CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is a dumb movie. I don’t mean that it is a bad movie—though, I do think it is a bad movie—but that it’s a completely un-smart movie. What’s more, it treats its audience as if they’re dumb—spoon feeding them plot points and hints about future movies that are for sure to happen because everyone saw this Marvel…cinematic excretion is too harsh a word ( I didn’t think it was that bad), but…”attempt”? This was a cinematic….attempt.
Strangely, though, people seem to be talking about it using only hyperbole. And I understand that not everyone is—hell, not even most people are—but a lot of people are. And they seem to be driving the conversation surround this thing. They’re comparing it to THE DARK KNIGHT and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, calling it an intelligent, engaging, topical spy thriller with a lot of deep and incisive criticisms about 21st Century America.
The problem with this kind of praise is that, by opining that it is intelligent and deep, its lack of intelligence and depth becomes a viable target. So I’m not talking to the people who can readily admit the films flaws and enjoy it anyways. I’m talking to the people who are falling over themselves to praise its realism, its superlative quality, its intelligence and depth; people who are bragging to their friends that they’ve seen it three, four, or even five times in theaters because oh my god it’s so good you have to see it oh my god I can’t believe you haven’t seen it what don’t you love America…
Starting outwards with the big and moving inwards to the small, we’ll begin with the plot, structure, and pacing of the film. I was bored by the film, finding it overlong and not lean enough to be an entertaining spy thriller, a claim it makes implicitly with its content and made explicitly for it by my target audience. There are two characters in particular that I think serve no function in the film, and exist only as balls to throw up in the air for Marvel Studios to juggle into the next movie. Sharon Carter (only referred to as Agent 13 in the film) and Sam Wilson/The Falcon.
Both character arcs suffer from separate problems, but one underlying cause: they’re in the movie because Marvel wanted them in the movie. They serve no narrative function other than one prescribed to them. It’s no different than the Characters Follow Plot hokum that filled last year’s STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and MAN OF STEEL. It’s efficient causes versus teleological causes; guess which one is stupid and guess which one is entertaining. Sam Wilson and Agent 13 are only in the film to fulfill some predetermined role, a role which they must fit, not one that’s an organic outgrowth of their character and their actions.
Agent 13 is an interesting character in a completely separate medium, and they could have certainly added something to the movie by introducing a love interest for Steve Rogers. This would have played nicely against Black Widow constantly pushing Steve to date. Instead, they introduced a character with less than five lines that played off nothing. That by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, y’know, sometimes minor characters grow into major characters in later films (which is obviously the plan here). The problem arises when Agent 13 is presented as having importance now. She’s not a background character, she’s a character that, while she’s onscreen, is framed, blocked, and treated as if she is a major or important character in this film. She’s even included in the ending montage, as if she was one of the central characters that we’d been following along with this whole time. In the scene where she engages Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (as played by Frank Grillo), those shots are composed to lend her a sense of gravitas, or importance. She is our audience surrogate for these few minutes, and there is such a narrative shift that it is almost as if we’ve entered a separate movie. It’s not that she plays such a small role and is expected to play a large role later. It’s that she plays a small role but is presented as having some sort of immediate relevance and importance when there is none.
Similarly, Sam Wilson seems to only be in the movie because someone thought that Captain America needed a sidekick, because I guess The Black Widow wasn’t enough of one. He’s shoehorned into the film as a veteran who runs in to Captain America by chance and just happens to also be a superhero. Coincidence after coincidence after coincidence, which is a strange creative choice when “Sam Wilson works for SHIELD and is Captain America’s friend” gets the same film made but with less accidental run-ins and coincidences. The simple unnecessariness of Sam Wilson in this film can be best exemplified by the scene in which Captain America and Black Widow are told about his wings. “How can we capture one of the most highly-guarded men in the world, in broad daylight?” Captain America asks. “That’s where I come in,” says Wilson. Cut to: they don’t use the wings to grab Sitwell. At all. Point blank. They tell you explicitly that Wilson is required to accomplish something and then cut directly to him not being required to accomplish that thing. “Oh, Shea,” you’re probably saying, “They do use Wilson! He helps interrogate Sitwell.” That’s true. But they don’t use him to capture Sitwell, and Widow or Cap could’ve filled Wilson’s actual role very easily. Fellow This Is Infamous writer Captain Dan posited to me that Sam Wilson needs to be in the film because the story of his wingman provides a sympathetic foil for Captain America’s guilt about Bucky/The Winter Soldier. That’s an interesting idea, but it isn’t one that’s explored for more than two quick lines (literally just two), two lines that garner no reaction from Captain America outside of a very brief “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Completely disregarding Black Widows lack of arc (hesitance in two seconds of film is not an arc) and the obvious stupidity of Captain America (he hides the film’s MacGuffin in a vending machine—in front of eveeeeeeryone!), the most egregious lack of character arc is found in the titular Winter Soldier. Towards the end of the film, as he begins to discover who he was, The Winter Soldier is hinted at as having some drama to his character. In the closing scenes of the film, he’s demonstrating a hesitation and a realization of who he was and what he’s done. But the film is named THE WINTER SOLDIER for god’s sake, and to not give his story any meat is a waste of space. And not only does he have no arc—hell, he’s barely in the movie—but he doesn’t have any agency (in a movie that is named for him) either. Alexander Pierce is the one pushing the buttons and pulling the strings—everything from Sitwell being on the boat in the beginning of the film, to Arnim Zola’s involvement, to Fury’s assassination. The Winter Soldier does literally nothing but follow orders…until the post-credits scene. Which, again, is just indicative of a higher regard for movies that have just now been greenlit; a creative prioritization of movies that you don’t even know you’re going to be allowed to be make instead of the one you’re currently making.
