Now that Captain America: The Winter Soldier has hit theaters, the ever-burgeoning fanboy hordes have unleashed themselves upon the internets to rave about and rank it. This — not the movie, but its inclusion in an illusory larger system — is the most impressive thing about the film.
Taken on its own, Captain America is the latest installment in the Marvel Studios megafranchise and little more. It is only part of something larger — the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe‘ — because of details that have little to do with Captain America: The Winter Solider. You could strip those bits from the film without changing it substantively.
In the film, our spangled hero Captain America (Chris Evans) stumbles into a well-advanced plot to corrupt the national security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and thereby enslave the world. Cap enlists the aid of Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) because she happens to hang around the vending machines. He fights an organization that manages something that none other has accomplished in the history of mankind: to keep a far-reaching, audacious, complex organizational conspiracy secret for more than 12 minutes. Even though the organization’s director is actively trying to uncover it.
Most reviewers have treated Captain America: The Winter Soldier quite kindly, calling it the best Marvel film yet, comparing it to gritty ’70s political thrillers, and generally just wetting their pants with plaudits. I can’t clearly understand why. I see nothing exceptional or unexceptional about it.
There is only one solid reason to feel excitement about this particular Marvel film. That is because it is the newest one, you are addicted, and it has fed your jones. You have accepted into your heart the notion that these movies are all part of something larger — but that conceit is a thinly veiled illusion.
The emperor wears no clothes.
Sure, one or more characters may cross-over from film to film, but the plots of the films remain segregated. Captain America does not, for example, call up Thor to help save the world, even though that’s what he clearly would have done if he was part of a greater story that included both heroes — as in The Avengers. Cap hides out at the house of some guy he met jogging (who just happens to be a soldier of astounding ability) instead of hightailing it to Iron Man‘s skyscraper. Whassamatter Black Widow, your cell phone that can trace heat signatures doesn’t have a texting plan? Don’t feel like pinging your boy Hawkeye so he can help stop Hydra?
And Hydra? What’s your plan for conquering the world without attracting the notice of Loki, who will be pissed if the Earth gets overcome by someone else? He’s put in so many hours on the task already.
We ignore inconsistencies like this because: comic books. But inconsistencies like this force the Marvel Cinematic Universe — such that it exists and is deserving of proper noun status — far from the real world, or even a believable fake one. The degree of threat, the exaggerated abilities, the steroids pumped into every scene — these, too, keep modern superhero films from being anything worth intelligent consideration. Without either foot in reality, comparing Captain America: The Winter Soldier to a ’70s political thriller is like comparing a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos to a raft trip down the Congo.
It’s preposterous. What made ’70s political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men intense wasn’t the presence of Robert Redford; it was our ability to believe that the things they depicted could (and did) happen. In contrast, anyone who believes that Captain America: The Winter Soldier even comments on current political events intelligently lacks cognitive ability. The film includes some buzz words — surveillance, conspiracy, algorithm — and fires them like an intense fusillade aimed squarely at the star on Cap’s shield.
Our ankles are vulnerable, buddy. You need to aim lower if you want to assail your target. If you actually want to cause some concern, which you don’t. Because if there’s a grand plan to take over the world by disguising control as freedom, it’s a plan that’s more likely to come from Disney than Hydra.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t a bad Marvel movie. It’s a typical Marvel movie. It’s a film in which some preposterous threat to the world is uncovered, reacted to, and almost-but-not-quite eradicated in an overblown final battle. Of course. Captain America behaves as Captain America. The villains behave dastardly to a degree that even Hitler would call ostentatious.
And we go to see every Marvel film because what if we missed one?
We read articles about whether someone thinks this film is better than Thor 2 or The Avengers. That’s like squabbling over which Dorito is more pleasingly shaped and more thoroughly coated with orange dust.
I didn’t hate Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It followed its formula in precisely the way anyone would have expected. If you liked the other Marvel films, you’ll like this one, too. I just wonder how many of these films people will have the stomach for? Even James Bond is clever enough to only come around every few years.
When I was a kid, I collected Marvel comics. Then I grew tired of needing to read so many titles every month just to keep track of what was going on. Who, at the end of the day, really cared? I realized I had started collecting them obsessively without noticing.
Well, I noticed.
