“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” may be one of the better Marvel movies, but it is a stretch to call it a smart and subversive spy thriller as many have claimed. Beneath the surface, it is just as dumb and cautious, albeit enjoyable and well-executed, as everything Marvel Studios has and perhaps will ever produce.
We saw the $US170 million movie, which opens everywhere on Friday, at a Screenvision event on Wednesday night.
To start, this supposed spy thriller is really just a beat’em-up in disguise. Despite a warning by spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) not to trust anyone in spy agency SHIELD, there is rarely any question about who is good and who is bad. In fact, nearly everyone in the movie except our heroes is bad, as is obvious when they attack Rogers by the dozens.
“How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?” The Falcon Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) asks at one point.
“If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!” Rogers replies.
Robert Redford gives a relatively nuanced performance as the head of the World Security Council, but it only made me long for a real spy thriller like his 2001 movie, “Spy Games.”
As for the supposed subversiveness of the movie, let’s be real. “Winter Soldier,” like related TV show “Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD,” alludes to excessive surveillance and the threat of the military industrial complex without having any bite. It’s hardly controversial to criticise the concept of giant helicarriers killing millions of people determined by an algorithm to be dangerous.
Meanwhile, the movie gleefully endorses other national security elements, like arms manufacturer Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, who is mentioned several times, and the good guys at SHIELD, including their super hero enforcers. As super spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) tells a government hearing, America needs people like her. Even the dismantling of SHIELD at the end of the movie is executed by agents of another spy agency, the CIA.
Audiences will come away with the conclusion, if any, that bad surveillance and military industrial agents are bad, but that good surveillance and military industrial agents are good. It’s hardly the stuff that inspires change.
Then there’s the action, which is supposed to include “the best car chase in any Marvel movie, maybe the best car chase of all time” as well as references to “the best choreographed fight scenes from the past 30 years,” according to comments from directors Joe and Anthony Russo and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige.
Was it that good? It was pretty good.
Still, it’s hard to get too excited about a movie with so many bullets and so little blood. The secret agents in this PG-13 movie have shockingly bad aim, like the time when they pour bullets at point-blank range through the shattered window of Fury’s near-invincible Chevy Suburban yet still can’t take him down, and other times when round after round fails to hit our heroes. When good guys or bad guys do get injured or knocked out, they tend to bounce back as good as new in the next scene.
Yes, this is typical for many action movies, especially kids’ actions movies. Still, is it naive to wish for something more?
I know that comic book movies can be dark, cerebral, and thrilling, having seen what Christopher Nolan did with Warner Bros.’s Dark Knight trilogy — even if that series was also limited by its PG-13 rating.
And I know that comic books can tell daring, sophisticated stories. Notably, there’s a series out right now called “The Winter Soldier” by Rick Remender that makes the movie villain far more mysterious and terrifying than he is on screen. “Captain America,” also by Remender, tells a bizarre story that juxtaposes the hero’s memories of domestic abuse with his experiences trapped in an alien dimension for more than a decade.
But cautiousness in all things may be the inevitable downside to the wonderfully prolific and interlocking series of big budget movies from Marvel Studios, which is owned by Disney. These movies are programmed to appeal to the widest possible audience, including 5-year-olds in China, and they are rigorously designed to set up unlimited sequels and spinoffs, not to mention countless related products.
So far the movies are box office magic — with “The Winter Soldier” on track for an opening weekend record for April — so why take risks?
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