A Para-analytic, Para-critical Film Review of
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
by Noah Adrien Lyons
I. Of films not being islands
The second wave of comic book and super-hero movies began a little over fifteen years, around the time of Blade (1998) and The Matrix (1999). An untapped well of dark frenzy, postmodern ambiguity, and (ironic?) nostalgia burst out from the wings – a twenty-first century zeitgeist for Generation Y and the millennials. The Nerd was now cool, again; geekdom came out of the closet and had its perennial revenge. Perhaps this was/is due to the proliferation of the internet, to Silicon Valley and the tech industry boom absorbing white collars. It is no coincidence that academia has coevally opened its doors to the graphic novel, and begrudgingly promoted low-brow para-literature to canonized status. Hollywood is no stranger to the action flick or superhero; but the summer blockbuster, the special-effects laden pyro-fest, rarely succeeded in adapting comic book heroes to the screen. The turn of this century proved to be a rebirth of the Marvel and D.C. franchises; producers, armed with new technological claws and viral vision, pounced for the kill. And today, fifteen years later – after origins, sequels, crossovers, and extensions, the wave continues. Captain America: Winter Soldier should scream out the final death throes of this phenomenon, pointing towards the preeminent crash-and-burn. I’d direct attention not just to the cracks in the keystone, but to historical precedents of other over-stretched empires, such as, say, Rome. But this is a different kind of beast, and it’s not ending its run anytime soon.
Before anyone relegates me to the status of a bothersome Killjoy or Scrooge, a caveat – apart from an adolescent stint on mostly Slave Labor Graphics’ publications and Neil Gaiman’s work, I am an outsider to the esoteric inner circle of today’s comic book world. I do dig Batman, mostly because he’s a mysterious, morally ambiguous, and brooding goth; unfortunately, Christopher Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy, is not the norm but the exception in the franchise. I dislike Captain America for being…well, let’s say that in principle, any variation on the Campbellian or Doc Smith-type hero is anathema to all I hold dear in the science-fiction world. (Probably irrational, and definitely unnegotiable; rest assured, echoes of Doc Smith played no role in my review.) But I entered the movie theater determined not to project my dire apprehensions, whispering an improvised mantra about how even the greatest geniuses were once inchoate. To judge the film on its own merits; armed with very little sense of the Marvel universe, of Captain America’s past; yet very aware of genre parameters, of the inevitable good vs. evil paradigms, the shady organizations, and the leitmotif of alter-egos and unstable identities…
Hence! – Amphetamine-paced exposition and character establishment for the unenlightened. The opening scene is strong despite this onslaught – clear foregrounding of a slick D.C.-set location, the prominent Washington Monument flushed softly by a pink sun rise (rare to see the country’s capital shot with a rose-colored lens; equally rare, a foregrounded Reflecting Pool and Potomac River). Captain America (played by the vanilla, un-carbonated Chris Evans) shows off his speed needlessly (even we uninitiated are well aware he is fast and strong) in an unapologetic homage to Rocky. The invocation of the famous Rocky running scene tempers any uber-patriotism, viz. Rocky as underdog and average-Joe. So, more running laps around the pool, and several around regular human Samuel Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon (the talented Anthony Mackie, over-due for a starring role of his own). Pass after pass, Rogers good-heartedly teases, “On your left!", a neatly wrapped narrative gift of instantaneous fraternity; the gift box’s ribbon (to continue an awful but appropriate metaphor) unequivocally delineates white Rogers as Leader and black Falcon as subaltern.