I’ve still got those comic books. Most of them aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. It’s the same with these films. In ten years no one will care about any of these movies any more than we care about the second Matrix film.
Marvel is trying to connect these films so audiences feel compelled to see them all — some nonsense about infinity gems — without connecting them in a way that keeps occasional viewers from being confused when they see their first one. They want them to be tied together but can’t do so substantively for innumerable practical reasons.
Every time we talk about these movies as part of a greater whole we’re drinking the Kool-Aid. Our jones could lead to a Jonestown massacre — hopefully just for studios who invest everything in megafranchises — but maybe for cinema at large.
In order for me to want to keep watching Marvel movies — outside of my duties as a film blogger — these pictures are going to need to start offering something I haven’t seen already four times this year. Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it might push the envelope a little, but there’s little hope it won’t cover the exact same path as all of the others. Will Edgar Wright manage something interesting with Ant Man?
Maybe I’ll find out. Or maybe I’m ready to start missing some of these Marvel movies.
Well said. Especially compared to my sputtering rant. They kept name-dropping Iron Man–why not give the guy a call?
I too am intrigued by Ant-Man. Mainly because I love old movies about giant insects. Ant-Man is a giant ant, right? Stomping cities and such? Great!
I hate to rain on your giant insects, but I believe Paul Rudd is going to play Ant Man. Set your expectations accordingly.
I said pretty much the same on twitter >
If you judge is specifically as a ‘modern superhero tentpole’ then it gets a pass. If you judge it as an actual film it’s piss poor and terribly bland. People just have really low expectations.
I find it really strange grown men are getting excited over this. And the way they talk about it seems they’re just excited that their favourite cartoon has been made into a movie. It makes you realise they don’t really give a shit about Cinema as an artform.
As you said in your review the actual form(ula) of these movies is a big part of the problem and I don’t see how they will get around that. I really want to see a small and personal superhero movie.
Amen, brother. You phrase it well: grown men getting excited.
I was one of those grown men for the first few Marvel movies. I loved the (comic book) X-Men and was so curious to see how they’d develop on-screen.
That enthusiasm has been numbed by repetition and, primarily, dullness.
As for a small and personal superhero movie, you’re going to laugh, but check out Constantine. I just watched it this week for some lowbrow detox and… yeah. It’s not great. But I was surprised by the smallness of it. There’s no big, never-ending final climactic battle. Also, Peter Stormare is fantastic.
Avengers is the Platonic ideal of the big, loud summer SUPERHERO movie. Is it better than Donner’s Superman or Superman II? Yes. Is it better than either Tim Burton’s weirdness-infused or the Christopher Nolan’s grim-and-gritty Batman pics, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man? Yes, yes and yes. I suppose you could make a case that Indy is a superhero. I’m talking dudes in tights here. It is a fun roller coaster that takes itself not seriously at all, and just focuses on putting familiar superheroes in well-constructed set-pieces that let them be superheroes.
I should point out that you likely have way more superhero street cred than I do. I didn’t read comics as a kid. I have no abiding love for Marvel–Marvel steals all my favorite comic writers away from writing weird, offbeat stories in venues where they have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want, and makes them write Spider-Man and Captain America for giant piles of money. I started reading comics in college, and read indy stuff and Vertigo titles exclusively. (If you’re unfamiliar with Vertigo, it’s the imprint DC created to tell more adult stories, and give writers freedom to experiment with structures and themes and content that don’t fly in the sanitized superhero universe–titles like Sandman, Preacher, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Lucifer, Scalped.) I only started dabbling in superhero stuff when my favorite writers like Brubaker and Rucka started writing Batman titles.
Speaking of which, your endorsement of Keanu Reeves as Constantine is a hanging offense. NBC just ordered a pilot for Hellblazer, btw. Early buzz at least has Constantine acting like Constantine. But it’s NBC so it will probably suck.
And yes, I posted this reply in the wrong place. Sue me, WordPress!
Reeves is horrible, as Constantine or as anyone else but Ted Preston. But that film is interesting for the reasons I state.
I could perhaps buy The Avengers as a contender for best Superhero movie. Except NO. I’ll be rewatching The Dark Knight Rises for decades, and not because it just happens to come on TV.
