The buzz about The Winter Soldier was that it was unusually political for a Marvel Superhero movie, which is true, but no more useful than a buzz that a breeze block is unusually buoyant for a building material. Sure, there’s a message that we should be frightened of pervasive surveillance and the uses to which it could be put, but it’s lost in the bigger messages that we should all relax and veg out because it’s just a few rotten apples and we can safely leave all these things to rogue elites who don’t play by the rules, dammit. Also, explosions.
Marvel could have made quite a few decent movies out of the notions being eclipsed by explodium. There’s a good movie to be made about the whole idea of Captain America in a modern world, if you can hold back the natural laughter that comes to anyone outside the USA at the very idea of Captain America [Terms and Conditions apply. Service not available outside the Continental United States of America.] Fighting the Nazis was wonderfully clearcut; everyone hated the Nazis (just as we’ve always hated Eastasia, comrade). Modern fights don’t have the easy simple lines of yore, and here and there Winter Soldier flirts with the notion of Captain America as a man out of time. Then something explodes and we don’t have to worry about it any more.
Equally, there’s a movie to be made about the notion of sacrificing freedom for security, and the kinds of people who make those offers in the first place, but again, things explode, and anyway Marvel isn’t really bucking the uber-truth of Hollywood action movies, which boils down to trusting unreliable mavericks and keeping government in its place. Hollywood walks a fine line on government; they want people to distrust it, but not so much that they might hold a revolution to get rid of it. Just enough government to keep the people in line, but not so much that the right people are inconvenienced, that’s the message. So there’s always a shadowy conspiracy, and it always gets rooted out as though it was an isolated aberration that the decent people didn’t know about until it was too late.
So, since it’s not a useful character drama and its politics are reactionary, what DOES Winter Soldier do? Same old, same old, really. Stuff gets blowed up real good, there are occasional wisecracks, and Scarlett Johanssen kicks seven bells out of all kinds of people. The Marvel universe is very strong on beating people up, probably because explosions and bullets seem to just make the heroes ticklish. It’s hard to imagine a Marvel movie in which Indie just shoots the swordsman in the marketplace.
The plot, such as it is, is based on the notion that Cap’s old enemy, Hydra, never really went away, and has been systematically subverting everything since the end of World War II to create a world so messed up and chaotic that the people will cry out for strong leadership, as we’re fond of calling dictatorship. Nick Fury’s method of dealing with this is enough to make you wonder why Hydra felt they even needed to bother making an effort to mess things up, since he hires a bunch of mercenaries to hijack his own ship so that Black Widow can be sent in to “rescue” the ship and steal intelligence off it to prove there’s a conspiracy. Quite why Black Widow, mistress of stealth, couldn’t have just broken into the ship without all the other fassereia? Good question. And why did Fury send a whole unit of untrustworthy commandos as part of the plan? And then fake his own death? Seriously, was there no better plan for figuring out what was happening in his own organisation?
Cap is winnowed away to a few staunch allies, who at the last minute have to break into SHIELD HQ, nobble Robert Redford and hijack the computer systems on three heli-carrier flying death stars so that they can be stopped from exterminating millions of targets designated by the sinister surveillance tech which is the supposed political commentary in the movie. Hmmm, yeah. As soon as I saw the heli-carriers I started an internal countdown until they were completely exploded. Marvel movies always involve insane amounts of property damage.
So, good stuff. There’s a brain transplant doohickey, which is nicked from Dollhouse. There’s a gotta get to the computer and reprogram it McGuffin which is nicked from just everything really, but let’s say it’s nicked from Independence Day. There’s an under-this-mask-I’m someone-completely-different reveal which is shamelessly nicked from Mission Impossible. Or Total Recall, I couldn’t decide. Guy jumping out of a building and into a helicopter; nicked from the Matrix. (though it got the funniest line in the movie “I said the 41st floor !” “You think they have those numbers on the OUTSIDE of the building?”)
Yeah, most of the good stuff is nicked. And what’s good and new is mostly the small stuff, the actual acting. There are little moments between the characters which land well, because nothing’s exploding in the background. Still, the real weakness of blowing things up real good instead of telling a story comes in the mid credits stinger, where we’re shown Hydra’s real nerve centre and the weird things they’re prepping for the next movie; it’s all close quarters and small effects, and Thomas Kreschmann being tectonically evil, and I’d much rather have watched a whole movie like that instead of the effects extravaganza I got.