Enter: Black Widow (reprised by Scarlett Johansson, always the formidable presence but here visibly frustrated by the confines of the script). Neophyte question: widow to whom? I note the black car, black bodysuit, and that she is the driver behind the wheel. (A few more steps have been taken by the female, but I will hold off from unpacking these gender roles for now.) The Russo Brothers ([un]known for the 2006 rom-com You, Me, and Dupree) deliver a one-two-three punch, with little posturing beyond the genre’s base-lines. Some good ol’ P.C. patriotism, cute cultural references; the relationship of the three central superheroes triangulated with the precision of a draughtsman and just as uninspired. Thinking back, I shudder how easily goaded I was by these smooth introductory images and dialogue, only to watch helplessly as the actors’ naturalism and the city’s viable (and novel) cinematic presence collapse from fatigue! I think of Rogers’ laps round and round and round the lake – a retrospective portent for the film’s circular endless loop with no goal, obstacle, or perapety standing in the way.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head official of S.H.I.E.L.D., the aggregate of our world’s Homeland Security and C.I.A., is brass boss to Rogers and Widow. He suspects the threat of internal corruption – not foreign terrorists – within the organization. Forsooth, the antithesis to S.H.I.E.L.D. dating back to Nazi Germany is HYDRA, the clandestine, powerful, and occult (?) operation composed of politicians, world leaders, et al. This pseudo-White Brotherhood/Illuminati wants to use the Pentagon’s new technological marvels – surveillance-capable drones and a sophisticated algorithm that predicts who would/will commit crimes. Why? To execute millions of global citizens, of course, in the name of peace and security. If we fear for our safety enough– it is implied that most of history’s atrocities are inside-jobs – then we will more readily compromise our freedom. Thus: HYDRA and its brainwashed Boba Fett-esque assassin – the eponymous Winter Soldier (why winter?) – attempt this ‘pre-emptive’ genocide. Our heroes prevent it by the means of some USB drive, and the world carries on. End.
On a purely semantic level, this narrative hints at great revelations to come, but any momentum and social commentary built up by the first half hour quickly vanishes underneath repetitive banality and the flashing neon-lit NOs! from freshman year Intro-to-Narrative. The motif of extensive surveillance by the government is barely utilized beyond one scene involving security cameras, and a passing allusion to Edward Snowden and/or Chelsea Manning in a press conference denouement. But the question of surveillance, compounded with the production of government drones, is contingent to the very premise of how HYDRA plans its genocide. With the exception of the stock-set control room, there is no visual exploration of the 21st century global network. Our heroes are unquestioningly against HYDRA, but their motivation is a quaint pacifism; why is no one questioning the very presence of this technology in the first place? Why shrink away from engaging the issue? Well, Black Widow would be without a job, I suppose, and Captain America is from the 1940s. With such cognitive estrangement, how would he feel about this technology’s ethics? His thoughts on the internet, social networking, new definitions of privacy, the fuzzy rhetorics of protection and infiltration? No comment; maybe he doesn’t know; the filmmakers do not seem to know either, or just do not care. The most glaring omission, however, is any link to an external referent – an anchor – to situate this alternate universe in some proximity to ours. Consider that nearly every mise-en-scene is the interior to a government building or vehicle. I cannot recall any character that is not a high-level government employee. Even the romantically-promising “neighbor” winds up as a red herring. Finally, the innate referentiality of Media is an often-used sophomoric device to cheaply and uncreatively thread scenes together, to fill in narrative holes and context; its added benefit is explication on wider social effects through disembodied quips. For our present story, media is part-and-parcel to these motifs of surveillance, privacy, etc. But is this really all that important? Yes: with the radical absence of locality (beyond inanimate landmarks) and the puzzling absence of civilians, the danger of HYDRA is sanitized and harmless, the story is incidental to life, and so any correlation to real-life dilemmas is dismissed. The film winds up being a solipsistic Ouroboros!
Another correlative parallel to this aesthetic, consequence-free Arcadia is expressed in the cinematography. As noted, nearly every scene is inside a building, car, or plane. Several of the prominent action scenes are the obligatory car-chase, a well-executed claustrophobic elevator melee, and an extended tracking shot following Rogers through the bowels of a ship. While it is somewhat taboo (i.e., too depressing) to linger on bystanders and the post-battle carnage, I am puzzled by the overall absence of screaming/running/standing bystanders. I’d conclude the Capital was a ghost town, if not for a scattering of SHIELD agents.
