero movie." In fact, that is what they keep doing over and over and over by repeating the origin story.

To compare this to westerns, it is more accurate to say that a superhero film is like "a gunfighter western" rather than "a western."

Why this matters is because it means that superhero films are much more narrow in focus. Whereas a western could be any number of things -- literally an infinite variety -- superhero films are very limited... they are "gunfighter westerns." Because of that, superhero films get boring very fast.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, Exactly. The current formula, which you describe perfectly, which ends in a massive CGI battle just does nothing for the stories in these films. It doesn't give you an interesting plot. It doesn't give you interesting characters you like.

And I agree completely about the character they are using in films like Green Latern. When the superhero just doesn't have any heroic traits, he's just a CGI waste of time.

AndrewPrice said...


Kit said...


The best "superhero" film of recent years, Guardians of the Galaxy was less a superhero movie and more of a space opera/sci-fi movie that took place in the same universe as a slew of superhero movies.

djskit said...

I was never a fan of super hero/comic book movie until I saw the original "Iron Man" on cable in a hotel room. From them on, Marvel Studios has hooked me in.

I know when the light go down on a Marvel film, I'm going to have fun, spend time with interesting characters, see some cool things and not be insulted.

Sometimes movies are stupid, but, in for a penny, in for a pound and I'm happy to get on board and have fun if everything else works and is done well.

I can't say that for the "Transformers" or any other big films out there.

Kit said...

"Sometimes movies are stupid, but, in for a penny, in for a pound and I'm happy to get on board and have fun if everything else works and is done well. "


I agree. :-)

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