And these useless characters are packed into a movie that’s as ham-fisted as it is expositional. Its whole movie is predicated on twists and turns that it telegraphs hours in advance. The way it cuts from Fury in his office, unable to crack the thumb drive, to Alexander Pierce talking to the council or whatever, I knew immediately that he was the bad guy. That’s not me bragging about how smart and observational I am, it’s a criticism of the movie. The way Redford acts in his scenes with Chris Evans are dead give aways; Redford plays his character with a sinister swagger that appears to be too much for him to handle, bleeding into the scenes in which his character is still supposed to be perceived as a good guy. And Nick Fury? Dead? Aw, you shouldn’t have. Oh. You didn’t? Yeah, I don’t know what the bigger give away was: the deadpan performances from both Evans and Johannson (again, almost as if their characters knew what was coming, like the actors portraying them (Though, Cobie Smulders was killing it)) or the fact that, because of what the film had already set up and where in the film the scene takes place, there was no reasonable expectation that Fury was already dead. I don’t think any but the most naïve of viewers honestly believed that the character was dead. And yet Chris Evans still hits us with that Ted Logan “What if cat’s have their own version of the internet…” face when—shock, shock, surprise—Fury is revealed to be alive.
For a movie that telegraphs its larger set-pieces so far in advance, the least it could do would be to have some dialogue that’s worth listening to. But no, it can’t even manage to stop talking when it should. Instead, almost every line of dialogue in this film is an over-explanation of epic proportions. It’s as if every line from every single character is attempting to justify its place in the movie, trying to explain its preceding and succeeding line, yelling information at the dumbest of audience members. “Nick, gee willikers,” Cap says, “I’m really not okay with all this plot stuff that reads like its writers’ only knowledge of politics is that Ben Franklin quote about giving up freedom for security making you stupid, and I have to tell you about it because everyone involved either lacks the ability to dramatize that tepid idea or we all think the audience is too stupid to get it.” And the whole movie is like that. The film literally tells instead of shows. There’s no nuance or sub-text, and for those who are still convinced that a movie that costs a lot to make can’t be criticized for being dumb, the film lacks humor, wittiness, delivery, and a simple, basic trust that the audience aren’t all morons.
To make matters worse, the stale, crippling dialogue fills a movie that’s plot, while it doesn’t have anything necessarily “wrong” with it, is wholly unoriginal, uninspired and simplistic. By simplistic, I don’t mean to disparage a simplicity of storytelling—something that can be found in things like DREDD 3D, THE RAID, DIE HARD, DRUG WAR, 13 ASSASSINS—I mean that it’s flat, homogenized, made digestible by anyone that’s slept through a third grade social studies class. It presents itself, and is talked about, as if it actually has something to say about topical intelligence community controversies, but it actually has very little intelligible let alone intelligent to say. For those keeping score at home, the only throughline running through every ounce of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is, if you haven’t noticed, a heaping platter of dumbed down and homogenized gruel, suitable for the palettes of even the lowest common denominators.
Now, I’m sure that most of you who have stuck around are thinking “Yeah, but it’s a superhero movie, so it doesn’t have to be smart. It’s just trying to be fun.” If you substituted “superhero movie” for “comic book movie,” I sincerely, genuinely, honestly and truthfully would like you to leave. Thank you. For the people who sweepingly derided an entire genre of film instead of an entire art form: the problem with that idea is that, beyond useless characters, expository dialogue, and telegraphed “twists,” the actioner/thriller/spy-fi aspects fall flat. This is more of a subjective argument than objective one, particularly as we move to the more surface-level elements of the film, but it’s no less substantive an argument and no less important a conversation that nobody appears to having.