II. Of Marvin Gaye, bait-and-switches, surrogates, and other troublesome things
Captain America – in the comic book narratives – was developed and exploited by the American government for his strength and for propaganda. Post-mortem, this prototype was recycled through other surrogates to perpetuate the icon of patriotism and American values. Outside of the comic book itself, the character Captain America as a produced and received fiction also functioned in this way. He is the pure, well-groomed, and principled individualist of the American myth. He fights Nazis; decades later, he takes on their cold-war equivalents. He questions authority only so far as it impedes upon “true” American values. But beneath this film’s pastiches lurks an even more paradigmatic tension: what is America, and how to negotiate Old Americana with New Americana? As I will repeatedly iterate, there is quite the aesthetic difference between the subtlety of intentional absence and the lacunae of censorship or avoidance. The old values Captain America represents are threatened by the new world order of HYDRA; but, (and perhaps to widen the potential demographic) they are ill-defined.
Paradox: dependence upon network-based technology to destroy HYDRA. Rogers is undoubtedly a stranger in a strange land. His cultural, if not cognitive, estrangement is evinced by the amusing notebook he keeps of cultural phenomenon recommended to him (Star Trek, Nirvana, Marvin Gaye). But this inchoate dialectic is not built upon, puzzlingly, but abandoned in its skeletal form; not even ten seconds pass before Rogers pockets the notebook and whips out his IPhone. I’ll forgive flat characterization, and I’ll accept the trite but cohesive Stranger-in-Strange-Land pattern; but I cannot get around blatant omissions of how Rogers must feel living in 2014. Who would not wonder what kind of stupid mistakes he makes operating consoles, or what kind of corny yet poignant observations he might express, like “gee whiz, things have sure changed huh? Maybe the battle isn’t so black-and-white anymore; maybe countries are not stable entities over time?” (Sing: “What did the Foucault say?”) With so much estrangement, though, maybe the comedic gold would outweigh the dramatic metal. Maybe there is no way for the faded stars and stripes to lose the stench of mothballs, to re/adapt Captain America to the 21st century, meshing him with gothic Nolan-esque Batmans and post-cyberpunk millenialist Spidermans. On the one hand, too much of the patriotic would isolate demographic vectors; on the other hand, too much of the transgressive would be inconsistent with past incarnations, and contradict the very essence of the character that’s been handed down to us. Worse, his vanilla persona doesn’t lend itself to PlanB: hollowness covered up with surface silicone, the recursive feigns of off-color humor, quirkiness, or sexuality. (Actor Chris Evans may partially contribute to this awkward aura: to what extent I cannot say, deo ducente).
The filmmakers may have realized this deficiency. Secondary and tertiary characters supply everything Rogers lacks, and more. I earlier mentioned Anthony Mackie’s potential star power. Early, we see Falcon facilitating a V.A. group therapy session. This brings emotional concreteness to the abstracted horror of war we only intellectually comprehend. (Or deny: the tame PG-13 violence – bloodless, cartoonish – just reaffirms how specious critical acclaim of the film’s “realism” is.) These veterans are men and women irreversibly damaged by war-games and machinations of the state. But then Falcon, offered a role (job?) by Captain America, abruptly leaves behind such admirable pursuits, and runs after lofty dreams of mythic heroism… so much for the grounded heroics of charity and aid! (I wonder if Sam realizes the irony in replacing PTSD therapy with the very arena of violence that causes PTSD.) At any rate, he is quite adequate and satisfying as the ‘side-kick.’ Our loss, in that the friendship-dynamic established early on between Sam and Rogers is reduced to the “on your left!” gag, and to the obligatory man-to-man bonding on the eve of battle. They stand on the top of a dam – a rather dammed-up metaphor - advice is exchanged, their universal duty is reaffirmed beneath wrinkled brow. The choice of Marvin Gaye’s music as a diegetic motif feels more arbitrary than anachronistically clever. It also leaves a slightly racist after-taste. Of all the music that Falcon, a veteran in his 30s, could recommend to the tabula rasa that is Captain America’s aesthetics, the scriptwriters settled on an iconic African-American soul artist; moreover, he just happens to be an African-American singer who is well known and loved by whites. This is quite a serious issue, all joking aside. Racist discourse is stabilized through innocuous cultural assimilation; there is always the political and social danger to a racial marker, however “accepted” or trans-cultural it may appear to be.
