My reviews of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue this week, coming back down to earth to look at the two (going on three, soon, hopefully, please?) Captain America movies. Let’s go punch some Nazis.
Of course, as I said in my other long and adoring post about the characters of Steve Rogers and co., Marvel has made great and effective strides to have Captain America grow from his flat beginnings as a fun propaganda tool into a three-dimensional, likeable and interesting heroic figure. Short of shying away from his message-selling past and perhaps brushing over it to give him a more mature and modern incarnation, Marvel has latched onto it, explored and affectionately taken the mickey out of it in full. Remember what I said before about Marvel not giving a crap and setting out to enjoy themselves, inherent silliness be damned?
But, I’m not just going to sit here reiterating everything I examined in that post, but take a look at the movies as a framework for these characters and these stories and what it all means. Captain America, naturally enough, thrives in plots where he represents a figure of hope versus a contemporary fear. We see two instances of this in both The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier—in the World War II era he was created in, the threat was Nazis, in modern day, it’s terrorism and weaponised misuse of information. Interesting to note that the function of Captain America, as used here, is not only to fight these threats off as protector of the people but, in a way, to represent them as well.
Think about it—blonde, blue-eyed Steve, turned into a supersoldier and perfect human being by many standards (including being magically/scientifically cured of all his ailments. Disability erasure? Discussion for another day), is certainly a nice example of the Aryan ideal. And what does he do? Fights against the enemy who would revere him. The same kind of thing goes for The Winter Soldier, where it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. is inherently a corrupt mess—well, Cap’s tied in with S.H.I.E.L.D., thus now also HYDRA, and on a better day for them could have been their perfect attack dog and/or poster boy. But once again he throws that back in the enemy’s face. Even if it involves dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. itself and kind of shooting himself and the rest of the Avengers and that whole dealio proverbially in the foot. Hey, he’s “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
The Avengers kind of makes Steve into a bit of a goody toe-shoes, which I think is a little bit of a jump away from the centre of his character: he’s going to do what’s right, whether it involves following orders or not. Ditch the role assigned to you and air-drop into enemy territory to save some people who may or may not even be alive? No biggie. Pilot a plane full of bombs into the ground at the expense of the nation’s greatest weapon, to save the world? You’re damn sure. If those two examples (as well as staying on the exploding ship at the end of TWS, to help the guy who just tried to kill him) demonstrate anything, it’s a somewhat self-sacrificial nature that comes with Steve’s heroics. Always an interesting thing to look at, the quick association that selflessness = goodness, to the point of self-destruction coming part and parcel with an instinct to help others.
TWS touches on the ever-interesting (and very appropriate for Cap, being created as a vessel for America’s war spirit) concept of the empty hero—what does Steve want to do? Protect people. What makes him happy? That’s trickier to answer. Though right now it’s probably the thought of rescuing Bucky from his brainwashed, tormented and hobo-clothed state. My God, someone help that man. Talk about a deft creation of sympathy and fascination for an antagonist (not a villain, thank you very much. Villainy requires, first and foremost, enough control over your own thoughts and actions to consciously be a dick to other people) in very few words and little concrete characterisation.
For full effect, also watch both movies back to back and cry yourself to sleep at the crash-dive of Bucky’s character development. If you can call being cyber-enhanced and brain-wiped against your will character development, which I wouldn’t, quite (an interesting point has been raised that perhaps the reason why Bucky resonates so much with female fans is—not just Sebastian Stan’s beautiful eyes, excuse you—because his story is one about the removal of his personal autonomy and his objectification by other people who only see him as a tool. Definitely food for thought).
Watching the two movies together is certainly a bizarre experience, simply because there’s such a dissonance in tone and sharpness between them. It’s not that The First Avenger is a bad movie, it just looks like a bit of a garage sale of montages, musical numbers, wacky-ass red-faced villains and mood whiplash, next to the gleaming and razor sharp display that is The Winter Soldier. The First Avenger has the weight on its shoulders that it has to be a tie-in story, essentially just setting up the character of Steve/Cap so we can have the Avengers fully assembled in time for their movie. Thus is kind of ended up the story of The Birth and Death of Captain America and spans enough years to make spreading a coherent story across them awkward, hence all those montages. I mean, there are only two (Cap as the sales tool and then Cap as the actual hero leading the Howling Commandos around) but they’re enough to disjoint you, especially when they throw all those new and awesome characters at you then don’t give them enough time to develop.
The Winter Soldier is not only set over a shorter time period but much more succinct in general, focussing on one singular conflict rather than serving as the overall origin story of Captain America. It has less heroes and villains, and they’re all looked at with appropriate amounts of intrigue and depth, and the Winter Soldier, being a tragic ex-best friend, is immediately gallons more interesting as an antagonist than the Red Skull, who had comparatively little connection with Our Hero and was kind of the flat, red face of the organisation of HYDRA and had all of its qualities on hand disguised as his personality.
And if you didn’t trust that Captain America could be a true badass, this movie makes a medal-winning attempt to debunk that. Can we talk about the fight choreography? Not really, because I’d get lost looking for all the appropriate terminology, but damn. And, most important of all, in all TWS’ dark-and-grittiness compared to its predecessor, it still manages to be fun. We’re on the edge of our seats and we’re emotionally compromised, but we’re still enjoying ourselves. And that’s something I commend them on.
Verdict: Someone please help Bucky Barnes, give Steve a shirt that fits, and let Cap 3 be as good as #2 has set the bar for.
Next time: Thor!