Scattered Thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain_America_Winter_Soldier • Captain America: The Winter Soldier is barely a movie as we understand them. It doesn't stand on its own in any way, and it ignores basic storytelling and entertainment ideas so it can focus on brand management and delayed gratification.

• Like most sequels, the problem here is with bloat. There are actually two fully formed plot ideas competing for space here: 1) the spread of double-agents within S.H.I.E.L.D., the government-run force for good; and 2) the assassin known only as the Winter Soldier, his actions and history, and how his identity and destiny are tied to Captain America. Either one of those would be a totally workable story and give filmmakers and the audience plenty to explore and enjoy for two hours. Yet instead they're jammed together haphazardly, the cracks pasted up with bad dialogue and cheap, half-hearted nods to what in another, better film would be storytelling.

• There are some laughable jumps in the plot, too. At one point, a supporting character offers to help Captain America, only to do so he'll need to break into Fort Meade to steal back the special jetpack he used when he was in the armed services. In the very next scene, he has the jetpack. No fuss at all. Apparently, his attempt to infiltrate an Army base was completely successful, and none of the characters need to worry about the Army coming after them for having stolen advanced weapons tech. This is just the kind of braindead plot jump that we get in superhero and Marvel movies. But the real question is: if you're going to make it so easy for the guy to get the jetpack, why make it sound so hard to get in the first place? The answer: to create false drama and trick the audience into thinking they're seeing something happen, when in reality they're being offered a disconnected series of events and told it's a story.

• Most of the action is needless and gratuitous. Those are two different things, too. Needless action is that which can be removed without affecting the plot of the film. Action scenes can be handled any number of ways, but they all exist to serve the story. Things have to be different when they're over. Random example: at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, the Empire invades the Rebel base, prompting a series of dogfights between small fighters and massive tank-like walkers. If you cut out that action scene, and simply went from the Rebels walking around their base to everyone scattered around the galaxy, the story would have an obvious hole in it. The action scene is what tells you that part of the story. In The Winter Soldier, most action scenes, chases, and fights exist not to advance the story but simply to fill time. Nothing changes when they're over.

• The action's gratuitous aspect comes into play when you start to realize how many people are shot and killed on screen, albeit with a curious amount of blood or actual physical carnage. The death toll here is unsettling. There are the scenes of mass destruction and mayhem that have become standard in CG-driven action films, and there are also plenty of people shot, killed, and crushed up close. This winds up being perversely more horrifying and more desensitizing at the same time: you're numbed to the carnage even as each death feels more gruesome and ugly.

• There is no happiness or engagement or interest to be found here. Instead, watching the movie is taken on as some kind of cultural duty. The idea is to stay up to date with Marvel's increasingly complex and arcane cinematic universe, not to have a good time doing it.

• Every studio is out to make money, and most of them want to find nice franchises, too. But what's so weird about the Marvel movies is that they don't feel interesting or enjoyable to watch. They aren't about giving you a good time in the moment. They're about teasing you along and telling you that all will be revealed in the next film, or the one after that, and that's when things will really get good, we promise. But it's just an endless tease. I wrote about this a couple years ago when The Avengers came out, and I'm not the only critic to feel weighed down and exhausted by all this, either. Marvel films, more and more, don't even try to give you a good time in the moment. They merely promise a bigger bang down the road, trot out characters that only fans of the comics will know and understand, then cap everything with a couple of obscure teases.

• To that end, then, Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn't just a bad movie with too many plots and not enough brains. It's not even meant to be a movie, period. It's just filler content. It's random bits of dialogue and exposition meant to string viewers along until the next Avengers movie, or the next superhero team-up, or whatever's happening on the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. It's flat, unengaging, uninspired, and pointless. You don't even have to watch it to know that nothing happens.