The Avengers does a great job with a difficult task. Better than one could hope, really. But it isn’t much of a movie. There’s nothing to think about in it. There’s little stylistically to make it stand out. The plot is unchallenging. The characters are well drawn, but still sketchy because there are too many of them. There were a few funny bits with Hulk and Loki and a lot of stuff going boom.
Then there’s TDKR. Heath Ledger’s Joker. And scenes that were actually great cinema — such as the opening sequence. (And then the third act which I never liked).
But I don’t want to fight about which Dorito has the most orange powder. I want you to write a post for us about your take on these films.
I wanna, believe me. Right now I am supposed to be writing about some really exciting new IP addressing tools. (Hence my loitering on your blog all morning.)
Just for the sake of clarity—do you mean you’ll be rewatching The Dark Knight, as in the Heath Ledger one, or do you mean The Dark Knight Rises, the third one? Because that third one is a bunch of bollocks.
As for The Dark Knight, its orange powder is way tastier and more plentiful than the Avengers, which though full of charming dialogue and some laughs is not much of a movie.
Right. The Dark Knight. That’s what I meant. Rises sucked.
To add to the comment above I should rephrase it as ‘grown men that call themselves film critics’.
I liked Constantine when it first came out. I’ve not read the original comics so nothing to compare to and I’ve not seen it since but I remember enjoying it. It was weird. Imagine a Constantine film made my Terry Gilliam!
I enjoyed the first couple of Xmen flick and I even liked some aspects of Superman Returns. When the Marvel stuff started I liked those too but I think I just have Superhero fatigue now.
Also the cinematic landscape has changed. The changing dynamics of the Hollywood system has meant more massive films and fewer mid-budget flicks so I feel bludgeoned but this stuff nowadays. At least that’s how it feels. Too much sameness. We can see the formula now. We can see the ‘roadmap’ to Avengers 2 and beyond. We can see behind the curtain and you just know that there’s no surprises ahead in terms of form or narrative.
It makes me sad to think of the amount of creative human energy being wasted on these things. Imagine what is NOT being made because of it.
The time between really good CINEMA seems to be ever expanding. My favourite film I watched this year was Thief, I loved that but it wasn’t at the theatre it was at home. I’ve sort of resigned myself to the idea that although there isn’t many good new films coming out there’s tons of old films I’ve never watched so I can catch up on those.
The James Caan picture? Never been a huge Michael Mann fan, but that one had its moments.
Yeah I really liked it.
One of these days I’ll have to re-watch To Live and Die in L.A.
You should check out The Hot Rock. I’ll try to write it up soon. A different sort of heist film.
William Friedkin directed To Live And Die. Which is almost a good movie, but kind of doesn’t work in the end. The Hot Rock–how have I never heard of that before? I await your write-up.
Hm. Damn memory playing tricks on me again. Friedkin. yes. I guess I don’t really like any Mann movies then…
I’ll try to get Hot Rock into my next double feature.
Is the Hot Rock based on Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels? Never heard of the movie either, but I’d check it out.
It is indeed, although I’ve not read those books. William Goldman screenplay adaptation. It’s a comic heist film and yes, it’s worth checking out. I’ll watch it again and pair it with something for MCDF #92.
I really liked To Live and Die In LA too.
I’m with you. I have no issue with big-budget popcorn movies. Those are the movies I loved as a kid, and that spectacle is part of what movies are all about. I remember how ridiculously excited I used to get anticipating some giant summer movie. I can’t remember the last time I was excited like that. It’s been even longer since that anticipation paid off.
So a few comments.
1. Megafranchise! [to be stage whispered with jazz hands]
2. It’s unfair to lump The Avengers into the same middling pile as the rest of these Marvel universe installments. The Avengers is the Platonic ideal of the big, loud summer superhero movie. For its type, it is very well written and enormously entertaining. So shut up.
3. Apart from that, I can’t dispute anything you say here. What is most irritating about this state of affairs is that the biggest advantage of the “megafranchise,” from a storytelling perspective, is that you don’t have to make every superhero movie an origin story. The structure should free you up to tell more interesting stories. Instead, what we’ve seen is the most cynical, lazy kind of cardboard-cutout summer movie productions.
This is particularly maddening because, in comic books at least, Marvel devotes an enormous amount of energy attempting to tell fresh, interesting stories with its established characters and universe. In the early part of this century, I watched them buy out every single one of my favorite Vertigo and independent writers (Brian Michael Bendis, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker–who wrote the Winter Soldier run, which is unrecognizable in the movie) to bring their creativity and skill and offbeat sensibility to superhero stories. Why they have abandoned this concept when it comes to their movies is a mystery.