Samuel Jackson plays the eye-patched Nick Fury. I suspect that in the source material Fury is more nuanced than this caricature: the “old school cop” model who is led to question his own presumptions and integrity by the “newbie”, traditional but always “bad-ass”. (One is reminded of The X-Files’ Mr. Skinner, the F.B.I. boss of Agents Mulder and Scully.) By way of Nick Fury, the film smoothly transitions from the superheroes’ limited perspective to behind the enemy line. Fury-as-bridge allows for a contiguity that flows from action (he physically moves from one sphere to the other) rather than omnipresent cross-cutting. In this sense, mobility and permeability of social-political spheres are traceable motifs.
A case in point is the elevator for the central SHIELD skyscraper. Elevator as signifier is indexical – it transports characters vertically (upwards to highest authority; downwards to the basement of helicarriers,) and requires digital clearance-codes for access. The elevator is not opaque – instead glass walls open up to a vista of the Capital, a simplistic but effective metaphor. One of the first reveals happens inside the elevator. A hitherto trusted partner of Captain America’s, plus some twenty-odd henchmen, pulls an ambush as the elevator descends. The ensuing melee is outstandingly choreographed, particularly given the elevator’s spatial constraints. Despite a tornado of swinging limbs, the fight is discernible and realized in its totality. (Kudos to the DP Trent Opaloch, responsible for the gritty trans-realism of District 9 ).
The elevator is otherwise very readable as a symbol, a substitute for any transitive vessel or passage; Nick Fury may as well be Hermes. A last comment on Nick Fury: his faked death is 2014’s forerunner in the race for Most Atrocious Reveal. It merits an equally intolerable allegorical reading from my end: elevator goes down, grave; elevator go up, resurrection! Message: one eye open to life and one eye closed to death, we don’t see that death isn’t the end!) Even a fourth-wall breakage, a sardonic aside, a satiric hipster self-deprecation, anything else would be more welcome than this innocuous, almost glib, re/turn from the grave. You do not do this. If you must, and it’s not a parody or ingenious meta-prank, then there better be some particular thematic importance that demands it.
The dark-clad, tech-savvy Black Widow is played by Scarlett Johansson with aplomb. The performance underscores less Johansson’s A-caliber abilities (possibly destined as one of her generation’s finest actresses), as it draws more attention to her overqualified presence amid vacuity. In other circumstances, I’d applaud an action movie for not exploiting conventional gender roles, viz. woman as sex object and romantic interest, as helpless princess or foreign dark-haired temptress, or straight androgynous tomboy. Black Widow’s costume is surprisingly not designed around cleavage and exposes very little skin. She is intelligent, independent, witty, and never proves to be weaker, in esse, alongside Falcon and Rogers. There are no sex scenes or the mildest PG innuendo for any of the principals.
Rogers is the eponymous lead, so there needs to be some crucial relational dynamics at play. Black Widow, cyber-chic navigator and innovator, is the driver to the narrative as she is the romantic surrogate to Captain America’s theoretical love-affair. As a surrogate, she merely interacts with Rogers at the same structural and temporal nodes that a love-interest might in a traditional binary circuit. These vertexes would throw off sparks, but Widow provides innocuous banter, uninspired comic relief, and gives Rogers several ‘pushes’ and words of encouragement. But the provocations carry no flirtatiousness or real import to Rogers’ virility (I use the term ironically.) If their relationship had naturally formed like this, then maybe a feminist approach could have something to work with. But it is structurally contrived as a substitution, not a genuine alternative. Their most memorable exchanges amount to Black Widow giving Rogers a few dating tips. Intended as comic relief, this man-to-man banality is just depressing, like a zero-gravity bro-mance, severed and floating in space. (Doesn’t sound too bad, actually.)
Within a male White discourse, the position of women to a story’s center is nearly always peripheral. And when a woman fails to seduce (i.e. is rejected by) the male, or any occasion where she cannot be the love interest of some male character, by default she transforms into the “best buddy,” or worse, the incidental tertiary floater that hovers in the corners of the screen .. It’s as though the producers, trying to juggle an asexual protagonist and an actress with high sex appeal, demanded the directors to shoot visual approximations of innuendo. Et voila: think about the angry ‘fight’ over their mutual trust in the hospital hallway and the bizarre duplicitous encounter in some shadowy nook, “fighting” over some plot token (a USB drive, I think, with security-breached data.) The “nook fight” is a rare moment when we have the camera pull in for a tight two-shot of Widow’s and Rogers’ half-lit faces, inches apart. She has her back to the wall – classic female position; he looms in from the right side of the frame – classic male space. We have to ask, does the intense intimacy build up to the climactic kiss? Of course not. Sitting there in the theater, with a now-empty soda bottle, I thought about water and broken dams, and then found myself hoping for a meaningless sex scene, any spark of life, so I could forget about Godot and call it a day.
