In what seems to be an emerging theme, or perhaps evidence of my horror and inability to write about Gaza, I’m writing another film review in the wake of one by Alex Gabriel. Even worse, unlike my philosophical and feminist look at Her, this blog one looks at the same problems Alex did. How embarrassing.
SPOILERS FOLLOW like toddlers rushing into sand castles.
So, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The film has been generally well received by critics and comic-book film fans as better than most Marvel fare, but less good than Avengers or the first and third Iron Men. I’d broadly concur but with a hint of regret: this film could’ve been as good as the three just mentioned if it’d only embraced its stated aim.
Kevin Feige, the movie’s producer, has said repeatedly that the film is a 70s political thriller with superhero trappings. It’s supposed to be grey, it’s supposed to play tricks on the viewer, we are supposed to doubt ourselves and doubt our beliefs. As Alex revealed, we don’t:
‘…[I]n the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.’
If I’m the film’s doctor prescribing a cure, the main drug would be simple: kill Hydra. (Ho Ho, and its many heads, Ho ho). A plot in which SHIELD’s ultimate boss (Alex Pierce, played by Robert Redford) is trying to take over the world in a genocidal authoritarian utopia fetish, supported by a badass segment of SHIELD’s thugs and unwittingly (OR WITTINGLY?!) by Nick Fury, all the while exploiting a mentally decimated World War Two experimental supersoldier assassin – that’s plenty of evil. And evil you can reveal slowly in a nuanced way that at first seems reasonable, precautionary if not agreeable, akin to, say…pre-emptive strikes in a war or use of drones in a terrorist country.
You do not need Nazis to make them more evil – in fact, the inclusion of Nazis is at the very least patronising. I’m tempted to label it crass and obsessive: nothing in the film’s tone or the villains’ characters comes close to acknowledging how bad the Nazis actually were, how terribly their real life ideology and crimes disfigured Europe. To deploy them as a cheap symbol for ‘Da Baddies’ is cynical, lazy, and pretty sick.
Getting rid of the Hydra elements of the plot would make this film a lot more interesting. Redford’s extreme-realpolitik Alexander Peirce could be more fleshed out, more sympathetic. The Winter Soldier’s back-story and exploitation could be revealed at a less jolting pace, his actual capabilities explored. Cap and Black Widow could have more self examination (even if Cap ultimately asserts the values he began with) while they experience the terror of fleeing a surveillance state, and the true pain of betrayal. Chris Evans’ Captain doesn’t seem the least hurt that the SHIELD squad, with whom he previously conducted missions, and who we’ve understood for several films is humanity’s ultimate defence against gods and aliens, try to arrest-or-murder him in a lift.
By getting rid of the frankly pantomime sequence in which the hero meets Arim Zola, the first film’s evil Nazi (but Swiss!) scientist, preserved in Cold-War computers, so much more of substance can be given time. Fury and Peirce could discuss what their ‘Ordered World’ would look like after the heli-carriers purge a few million renegades and threats. We could see Black Widow interacting with BlackSideKick (Sam Wilsion AKA The Falcon), perhaps exploring her own PTSD or wondering at his handling of it. We could see some actual civilians reacting to the appearance of the three heli-carriers, which are effectively Predator drones writ extremely large and removed from anything like due supervision. Even more than Avengers, this film ignored the existence of ordinary people, which made the whole disjointedly-cut sky-battle feel inconsequential.
Other than gutting the film of unnecessary antagonists, there’s only one change to make. In an effort to tap into critics who use the words ‘gritty’ and ‘dark’ as unquestionable accolades, Winter Soldier has an interrogation scene. Think Dark Knight Batman screaming at the Joker. Think Zero Dark Thirty’s ‘enhanced interrogation’. Now forget them.
Captain America and Black Widow capture Jasper Sitwell, the SHIELD Hydra mole who knows the plan to kill everyone who might resist Hydra and how the heroes can stop it. He’s a baddy, right? So they can interrogate him, right? The film treats his questioning absurdly lightly, hurriedly, with Cap having no really moral self-examination or even responsibility. It’s turned into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke. Cap threatens Sitwell on top of a skyscraper, Sitwell says Cap would never throw him off. Cap agrees, Black Widow kicks the guy off the skyscraper, and we know BlackSideKick will save him with his wingsuit anyway. Seconds later there he is, divulging all the exposition you could want. Could Sitwell not resist a bit, and Cap get frustrated and wind up to smack him? Even throw a punch then stop himself an inch from the guy’s face, falter and let Natalia take over?
Steve Rogers is never asked to get his hands or morals dirty. He can just swan around judging Fury and Widow while he remains an emblem for an ideal of American moral integrity that, if it ever existed, is now very much mythological.