Admitting that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best stand-alone Marvel film is a double edged sword. On the one hand it’s a fitting accolade for one of the finest American made action films in recent years, on the other it’s a deeply flawed film that forces you to confess that the previous entries have been far from perfect. And as many of these flaws have become part of the Marvel formula it also throws up doubts about future films too.
In this instalment Cap Am is now a fully paid, card carrying member of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. That’s S.H.I.E.L.D for those who believe in linguistic economy. He gets sent round the globe, shutting down terrorist threats, saving hostages, protecting freedom etc. But when he questions the methods of S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury he sets off a chain of events that lead to him going on the run with Black Widow.
The interplay between Cap and Black Widow is great. Scarlett Johansson has a way about her that for all the high kicking in cat suits, she can seem to be most the normal person on earth, effortlessly bringing Cap back to reality with nonchalant talk of the everyday and mundane. Chris Evans as Cap Am meanwhile, continues to be one of the most perfectly casted members of the Marvel Universe, but this might have something to do with the fact that the roles are all written to suit the stars. Nick Fury for example blurs the line between character and actor so much that when Samuel L. Jackson turns up on screen I’m not even sure he was aware the cameras were rolling.
His show piece action sequence would have been an amazing car chase/gunfight anyway but having Sam Jackson yell things like “GET. ME. OFF. THE. GRID!” in the middle of it gives it that extra injection of baddassery that makes it a truly memorable scene. In fact the action in these films would be perfect if it wasn’t for the shaky cam. Ah yes the shaky cam. It’s a real shame, I had thought that Marvel were above the popular myth that shaky cam increases audience immersion.
In actual fact for many of us it decreases it. To see action shake on screen would only increase my immersion if I were to see it during an earthquake. In actual fact shaky cam is mostly used to mask the clumsy interactions CGI creations have with one another in hectic fight scenes. But why they need it here when many of the effects are practical is beyond me. They only serve to obscure the action in a film like this, making it harder for the audience to remember the scenes afterward. And when they do use CGI the camera suddenly straightens itself out. Almost like saying “we paid a buttload for this, the audience are damn well going to see it.” But if that is the case and they value the digital effects above the work of their stunt crews, the studio might be exhibiting a worrisome case of Lucasesque CGI fever.
The worst thing is that the switch between the two styles can often be jarring. In the prolonged climax to the film – which combines one on one fights with aerial combat – it makes a sequence that goes on for far too long all the more difficult to endure. These huge end set pieces are becoming more and more elaborate, taking up increased amounts of time in doing so. This puts Marvel in a difficult position; to get rid of them would aggravate fans paying to see them, but while they are still hostage to expectation their films become a little more predictable each time.
The film also tries to split itself in terms of genre. The fact that each film in the series attempts to ape a different style is nice – it shows a commitment to giving the viewer something new in every instalment – but every time the film gets back to the reality of being a super hero movie, you realise its diversity will only ever be superficial. This film tries to be like a seventies cold war spy thriller but watching Cap and Black Widow in disguise looks more like a couple of kids hiding from mum and dad. Also, you never feel like there is any real mystery until the film reveals who-did-it. There’s simply too much going on for the spying/intrigue aspect of the film to be effective.
But perhaps the biggest sacrifice the film makes is to diminish the role of The Winter Soldier himself. Barely in the film – he’s introduced fairly late and goes missing for long stretches – The Winter Soldier’s part of the story is side-lined for the happenings going on with S.H.I.E.L.D. Certainly The Winter Soldier fits into that story line but naming the film after him creates an expectation that he’s going to be far more prominently featured than he is. It’s a real disappointment especially given that his origin story makes him a significant part of Captain Rogers past, but his arc is never given the time it needs to really be explored. If they put a little more effort into him he could have become as effective a villain as Loki.
The Winter Soldier almost serves as a microcosm of all the films that have preceded it (the excellent Avengers aside). Fantastic characters and great writing that makes the most of its inspired cast choices, great action but an overblown finale and a plot that tries to give the viewer a new experience but is helpless to stop the familiarity of the formula. Guardians is next and with it the most interesting choice of a director so far, Super’s James Gunn. He’s already made one of the most bonkers and distinct super hero films ever made. Can he be the one to stop the series from succumbing to stagnation?