III. What do you [see] my lord? - Boxes, boxes, boxes
Critical consensus for Winter Soldier has been positive overall, and several personal acquaintances stressed to me how, unlike some other Marvel films, it is “grounded” and more CGI-restrained. I see no grounds for such grounding. I have expressed what I perceive as sophomoric characterization, and began moving towards the narrative’s problematics. The presence of culturally relevant topics does not guarantee interest. Rogers is not a caricature of masculinized aggressive patriotism – he is a tabula rasa, a palimpsest with no poet. As an etic spectator, I cannot comment meaningfully on intertextualities. One could question if this etic positioning is to blame for my negativity and formal structuralist approach. If I was more familiar with the contemporary intricacies of the Captain America saga, would I more easily forgive structural flaws? I have made no attempt to hide my personal aesthetic tastes behind cold objectivity; wanting to be as transparent and fair as possible, I do give kudos, when deserved, to cinematic excellence –measured against both the par of genre and of film as a whole. In conclusion of this asinine apologetic either I am blindsided by my own preconceived judgments, or the expectations of my detractors for a well-told story have dropped to an all-time low.
“Hey, what’s in the box?”
Someone, (I do not remember who,) posited a neat and useful visualization for how the majority of narrative propels itself forward. Okay: picture a box. There is something important in the box. Someone protects the box. Someone else is trying to get the box. The box is compromised; the box explodes; the box is safe on the mantle. But now there is another box – and so on. Winter Soldier doesn’t just have a box; it is loops and loops of chains of boxes. I do not mean the complex circuitry of a Russian doll, or an infinite regress (e.g. Synecdoche, New York.) Every scene seems to begin or end with somebody turning out to be a traitor, then a friend, then a traitor again; or an unexpected revelation that someone is somebody else; the mission objective shifts from getting to this room, now that room, now there. (I do not mind this in principle, but I need to sense that the film was made out of love and concern, not sloppiness or triviality). Rather than intriguing character decisions or ambiguity of motive, we are given far too many Deus ex machinas. (Having subjugated myself to repeated face-palms of incredulity, I nearly reached the limit of pain when one the Interpol ambassador holograms turned out to be… Black Widow! And at the most opportune time conceivable!)
My frustration over Rogers’ characterization is not because of my unfamiliarity with the history. Rather, there is not enough present to warrant a future. A tad more explanation would be welcome, however, for “newbies” as to why and how he arrived from the 1940s, via Antarctic ice, without aging. I observed the conspicuous absence of citizenry and media; a second question asks how does the public, and social discourse, see him? Does America even know Captain America is running around for S.H.I.E.L.D., or is he a dead legend? Is he still frozen in the iconography of state-funded museums? Why is there no public vs. government info-war following his rather public fight with the Winter Soldier on the city streets? Is media discourse and public performativity so marginally relevant, that someone thought it sufficient to cram a quick media press conference with Widow into one minute at the movie’s end?
The Winter Soldier – the mysterious eponymous foe who lurks in subspaces and subtitles. The actor’s identity, and so the character’s, was kept under wraps by the Marvel Studios marketing campaign. At my screening, the moment when the Winter Soldier exposes his face elicited audible gasps from perhaps 70% of the audience. I cocked my head and plumbed my memory of earlier scenes; was I supposed to know who this was? Oh, it is Rogers’ old chum Bucky, who we have gotten to know so intimately through ten-second flashbacks, filtered through some garish, green sepia. (The otherwise consistent quality of the cinematography leads me to suspect that these poor choices of color and tone may have been outside of the DP’s control.)