Once again, I’ll just have to wait for TV, where there are writers and show-runners who give a shit. (Crossing fingers for AMC’s adaptation of Preacher…)
1. I’m not buying and I’m not investing. I think this whole megafranchise thing is just another 20th/21st century bubble that will be ‘can’t lose’ until everyone loses their shirts.
2. The Avengers has character. More so than even the stand-alone films that are supposed to be all about character. It also has much better (Joss Whedon) dialogue. But I disagree. It is excellent FOR A MARVEL MOVIE. It is not remotely near excellent even for a summer movie. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not Road Warrior. It’s not even Midnight Run or the Matrix. It’s just occasionally funny and comprehensible, as compared to the rest of these turkeys.
I appreciate that you have sentimental fondness for these characters, as do I, but objectively? The Avengers is just the cherry on top of a shit sundae.
3.Amen. While I grew tired of Marvel comics as a kid, those stories had character, and variation, and occasionally balls, too. If you wanted to start reading the X-Men, well you’d just have to spend a few months wondering what you’d missed until you sort of caught up or found someone with back issues to read. I still don’t really know where the fuck Nightcrawler came from, nor do I care. I’m sure I could find out if I wanted to, but his ‘origin story’… boring. Something about a circus. That’s enough.
Marvel Studios wants to have its cake and eat it to. They want these all to be ‘part of one big story’ like Secret Wars or something, but they want any yokel to be able to see any film without feeling like they’re starting in the middle. Can’t happen. They want Iron Man and Thor to be pals, but they don’t want to pay Robert Downey Jr. to be in 5 films a year. In comic books, drawing a panel or two of Spidey into an Avengers book cost nothing and was fun. In films, forget it.
That’s why I call bullshit on the one big story thing. Even the infinity gems ‘story line’, which basically consists of a few post-credits tags and adding a layer of undiscussed importance to things already in these movies — the tesseract, Loki’s staff, whatever — will be wholly stand-alone when that film plays. It won’t even feel like a sequel.
I think it’s chickenshit. Make a film that won’t make full sense unless you invest. That’s how you build buy-in.
Yes. Absolutely. Not only am I ready, willing and able…I’ve already missed several Marvel films. Never let it be said I don’t go to the mat.
But you’re right about the nonsensical nature of the claim that these movies are part of the larger “Marvel Universe.” If the claim rests solely on the fact that they have Marvel characters in them, then yes. If not, then Stan Lee is the man selling the Kool-Aid.
I read the first fifty X-Men comics (that’s right, the *originals*) when I was 14, and have been hopelessly enamored of comic books and their heroes ever since. But the ridiculous changeability of the comicsverses pales next to the ludicrously finely-diced “connections” between the plots of each Marvel film.
There’s a definite thrill to seeing one’s heroes in live-action, in settings that do justice to the tech we’ve been imagining since we were kids–even though others’ visualizations of stories and characters who’ve been with us since childhood are bound to disappoint. And I may be a wee bit biased in thinking that the X-Men movies have done a slightly better job at staying cohesive than others in the Marvel franchise.
But the idea that what we’re seeing is actually a representation of the comics we’ve read is an insult to the comic-book writers, who–even though they relied on plot moves so convolutedly improbable that they’d make soap-opera writers weep with envy–strove to keep characters and stories interconnected. All the scriptwriters at Marvel Studios care about is making the Next Big Film, storyline-to-come. And that’s an option comic-book writers have never had.
yep. there’s little there there. if you take away the half hour of ending climactic battle and the half hour of reminding everyone what everyone already knows and the half hour of completely by-the-book plot points what’s left? a lot of credits.
but some of them sure are fun. a shame they’re afraid to push boundaries with any of them or, god forbid, challenge the audience.
I’m praying that this era of cinema is going to end soon. I’m a fan of comic books, and super heroes. But I am also a fan of good cinema. And these films are the opposite of good cinema. They are completely predictable ‘matters of duty’. When I watched “Iron Man 3”, I decided I would never see a Marvel film again. Thanks for this article and the discussion.
My pleasure. Thanks for reading.