For an action movie, the action in THE WINTER SOLDIER is, with neither malice nor hyperbole, short bursts of roughly-hewn, sloppily edited, blurry piles of shit, with choreography that is impenetrable because of the tightness of the shooting and the number of cuts per fight. There is an immediate and obvious lack of technical ability on the part of The Russo Brothers; it’s clear within seconds that they simply lack the experience, knowledge, and facilities to shoot an action sequence coherently. The best fight in the entire film is the Batroc scene which opens the movie, because it’s the fight with the most fluidity and coherence. It’s short, but it has the longest sustained takes and, relatively, the greatest amount of clarity. There’s a lot of cutting in action instead of on action, but it’s not constant here, as it is in other fights. It’s a lesson that’s been misappropriated from Christopher Nolan by nearly everyone, because that’s how he shot action and those Batman films were holistically good and very successful. The only problem is that, as a Batman director, Christopher Nolan’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t know how to shoot a hand-to-hand action sequence. Like the Russo Brothers, among other devotees, Nolan keeps the shot very tight, which makes it more difficult to delineate spatial relationships, action, and contact. The difference is that Nolan makes less edits during the fights—more than he should, but less than his acolytes tend to—and utilizes less camera movement. The Russo Brothers on the other hand, take plays from Nolan, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky, and the result is a close-in camera that’s constantly moving, stitched together with some amateurish editing. It’s a complete mystery to me how anyone who has seen a Gareth Evans, John Woo, or Johnnie To film (or even just the Hallway Fight from OLDBOY) could be content with something so haphazardly thrown together, something that so obviously lacks coordination, style, elegance, and fundamental competency. The Russo Brothers come from a purely comedic filmmaking background and not only is it readily apparent, but I’m not sure what was going through the mind of the Disney executive that made the decision to hire them for an action movie.
Though, to their credit, they do come from a television background, so they have plenty of experience working to supplant their own voice with the voice, style, and aesthetic of someone else. And that really seems to be what Marvel/Disney is going for: a bland, homogenization in which every Marvel movie feels, looks, acts like every other Marvel movie; a goal that they are achieving admirably, even if it’s a boring, useless-to-the-world-at-large goal. People praise THE WINTER SOLDIER because it’s different from the rest, but the only difference (really and truly the only difference) is that it has a darker color palette—because The Russos were trying to ape Christopher Nolan.
I don’t know how auteur filmmaker Edgar Wright will fair in this environment, but he, based on his past work, is going to do a better job of shifting between serious and humorous then the team of The Russo Brothers and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely.
The jokes in this movie fall completely flat. D.C. Pierson—who I think is incredibly talented and funny—as that Apple Genius was such a bizarre scene that it was almost as if someone forgot to move it into the “deleted scenes” folder on the hard drive. It’s completely dislocated from the bits around it that it, to the point where it is off-putting and strange. But all the jokes in the movie are like that; the rivets on this plane aren’t even close to flush. And it’s not that Black Widow makes a WAR GAMES joke about five seconds before a Nazi who has uploaded his consciousness to a computer tries to blow up our protagonists with a missile. And it’s not that Captain America has already taken the time to catch up on WAR GAMES but not STAR WARS or STAR TREK or ROCKY, or even that they move from joke to seriousness. It’s that this film doesn’t do it very well. Each joke exists in its own universe, completely separate from the one that it was reluctantly stitched into.
Even at its lowest levels, its details, beyond the highly-derivative plot, useless and outright dumb characters, the childish dialogue, its poor camera work and flat jokes, THE WINTER SOLDIER can’t even get some basic shit right. Let’s ignore for a second that Black Widow spends the whole movie mucking about with a S.H.I.E.L.D. phone when they’re trying to stay off the grid and that she tries to crack a S.H.I.E.L.D. thumb drive at an Apple store, two ideas that are completely ridiculous and stupid. After Fury is shot by The Winter Soldier, Cobie Smulders/Maria Hill mentions that they don’t know who shot him because the bullet had no rifling. Now ordinarily this is a very small detail that I could just gloss over, but Smulders delivers it with such importance and then Black Widow tells her story and places even more importance on that detail: the film mentions the detail twice, with emphasis. It may have been an accident of poor delivery (which isn’t an excuse), but it goes out of its way to draw attention to something so monumentally stupid. If The Winter Soldier is identifiable by using guns without rifling, several problems arise: 1) rifling was invented for use in firearms to improve their accuracy. A bullet fired from a gun without sufficient rifling will begin to yaw [move at an angle] almost immediately; a bullet fired from a gun without any rifling will suffer the same effect, only worse. After more than a few feet, accuracy from a gun without rifling becomes physically impossible. Fellow This Is Infamous writer/podcaster Token Tom mentions shot guns as being guns that don’t have rifling, and while he is right, they don’t, they’re bad examples because, like any gun that doesn’t use rifling, they lose their accuracy after a few feet, so they become useless for distance shots. He also posits that The Winter Soldier uses a shot gun for most the movie, which is just factually inaccurate—he uses a handgun for most the fights and tries to kill Fury with a rifle. So, yeah, several rifle shots across the street aren’t happening. Again, not a problem in and of itself in a movie starring a super soldier and a dude with a robot arm, but it both calls unnecessary attention to itself twice and is another example of the films underlining idiocy. 2) It displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how ballistics work. If you shoot someone and they recover the bullet, they would have to find the gun you fired that bullet from, fire it again, and then match the bullets, a science that is historically inaccurate. A single bullet, without the gun, does not make you identifiable or traceable. 3)If your goal is to remain hidden an unidentifiable, using a gun that doesn’t feature rifling leaves a Winter Soldier-shaped hole in assassination investigations, and actually makes it easier to discern who pulled the trigger than if he just a very common gun. You can call this nitpicking, but do so is to avoid admitting to a film’s flaws that it itself points out repeatedly.