I always love an honestly depicted villain and the resulting ambiguity of moral binaries. But the story provides no impetus to care about Rogers, to care about Rogers’ friendship with Bucky, to care about how Bucky is brainwashed and electrocuted. (Not to say I am insensitive to torture, but that only ethics in the abstract are evoked.) If there is no investment, then there are no emotions or spiritual feelings at stake. If we put aside the Bucky context, what does this leave us? An automated assassin running around the city is not apprehensive enough to garner a film subtitle. I’m not demanding the representation of pure evil, but there is no novelty or suspense in a black-clad assassin with super-strength However, composer Henry Jackman’s monotonous orchestral score, culled from the Dream Factory’s basement stocks, became above-average only as accompaniment to the Winter Soldier. These welcome deviations were ominous and bass-heavy, a digital glitch-out of feedback, droning, and kick drums.
The real enemy is not the Winter Solider, of course, but HYDRA member and SHIELD executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford.) The casting of Redford is an ironic twist to the plethora of Redford conspiracy political thrillers from decades past, a genre that Winter Soldier tries to evoke. But the chains of boxes and peripatetic recourses discredits Redford’s acting chops; he does what he can, given that the character is constrained to pacing within the confines of a top-floor office. Wise may it be to avoid decisive politicization, the displacement of anti-government icons (e.g. drone technology, privacy) to the esoteric HYDRA adulterates our potential outrage. The whispered code-word “Hail HYDRA” between two politicians should be the germination of paranoia and government intrigue, but it reads more like a G.W. Bush-era parody than accrual satire.
In regards to theme, structure, and form: the thematic invocation of McCarthy-era red-listing (the genocidal Project Insight), the structural dependency on Cold War rhetoric and spy vs. spy dynamism, and the visual demonization of Nazi-era Germany – all three layers of cinematic code are weak, or, as Black Widow confesses, (“I don’t know; I just seem like I know everything,”) lost at sea. If the dialectic between Old America and New America had been more foregrounded, then ambiguity and uncertainty would to nature’s course. Although history repeats itself, and analogues are made through cinematic intertextuality, Winter Soldier is not a re-working but a replication of its predecessors. This sort of aesthetic or narrative use of Nazis or Cold War Russia just seems hackneyed and, frankly, old-fashioned. (I would love to know what factors, other than loyalty to the original text, led the filmmakers to avoid all references to 21st century Middle East politics). A better metaphor can be found no further than the movie itself – about an hour in, Rogers and Black Widow return to the site of Rogers’ ‘transformation’ into Captain America; when - - - - - CUT! HOLD... now QUE the expository flashback! More baffling than the color palates is the very decision to use flashbacks for exposition. Such pandering extrapolation is intolerable and offensive enough as present recit, but compounded with a flashback, which expects me to comprehend new information from a few seconds of hurried recaps, is sophomoric. It is unjustified (a character may justifiably learn something through a forgotten memory), and ultimately a perfect emblem for serial movies’ conundrum of catering to both fans and new viewers. Maybe one can’t. Maybe the producers of serial movies should decide on an audience, and respect that audience. Waffling between the esoteric secret handshake of the emic (revelation of Bucky) and condescending exposition to the etic (re-telling of who Bucky is) results in aesthetical annoyance for both fans and the new viewers. The audience should be respected. If a film is confident that its audience can cross the street without holding hands, and respectful of those who decide not to cross at all, then the film will undoubtedly be stronger, clearer, and more enjoyable even for the clueless. END FLASHBACK. CUT – ACTION – back to Widow and Rogers playing Hardy Boys. What better image than a basement of cobwebbed dust-sheathed computers dated no later than 1980? Antiquated, useless; irrelevant; ghost specters of the once Other – the xenophobic, dualistic moral absolutism of the discourse…Americana’s us vs. them rhetoric haunts this computer system.
