or: We Have to Talk About Superheroes
Let us please lay the superhero film to rest, for at least a decade, say. Let’s pretend it all ended when we were left with a vague sense of being underwhelmed as Michael Caine stared across a European café. Sure, that cutoff negates the existence of The Avengers, which was a decent outing that is slowly becoming redundant as the component films in the Marvel catalogue chip away at the characterisation and plot mechanics of that world, but that’s just a sacrifice we have to make. A sacrifice for all of us, for the future – cue generic string piece.
We should take a step back, though. It’s not necessarily the fault of Captain America: The Winter Solider that superhero films should just disappear, it’s not even the worst Marvel franchise in this wheelhouse (looking at you, Thor). It’s just that this second film is so emblematic of a money grab devoid of anything real or truly exciting that seems to be a trait in a lot of recent blockbusters. Stakes are raised beyond shark-jumping, the uncomfortable realisation that Anthony Mackie is both an Iron Man surrogate and another in the increasing line of African-American sidekicks to Caucasian-American superheroes surfaces and the most interesting character in the film by a long shot, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, still doesn’t have her own prequel.
Captain America: The First Avenger, released in 2011 and guided by the not-so-surprisingly assured hand of Jumanji and The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston, was a bolt of lighting to the superhero movie landscape. A funny, heartfelt and unabashedly nostalgic film that evoked the original comics and the plots of various B-movies and/or American wartime propaganda reels. I feel I’m in the minority here but Captain America seemed so clearly to be the most superior of all of the pre-Avengers movies. It lacked the smarminess and poorly written villain of the first Iron Man and it managed to feel like an escape; by talking Nazis you immediately hand in your ‘serious political discourse in a silly movie’ card and it becomes a romp moreso than a compelling argument for something.1
The Russo Brothers haven’t elevated beyond television for their latest big screen outing, never placing any directorial stamp on the film through style or framing. The fight scenes were moderately better than many films of the same ilk but editing from the Quantum of Solace school dimmed their power. In fact, the Russos’ main achievement in the film was the inclusion of some sight gags and Abed. For what is supposed to be a rousing justification for another superhero outing and the American ideals, a back-seat visual schema is an aggressively uninvolved approach.
Outside of Anthony Mackie and Johansson, the acting isn’t worth discussing, which probably should have been apparent as soon as they made Robert Redford a poor caricature of a villain. The banter between Black Widow and the Cap is (mostly) good but often repeated dialogue as jokes felt like a jarringly simple screenplay technique, surface level over insightful.
The film’s screenplay seemed to jump between a bold plot filled with complications and a really simple Mission Impossible remake. The dastardly plan, recklessly dragged through a rushed historical montage and a moral justification appropriated from Watchmen, didn’t help any argument for the story’s inventiveness either.2Its stakes-raising, then, was nothing of great interest to me; for a film supposed to be dependent on thrills (of both the tense and entertaining variety) it nearly completely failed to grip me, for that is the price you pay for placing your audience at a emotive distance.
Where The First Avenger excited me so much in its aim to distinguish itself from other superhero films (with a lot of the same old dreck coming from Marvel itself), The Winter Soldier seems set on holding onto The Avengers-verse and the growing trend of realism (or at least vague social commentary masquerading as modern political realism) over its delightful beginnings. This is a shame not only for the franchise but for superhero movies in general. Nolan’s Batman staked out his dark and moody world, Faverau’s Iron Man had witticisms and charm to overcome plot and Johnson’s Captain America had cartoonish villains and loads of camp. Perhaps the move to change directors and change visions for narrative cements these superhero films as mere commodity to be trafficked through the minds of kids (and adults alike) looking for an enjoyable escape. Stay tuned for inevitable sequel after sequel (they didn’t really end this one properly and Chris Evans has a six-film contract), as Marvel has their eyes set on the box office and not the scripts.
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