Five brief thoughts on a one of this year’s films.
This week, something you’ve probably already seen, but hey, I didn’t worry about that before so why start now? Also, declassified document elements within (also known as spoilers).
The Avengers rocked and started a Joss Whedonessaince (nobody remembers Dollhouse now). I liked The First Avenger, I liked Thor. The Iron Man movies are solid if a little silly, always entertaining and the Tony Stark character is well executed throughout. However, this is the first film that really got me to appreciate the Marvel Movie Making machine itself. Marvel’s MCU has got away with a few missteps based on audience faith (mostly a Hulk film that nobody can be bothered to either reference or de-canonise, but also some small continuity errors and logical lapses) but a way of viewing their films is that the Avengers is a must watch, Avengers II will be a must watch and Iron Man is a popular popcorn trilogy but there’s a lot of filler and you can skip the rest. This film is a bit of a game changer in that regard in that it’s solid throughout and actually does advance the central plot line a great deal (SHIELD put the Avengers together, but now the Avengers have to find an identity outside of SHIELD).
Let’s get into it.
1) If the correct way to judge a film is to see how well it achieves what it is clearly trying to do, this film is essentially a ten out of ten. We have a central character who is inspiring but not wildly charismatic who also has the burden of having to exist in a wider storytelling universe that contains other equally important characters. The film has to contain great action (Captain America solves problems mostly by punching and kicking them after all), move the character forward, move the other important characters forward, move the world forward and not be so cheesy that it lets the franchise down. If anything the film over-achieves on all of these. You could make the argument that this doesn’t really stand very well on it’s own and we are only really interested in the characters because we know he’s buds with Hulk, Thor and Iron Man and needs to survive to be in the next Avengers film but that’s unfair. You can’t pick a movie out of a series of films and criticise it for needing the others to make sense. Very few “series” films would survive that treatment. Yes, this isn’t a world beater and it really only works because of the films before and the films to follow but if it’s filler, it’s good filler at that. Amongst the Avengers films that aren’t the Avengers, it does very well and frankly overproduces great moments. Let’s look through the components that work.
2) Great Action – Yes and yes. Films at the moment are a bit overburdened by a case of the Michael Bays. Everything is CGI and the scale of importance is so out of whack that the only way to heighten tension is to constantly have everything crashing into each other and exploding constantly (weirdly, the Hobbit does this too but replaces the explosions with falling). Whilst that’s a pretty good summation of the action in this film, the film overcomes and really ticks all the boxes. We have a pretty nice car chase sequence with Nick Fury. Cap’s leaping acrobatics and shield slinging are pretty fun. The Falcon has some of the better CGI, justifying the “weightlessness” that CGI brings by being a light as a feather, dexterous flyer and also fleeing from a falling building in a very nicely put together sequence at the end. The Winter Soldier strolls from explosion to explosion in a well-trodden but effective way of looking like a badass and his confrontation with Cap hits the right high spots (mostly collisions of the arm and the shield). The fight choreography is throwing everything all at once but it comes off as a smorgasbord rather than a mess and compared to some previous appearances, Black Widow’s fighting style is much improved. Cap’s Judo and Taekwon-do are top notch (putting a nice judo throw in anything is a way to make me applaud) as he uses everything, though is pretty slow to get his hooks in for a choke (maybe this guy could have given him some tips). The shooting and explosions are a bit OTT towards the end, as everything is nowadays but it’s much more justified than most things.
3) Move the character forward, Move the other characters forward, Move the world forward – There’s a paradox here. The core captain America doesn’t change that much. He’s a guy from the 1940s with old fashioned values. If he changed or moved forward too much, he wouldn’t be himself. The film errs away from giving Steve a true love interest or a true off-duty role in the modern world. However, the paradox is resolved and the character does develop in that the role he plays in the world around him differs. In The First Avenger, his main role is to be really brave and fight bad guys really well. In The Winter Soldier, he begins to move beyond this to his greatest strength being not just his fighting ability or bravery but his moral compass. Cap has always been a kind of comfort blanket for a morally uncertain world. Boomers and Gen-X-ers wonder whether the world was always so complicated or whether the so-called Greatest Generation actually did live in a morally simpler world. This is clearly a falsehood as to think that the 1950s didn’t have moral problems (race relations anyone?) is just plain dumb but Cap comes from a very specific time and place where moral correctness was at least something that people could more seriously aspire to. In Marvel’s shared universe cornucopia, Cap’s Powers aren’t all that much compared to some but it’s his moral steadfastness that is truly superhuman and the writers make this point in spades. Cap is determined to stop the victorious Shield from being fascistic and in doing so uncovers Hydra’s re-emergence. This version of man-as-philosophy is a much simpler and more bare and functional than all the moody scenes in The Dark Knight but in a sense it’s a lot purer. Steve doesn’t try to pretend to be a symbol of moral virtue….he just tries really hard to be morally virtuous. In a world where even Superman is made out to be a morally ambiguous character, it appeals to our sense of what a superhero really is at the core is the struggle to do the right thing. In that sense, this is a film where despite thoroughly modern and politically cynical (NSA-referencing) themes, it isn’t afraid to pretend that this is about something other than superheroes.
Black Widow isn’t a great character and it would be a mistake to give her a film (even if they need a top rank female avenger film) but the character is given a fairly central role, building the character too. Johanssen has never really shown any great acting chops or been very memorable but her kind of supermodel detached untrustworthiness (I’m referring to her general demeanour, not any kind of act she puts on, so far as I can tell) actually works pretty well as a spy whom you’re not sure whether to trust or not, something the film uses as a virtue. Jackson’s Fury is basically Commissioner Gordon at this point but that works for the role he needs to play. The bad guys aren’t afforded much screen time, but since the shadow of Hydra and the Red Scull which was pretty well set up in the last film is their guiding principle, it doesn’t feel that extra time is needed to set these guys up. It works.
The films pits the ruthlessness of Hydra against people willing to follow Cap because of his inspirational speeches and the chasing and double-crossing is fun. The film acts like Hydra is now out in the open but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hydra was never mentioned again in the MCU just as I hardly expect other villains such as The Abomination or Malekith to return (possibly some of the henchmen though).
4) Not be so cheesy…. It isn’t. In terms of tone, they walk a tightrope. Action is full of flip-kicks but they also set out some gritty elements too. Mainly, the challenges are in many places kept down to earth. The scene where rogue Shield agents try to apprehend Cap in a lift isn’t an Alien invasion but is a well constructed old fashioned action scene that puts the hero over. The Winter Soldier himself is presented as terrifying but it’s not made out that he’s anything more than a dangerous man, not a literal demon. The action can be a bit Bay-ish and OTT at times but it’s largely earned and anchored by focusing on real people edging by – the Falcon, Cap and Widow.
5) Okay, so #REALTALK. Where is Iron Man during all of this? Where is noted Shield Agent and friend of Widow Hawkeye? Where is the Iron Patriot? Where was Captain America when the president was abducted? Why won’t the Falcon be in the Avengers? Why doesn’t the Iron Patriot become a fully fledged Avenger? Why don’t they give the Falcon an Iron Man suit? Why didn’t Hydra focus on stealing the Iron Man technology? Why didn’t they realise that Shield was evil when they tried to Nuke New York? Why did Bucky wander off? What happened to Jenny Agutter for Widow to take her place? Is Agutter Hydra? Captain America is wonderful but he’s hardly the world’s greatest detective for leaving so many loopholes unanswered.