An unpleasant person(ality) has been uploaded into the computer (a past (?) enemy of Captain America, the ghost-in-the-machine-Nazi devised the algorithm HYDRA will use in justifying its “final solution.”) It makes me wonder what effects this era of technology has on us today, the discourses at play behind 8-bit holography inside a digital film? Historically accurate, but aesthetically anachronistic, I think there may have been better ways to link the historical past to the speculative present. Did the scriptwriters intend for ironic humor? Quaint nostalgia? Or a retro-hip seriousness? There is a very quick allusion made by Black Widow to 1983’s Wargames. The reference will probably go over the heads of the under-20s crowd (maybe even the under-3os); Wargames does not have the same sort of cult status for post-Gen X as, say, Strange Days or Hackers might. For those whom it does resonate, be warned that it may trigger a fatal closed circuit loop of: Memory of referent: self-congratulation over catching the reference: nostalgia: comparisons between then and now: sadness and despair: realization that the Wargames reference was meant to be funny: wonderment over why Captain America has seen Wargames when he hasn’t seen Star Trek (remember that notebook?): sadness: happiness, from comparing the clunky on-screen behemoths with the slick IPhones in every audience member’s pocket: sadness for the same reason: memory: And so on.
Every single aspect of this sequence seems out-of-date for no reason, and with no benefit of being retro-cool. The Nazi-ghost doctor is not menacing, any irony or parodic intent is lost, and the dependence on classic science-fiction is too top-heavy to stand on its own. All in all, the evil Nazi-ghost doctor and the image of the sprawling operating-system encapsulate all that I personally find wrong with the film. If anything, Winter Soldier is ripe with holographic metaphors. Case in point: the genocidal helicarriers rising into the sky at a glacial pace; final face-off amidst random pyrotechnics, inexplicably modeled on an enigmatic moment in Star Wars (Luke and Darth Vader on the sky-walk); deus ex machina by way of Black Widow’s remote device; and in the most ironically apt climax, the spectacle of the helicarriers shooting themselves to pieces and slowly falling in pieces from the sky, as glacially as they had risen. In some respects, there is a beauty to how wonderfully analogous those ships are; that the parts indeed contain all the data of the whole.
IV. All’s well that ends well
Credit should be given as due, in addition to several acknowledgements made prior. Filmmakers and producers might take notes from how the Russo Brothers and DP Opaloch approached the obligatory fight scenes. Action films are plagued right now by an infectious and debilitating disease, informally christened as the ‘Shaky Cam.’ The general consensus of medical specialists in the field share a general consensus; they have located Patient Zero – the origin of the epidemic – in 2002’s The Bourne Identity. Excellent film as it is, its distinctive choice of using a handheld camera has been appropriated now as the only method for shooting action and conveying danger. The handheld and/or toggled camera is shaken, decentered, abruptly zoomed in and out, etc. (sadly, the physicality may just be simulated in post-production) The aesthetic reasoning for the shaky cam rightly cites how it may: increase a scene’s intensity; bring the viewer to a disorienting proximity to the players; reinforce subjectivity or point of view, and compromise the reliability we have on the image to provide us data for comprehension and/or verisimilitude. No longer novel or interesting in its own right, the shaky cam is assumed to be the way to shoot action. It is exploited: by producers because it can mask cheap production values and obviate expensive hiring or CGI equipment; by directors because it can hide their incompetence in dramatic composition. When overused, one cannot discern limb from limb, blow from blow. Professional stunt actors are not needed when long-shots and pans are replaced by rapid-fire crosscutting and extreme close-up shots set at pointless Dutch angles. Finally, this aesthetic disease lowers our expectations for well-executed action. Medium shots at slow, continuous takes allow us to absorb and appreciate the breath-taking physical realism and death-defying spectacles. I am of strong opinion that a long-shot which slowly pans across or in circles will almost always be engrossing and effective.
With that said, presently there is hardly any shaky cam. Action scenes are paced steadily, they move through a variety of long, medium, and close-up shots, and quick cuts are used when it makes most sense, not as recourse for lack of footage or substance. The long sequence on the pirate-boarded ship makes a great case-study for how to compose and shoot, especially when the action requires over two actors and moves beyond one room/arena. The shaky cam is a device, not a default. So kudos to Winter Soldier for resisting the disease. While not awful - and at times very, very good – there is (as in this sentence) not much compositional beauty to marvel over. Opaloch, as I’ve mentioned, is extremely capable as a cinematographer, and perhaps he is the reason for the movie staying afloat despite so many persistent flaws and aporias. Take for instance his consistent quality in light and texture (e.g. Pierce’s office and the elevator, the cascade of white light through glass is carefully balanced with the steely interior by minimal splashes of shadow); or the regular employment of long and medium shots, along with selective use of helicopter shots.
