Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Nine: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

By the time Winter Soldier came out, Marvel really had its routine down. They'd built enough of a track record for quality that they'd moved beyond the initial high-risk stage where everything was riding on each successive release. Basically, they'd shifted into a position where their individual films were more like episodes of an established TV show. A ropey one every now and then might generate some choppy internet coverage for a few days, but it did nothing to damage or invalidate the series as a whole. DC, by contrast, is still well and truly stuck in the make-or-break phase, where they have to hold their breath each time a film comes out to see if they did just enough to ensure their cinematic universe survives to limp on for one more instalment.

With that in mind, it's impressive that the MCU still had things to surprise us with - probably since they weren't handcuffed into playing the safest possible game like DC (although we could kick around the question of how accurate their assessment of "safe" was). Anyway, Winter Soldier was a Hell of a lot better than it needed to be by this point in the MCU's development.

The Villain
Okay, so who are we calling the villain in this one - the bad guy who turns out to be good in the end or the good guy who turns out to be bad? This is basically a spy thriller in spandex, where rival organisations are more important than which individual fist ploughs in what individual face. I'm just going to go ahead and lump the entire antagonist role under the banner of Hydra in this one. We already know what their motivations are, and the threat they pose neatly straddles the territory between ludicrously theatrical and ruthlessly pragmatic. They've got magic megaguns that can kill through buildings and a Naughty List with literally millions of names on it. This is Hydra simultaneously at its most powerful and its most desperate. They've won, but no one knows about it. They've secretly stolen the world - now they're genocidally paranoid, seeing enemies everywhere and moving against threats that may never even emerge.

The Story
As a spy thriller, this is pretty conventional stuff. You could more or less slap a Mission Impossible sticker over it and get Cruise on the phone right now. As a superhero story, though, it's something we really hadn't seen before. They tell the story straight, and let the characters take it just seriously enough without sacrificing that essential Marvel mouthfeel. Captain America's adjustment to the modern world is handled effectively without weighing down the plot too much. We continue to get glimpses into the immense backstory burden Black Widow's carrying around and the Winter Soldier himself is given exactly the right treatment. He's presented as both a massive threat and a salvageable asset at once - a balance that forms the core of how he's handled later.

The Universe
There's a fair bit to chew on in the world-building of Winter Soldier, although not all of it pays off. I wish Zola had been something more than an exposition box, for one thing. Nick Fury gets to show why he's the world's greatest spy, though, and the Falcon somehow makes the leap from flamboyantly impractical comic character to credible cinematic action hero without a glitch. There's a weird Stephen Strange reference mid-way through, which really doesn't belong there no matter how earnestly Marvel hand-waves its explanation. Hell - I even liked what they did with Batroc the Leaper! In retrospect, they put a weird amount of effort into Rumlow - later Crossbones - considering what a non-event he turned out to be in Avengers 2. Still, there are often a lot of cast-off characters in these films. At least they aren't as married to killing off villains as so many pre-MCU superhero flicks seemed to be.

The Stinger
Y'know, I really thought we were going to get through this one without an Infinity Stone - but no, Loki's staff makes an appearance here. Not exactly sure how Von Strucker got hold of it or how he's using it to make things-that-are-legally-distinct-from-but-functionally-identical-to mutants, though. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch show up for a few seconds. He's fast, she's weird.

Also, Bucky finds out who Bucky is! It's not clear whether he cares.

The Take-Away
It's pretty clear that Marvel had found the nerve to experiment with what it actually means to be a superhero film by now. We've had weirdly fantastical takes, bold but fairly conventional sci-fi and now Cold War espionage. Considering how much the "Marvel formula" gets slammed (and not always unfairly), it's still encouraging that they're occasionally willing to stray this far from the sky-portals and evil shadows that brought them to the dance.

Previously: Thor: The Dark World
Next: Guardians of the Galaxy

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