What’s more, at the end of the film, Black Widow remarks that she was able to get information on The Winter Soldier from her connections in Kiev. This is weird because The Winter Soldier is explicitly Hydra, but implicitly Russian—he does have the big red star on his left soldier, an altogether unnecessary carryover from the comics that was there because he was a Russian agent. If he’s a Hydra agent, why does Widow’s connection in the Ukraine have information on him now, when they didn’t after Widows first run-in (it’s possible she never went looking, but that’s hard to believe)? And why go all the way to the Ukraine in the scene directly following Widow throwing up all of Hydra’s secret files onto the internet? More unnecessariness…
Now, if The Winter Soldier is Russian then why does the Ukraine have the information? And if Widow is explicitly Russian in this film (and I don’t buy Johannson as a former Russian national, and there is really zero reasons for them to have kept that detail in…) and The Winter Soldier is implicitly Russian, why does Widow go to the Ukraine rather than Russia? Captain Dan posits that Ukraine would have that information because of their close relationship with Russia; they would be the best at spying on Russia because of their odd mix of antagonism and alliance, as well as their proximity. He also assumes that Russia wouldn’t share that information because Russia is Russia. He has a point on both, but it wouldn’t explain why Widow wouldn’t be able to access that information when she was a Russian national. It also doesn’t explain why they didn’t just go to the internet—where they had just put all this info—to get what they needed.
Neither of these are the straws that broke the camel’s back, but because of attention that the film calls to them (for reasons that continue to escape me) they’re sure as hell straws, and they did contribute to the camel’s back breaking. And they’re worth mentioning, as slight as they are, because they represent everything that’s wrong with the movie.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is a film that consistently includes characters, dialogue, details, cameos, and jokes that don’t serve any function. Because of how they frame, introduce, talk about, and treat these things, even the most basic of audience members can see that we’re being told that they are important. They’re things to notice and pay attention to. But by doing that, the filmmakers and the film draw attention to its heaping mess of flaws that would go completely unnoticed if it had just figured out how to shut its mouth. Every single one of the films problems could be fixed by cutting scenes, dialogue, changing the title and by getting a little better action sequences.
And I’m sure that the most majority of you think I’m being overly critical of a tentpole blockbuster from Disney. That would be a fair argument, one that discounts completely movies that cost a lot to make, but a fair one…if I hadn’t talked about the film using only the language and framework that are already being used to drive the conversation. Expect to be talked to about stuff they way you talk about that stuff.
Or maybe Disney gave its audience exactly what they want. They have, after all, had financial success after financial success, including this most recent blah fest. The flaws of these films, which increasingly resemble assembly line products, appear to go completely unnoticed by most people watching them, including people whose opinions I typically value and who are not dumb by any stretch of the imagination. Maybe I’m bitter or overly critical. Or maybe I’m tired of things being “good enough” or being exempt from having to justify themselves because they cost a lot of money. Maybe I’m tired of safe, boring, same-old films from Disney and Marvel that are inches from being made exactly like 99% of their comics output: nameless, faceless, conventional status-quo machines that invite exciting young creators to come innovate before filing the serial numbers those creators.
Mostly I’m just tired of people being so forgiving of stuff that has no aspirations beyond making someone a gross pile of cash and then being forgotten. So call me bitter or cynical or joyless (I mainlined THE RAID 2 and JODOROWSKY’S DUNE back-to-back, so my life is full of joy, thank you very much), but Jesus Christ am I someone who expects people and things to try. And CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER couldn’t even muster the energy to do that.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
Aug 29, 2014 0