But the image that stayed with me past the credits was when after Rogers has fallen into the Potomac and he is pulled to shore by his old friend Bucky/Winter Soldier. Thematically meshing and deepening the motifs of fraternity, loyalty, and the inchoate savior, the score fades away to silence. The Winter Soldier, also soundless, leaves Rogers on the bank and walks away from the past and into his present – the movie western’s horizon, Western discourse’s frontier. In the present background, the Washington Monument stands as sole reminder of locality, the marker of city and country. Yet it seems diminished, pushed to the back right behind a wall of trees. The sun sets in warm hues to the left, casting its light on the water which composes the right side of the frame. The water extends into the foreground. Also foregrounded is Rogers’ limp body on the bank, face-up and, for the first time, action-less. He’s frozen once again in re/pose, as the sun sets, the water flows, and the Winter Soldier walks away from Sodom. The foregrounded body takes up the lower left quadrant and re/opens the frame back out to the silent movements of Soldier, sun, and water. The erect Soldier recedes directly overhead Rogers’ supine horizontality, a geometry to reflect the Monument and offset nature’s curves.
Here, finally, is the grounding we’ve been looking for: Captain America, grounded, in the mud. And the movie allows us this one moment of contemplation; the shot lingers for perhaps ten-to-fifteen seconds. With class, it terminates by slow blackout. Right out of a comic book frame – a troublesome beauty, the more of which is direly needed.
V. Of eschatologies and gadflies
The threat of a secret, transnational, intra-governmental bloc may still proliferate the target audience’s Weltanschauung (even some current hip-hop has whisperings of the Illuminati.) But the film’s microcosmic mise-en-scenes fail to give the topic any freshness. Epics on a global level always threaten to burst open the singular story. Conversely, locality should pop and crackle (the focus on particularities as icons of universalities; opting for narrowness and depth, not width and vagueness.) But Winter Soldier occludes all leakage from the outside world, like the dam, blocking the airways of exchange: the national and global politics, media representations, the effects and implications for citizens. No one irreplaceably exists in this movie apart from the principals and anonymous S.H.I.E.L.D. employees; the spy vs. spy scuffling is all internal. It’s hard to invest one’s emotions in solipsistic rhetoric – the interior digestive systems – of a body that won’t speak to you. Rogers, in a rare moment of eloquence, speaks up in defense of what “America stands for”; but it remains too abstracted. His America is as far-removed from the present reality as the vista is from Pierce’s office window. Like the WWII-era Captain America museum exhibit, this America no longer exists (if it ever did.) Our cultural memory has carefully preserved the parts we like, ignored or demonized the parts we don’t, and framed them with a self-fashioned historical narrative of mythic heroism and patriotism. Witness the children walking by these fragments of memory; witness the curated rhetoric of morals (Captain America) and virtues (fraternity, loyalty, capitalism) as it is passed down to them. Rogers gazes upon the life-size photo of his former self, emitting that fuzzy glow only old photographs seem able to do. Is he aware of the vast distance between that Captain and himself, time’s paragon, the wounded image? Witness the young boy who recognizes his hero, the wounded image given life, “Word made flesh”, to wound. Incarnated for this brief moment, Rogers winks at the boy, finger to lips. “Word made flesh.” To wound the body, the rending of the veil at the moment of rupture. Using no words, Rogers says, “All of this history is a discourse. Both the images and the words; to wound others is to wound yourself. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Like a zombie, or a perpetually forestalled end…like an eschatology glimpsed but not grasped, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the museum. The curator determines the discourse, and we are told not to touch. We see the postmodern dilemma here, we get it, but we also sense vitality of the true behind the real, know the wo/man behind the hero (and the hero behind the wo/man.) The boy must remain silent before the true (God), for to speak words of the prophet he will be called fool, and will shatter the real into shards. Has he courage enough to shatter these glass cases, to destroy this temple, and speak?
In like spirit, this is why I write down these words.
This is not a negative review. To re/view, to critique, is to unground discourse.
Comics and the other paraliteratures witness and do this – always daring, always inquisitive of public and canonical standards.
Like the shot of Rogers lying on the bank of the Potomac, mud in the stars and stripes.