There’s a point that can be reached in any serial work of art where it becomes so baroquely self-referential and so enveloped in the minutiae of its own mythology that unless you’ve been following it across all its media appearances, tracking its development, and discussing it in detail, you can feel lost. It’s not a point that I think film series often get to, and is more the preserve of cult television and (one assumes) comic books, so perhaps that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier something of a Rubicon for so industrialised an art form. It undoubtedly has already hugely pleased the (very many) fans of the Marvel franchise, but for the casual cinemagoer — even me, who has seen almost all the recent Marvel films — it is baffling. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, for there’s plenty to recommend it, it’s just quite exhausting.
The television connection I allude to is certainly not by chance. Many of the franchise’s more memorable character actors found initial fame on the small screen (with, in many cases, these shows’ iconic characters referenced in the Marvel characters they play), while the directors of this outing are familiar to me from their work on the early, foundational, seasons of the cult television show Community, itself wrapped up in meta-commentary and fandom. I’m not saying Captain America is not at some level a straightforward superhero action film, but there are few films I’ve seen that work harder at making connections across multiple levels of meaning, gradually but insistently building up a web of dense allusive textures. By the end the film, it is weighed down with so much referentiality that the physical fact of enormous flying battleships crushing swathes of a city are almost inconsequentially forgettable.
Partly, of course, that’s because it’s not really a film about these battleships, which function more as the classic ‘MacGuffin’ device of being the thing that the characters care about within the plot. The now familiar trope of crushing metropolitan destruction (Washington DC where formerly it was New York) becomes less of a focus in this film’s denouement, because the untouchable superheroic inevitability has been displaced by some fallible, emotionally-compromised men locked in combat. For the audience, as for the filmmakers, the title is probably the key to the film, and it’s done rather slyly. This is because Captain America is not The Winter Soldier as the colon implies. Or rather, these may be two separate characters, but that colon links them together — perhaps as two sides of the same person, at the very least in a relationship, a combative one, but tender at some level too.
To get to that point, though, involves a lot of plot, and a lot of dashing hither and yon. The very Winter Soldier character, for all his importance in the end, gets barely any on-screen time — though largely one suspects that’s because the filmmakers are trying to hide the big ‘reveal’ of his identity (which isn’t much of a surprise once it comes, really). Instead, then, we get more of Samuel L. Jackson’s militaristically-inclined Nick Fury character, apparently neutralised by Robert Redford’s conniving demagogue Alexander Pierce, while Chris Evans’ clean-cut American hero pulls together his crack team of Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam (Anthony Mackie), a fellow military running buddy he meets cute at the start. Via the Fury and Pierce characters, we end up getting quite a bit of detail about the politics of this world and about the unstable hierarchy of the SHIELD organisation (with its own Nazi-throwback black ops unit tying in the World War II-era setting of much of the first Captain America film).
Yet for all the feeling that the filmmakers have for the characters — with cute gags like Steve/Captain America keeping a notebook of the cultural touchstones he needs to catch up with while he’s been out of circulation (it’s apparently a slightly different list in each country the film’s been released), or the fond exchanges between Natasha and Steve as she tries to set him up on a date — there’s still the nagging sense that some of their ideas are based too much on generic clichés. For example, there’s the one where Steve is staking his life on unlocking brainwashed memories within the Winter Soldier, and launches himself into this task not so much with a strategy as with a blind faith in the effectiveness of the familiar generic trope to succeed (a variation on ‘search your feelings, you know them to be true’). The filmmakers also seem to lack a sure touch in choreographing the action sequences, most of which pass by in a frenzied incoherent blur. It’s times like these when you wish they’d had as much faith in the power of the camera (with images a bit calmer and more steadied) as they do in one or two sequences where the soundtrack takes on the work, cutting out in moments of emotional crisis, or taking over as when Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” leads a montage sequence.
I suppose my point may ultimately be that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not really made for me, but that’s no failing of the film’s by any means. It follows through on the superheroic derring-do sufficiently well that one’s desires on this front are sated, and puts enough characters into play that those who follow the minutiae of the Marvel universe will find plenty to enjoy. But while there are hints towards these characters’ shadowy back stories, by the end of the film, there’s really very little extra that we know about Natasha or Nick or most of the others. As befits its title, it’s Captain America and the Winter Soldier whose stories matter the most here.
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic book Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby); Cinematographer Trent Opaloch; Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 2 April 2014.