Captain America: The Winter Soldier ★½


This is where the MCU really starts to lose me. Obviously I’ll never stop watching these movies and I generally have a decent time watching them, but The Winter Soldier marks the beginning of some of the worst trends of the franchise, first and foremost being the visuals.

The Winter Soldier is a deeply, deeply ugly movie. Compositionally it’s flat and barely functional, framed with the least possible interest in anything beyond just dictating the plot. Colour-wise it’s a goddamn nightmare. This is the first really egregious entry in Marvel’s wet-concrete saga, as their films lose all sense of visual appeal and turn into dull grey objects. The muted visuals aren't in service of any greater point either, they’re just basic and lazily blocked. It feels televisual in nature, which isn’t surprising considering directors Joe and Anthony Russo had mostly worked in TV prior to this film.

I find the action similarly boring; it’s not explicitly bad in this regard and I understand why people like it but outside of the opening sequence the generic hypercut hand-to-hand combat is just a fairly uninteresting way of visualising Cap’s powers to me. However, it positively soars in comparison to any of the action that goes bigger than just a group of people punching each other, most of which ends up being plagued by shoddy, dull CGI and uninteresting direction that fits perfectly in line with the rest of the shoddy, dull visuals and uninteresting direction.

As much as its supporters will try and suggest that the more morose visuals are to support the story’s grounded realism, this is still a comic-book movie where a man dressed in red white and blue works alongside a man with wings in order to take down Nazis that have infiltrated the US government. A common point of praise for The Winter Soldier is that it evokes a gritty 70s conspiracy thriller which, quite frankly, is horseshit, and clearly espoused by people who have never seen a conspiracy thriller. It’s set in DC, and it has Robert Redford (in a SPECTACULARLY wasted performance), and it involves the government, sure. But tonally The Winter Soldier is still a superhero movie in every respect, and its political commentary is too misguided and messy to even remotely evoke the genre it’s trying to imitate.

The Winter Soldier is ultimately set up as a movie about Captain America trying to find his place in a new, unfamiliar world, and with that his struggles to reconcile his classical sense of patriotism with what the current government is doing. This is most obviously set up when Nick Fury shows Cap the new invasive SHIELD helicarriers, drawing obvious parallels to the establishment of the paranoid post-9/11 US security state. The introduction is fine, and I think there is potential for this story to be told well but in the hands of filmmakers as amateurish as the Russo brothers it ends up becoming totally muddled.

Any attempts at actual modern political timeliness or meaningful confrontations of Cap’s patriotism and new place in the world immediately fall apart when it’s revealed that the big threat and villains of the movie are actual, literal Nazis that have infiltrated the government. This ends up removing any moral ambiguity or threat from the US government itself and instead places it solely on the shoulders of the same enemy Cap was fighting a hundred years ago, which is a far less interesting route to take the story. Having Cap confront a distinctly American brand of evil and corruption and subsequently having to reconsider what he as a symbol of America represents would be the more logical step for the story to take seeing as it’s the one that the movie literally sets up, but it’s then discarded for a dull re-treading of the same enemies we’ve already seen Cap face.

This in turn lessens the portrayal of the security state, as the parallels that this set-up draws with reality are distinctly American ones. Having it be revealed that it’s just Hydra orchestrating the whole thing totally eliminates any possible commentary or deeper meaning in the scenario because it’s so reductive and devolves into fantasy, removing the American perspective that actually created these systems. Beyond this the choice to have the totalitarian security state storyline be resolved by the INCREDIBLY tone-deaf imagery of having aircraft crash into and destroy tall buildings is not only mindlessly generic but staggeringly stupid in how little awareness the Russo brothers seem to have of what their images mean.

I don’t need The Winter Soldier to be a sprawling political dissertation on the sins of modern America, but I at least expect it to follow through on what it sets-up. Alternatively, I’d be happy if it found an interesting way to interrogate Cap’s idealism without promising one and then running away from it for the sake of a more binary black and white portrayal of good and evil that doesn’t allow any of the nuance this story is begging for.

I haven’t actually mentioned the title character yet, and it’s because it’s still so difficult to care about him. The emotional connection with Bucky has never been there in these movies, and the focus put on it here is even more strenuous as the reveal of Bucky doesn’t happen until well over an hour into the movie. That’s not to mention the fact that it ends up representing the dull, vapid Heil Hydra side of the story that keeps gnawing away at the potential for any material of actual interest. Bucky’s inclusion and place within the central conspiracy suggests that the evils Steve fought back in WWII are still the same ones plaguing the world today, which, to harp on it again, is not only reductive but such an uninteresting way of approaching this story.

The Winter Soldier is a movie constantly looking backwards instead of forwards, a point made especially apparent as the reveal of SHIELD’s corruption and its subsequent dissolution have so little lasting impact in the MCU. It can’t even let the tragedy of Steve and Peggy’s lost romance be - the scene where the two talk is frustrating for one, not being brave enough to just have Steve and Peggy never meet again thus amplifying their tragedy, and two, for choosing to have them together again but not actually showing their initial reunion, which is where the real emotional impact would lie. The Winter Soldier obviously isn’t the worst MCU film, but it’s all the little things like this that have me convinced it’s their biggest missed opportunity.

Unlike the rest of the overlong, bloated movie, these credits are very effective in their simplicity. As much as the images represent things I have my frustrations with in the movie itself, the clean, minimalist visuals and animations are a really classy way of closing things out. And while this movie is a major symbol of many of biggest frustrations with the MCU, the score here is one of the few areas that diverges from that. While Henry Jackman’s music doesn’t even hold a candle to Silvestri’s from the first movie, the main theme here is still a fine one that stands out as one of the more distinctive of the MCU. And man, what a waste of a “with Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce” credit. That character and performance should’ve been so much more.

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