Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Eating crow on Winter Soldier

I’ve decided that if I’m going to devote a long blogathon to, among other things, my predictions about this movie, I’d better check in on whether I was right or wrong now that the movie is out. Honestly, I was shocked at how many of my predictions turned out to be accurate … and that the accuracy rate was slightly higher with the batshit-crazy pet theories. I did not have script access, I swear. Apparently I’ve just got one of those brains. (But you probably knew that.)
So without further ado, here’s a rundown of my predictions from the second, third and fourth days of the blogathon, and how they all turned out. Spoilers ahead, of course.


1. Paranoia and conspiracies abound.
Yeah, I think we can say this showed up. I don’t know about you, but by the end of the movie I was watching every blue uniform out of the corner of my eye.

2. SHIELD vs. SHIELD is officially a thing. Well, considering that Hydra was inside SHIELD, I think we can safely say that one happened.

3. Cap goes on the run. Yeah, he took it on the lam, all right. Bonus points for the sight of Captain America stealing a car … and walking around a shopping mall. The horror. And lying low really did not work out too well for him. Of course, breaking into the Smithsonian didn’t help …

4. Cap maybe falls in love (but probably not). Well, they kissed, but I did call the shot there—they weren’t kissing for the most common movie reason. (It was the second most common movie reason.)

5. The Falcon is Cap’s rock. Yes, yes, and yes. Falcon wasn’t a SHIELD agent (good thing, too), but he was definitely the solid foundation Steve Rogers needed in this story.

6. Peggy Carter returns. Briefly, but yes. And not only was Steve a bit wrecked by that scene, I don’t think I’ve been in a single screening where I didn’t hear somebody sniffling by the end of it. Bravo, Hayley Atwell.

7. Robert Redford is a spook. Eeeeeyup.

8. Nick Fury has a bad day. Oh, hells, yes. And may I just point out that I said before the movie came out that “Fury’s major weakness … is bureaucrats who go over his head to get things done. How high do the bad guys go?” Pretty damn high, as it turned out.

9. The Winter Soldier is a sock puppet, not the main bad guy. Yeeeaaaaaahhh. I’m gonna call that prediction a slam dunk. The main bad guy would be the guy smacking Bucky in the head for misbehaving.

No, not Steve! The first guy to smack him in the head!

10. Black Widow plays a major role. Yup. Though we didn’t get to see as much of her backstory as I would have liked.

All right, all right, I hear you saying. It’s hardly rocket science to predict stuff that is obviously in the trailer. What about the stuff that wasn’t in the trailers?

1. Agent 13 plays a significant role. I’m going to call this a split decision. She was there, and she was important, but she wasn’t as big a player as I expected, and her relationship to Peggy (if Peggy even was the “insomniac aunt” on the other end of that phone call) was not explored.

2. Agent Rumlow is not to be trusted.
This is a big ol’ check. You definitely can’t trust that guy. He even rocked Crossbones’ crossed-straps-and-horrible-scarring look by the end.

3. Batroc is Batroc. This wasn’t much of a surprise, but check. He even did some leaping. And while he didn’t betray an unscrupulous employer, he did turn out to be (probably) working for the good(ish) guys. Well, Nick Fury. As close as you can get.

4. Hydra is back in some form. Holy hell, yes. Not even “in some form.” Actual Hydra, dumb salute and all. Nice. I hereby pat myself on the back.

5. The Zodiac is involved. Big ol’ miss. Not a word about the Zodiac in this movie. Oh, well. Maybe it’ll show up in Guardians of the Galaxy.

6. Mind-control magic will show up. Well, it certainly didn’t look like the means of mind control was Tesseract-related … though it did turn out that Hydra had Loki’s scepter, and SHIELD had the Tesseract more than long enough for Hydra to power their shiver-inducing brainwashing rig with it. I’ll call this a miss, but it just might be a split decision. We may find out more in the next movie, when Bucky’s set to appear again (and, presumably, Steve’s going to dig into that file).

And interestingly, the movie kept some of the Soviet trappings of the Winter Soldier origin story—Bucky speaking what sounded like Russian during the bridge scene, what looked like a 1950s Soviet soldier in Bucky’s flashbacks, Widow getting the Winter Soldier files from “some friends in Kiev” (you decide whether that means the recently booted Yanukovich government, or the new one that booted him, or whatever the hell Putin tries to put in next) and what looked like a dossier written in the Cyrillic alphabet. So I might be wrong about the Russians being untouchable Marvel movie baddies.

Of course, that last paragraph did include the word “Putin”. So who the hell knows. And here ends my geopolitical rant.

7. Black Widow’s history will be revealed. Miss. We didn’t get much of that at all, except Zola revealing her patronymic and her date of birth (which I totally don’t buy—more on that later) and Natasha mentioning her past connection with the KGB. We got nothing on a possible Red Room past, or whatever she was talking to Hawkeye about when he was babbling about mind control in The Avengers. And she wasn’t running a long con on SHIELD (that we saw). Sigh.

All right, on to the main event …

Honestly, I was surprised at how on-the-mark these were.

1. Robert Redford is the Red Skull (or someone like him). Well, he wasn’t the actual Red Skull, but he was the head of Hydra and he tried to kill Captain America a whole bunch. That’s pretty like the Red Skull. I’m prepared to call this one a hit.

2. The nurse across the hall is Agent 13. Yup. Called it. She was there as a bodyguard rather than as a starter friend, but she was flirting with him, too. Call that a hit.

3. The Steve-Natasha romance ain’t happening. Bingo. The kiss was a fake-out.

4. The Bucky-Natasha romance might happen. Wrong. This was a big miss on my part, but I’m not terribly upset. Like I said up above, I don’t believe Natasha was actually born in 1984 like Zola said. Even if you can’t do the basic arithmetic involved (no more Russian KGB after the early 1990s), here’s a simple illustration: half my friends were born in 1984, by a remarkable coincidence, and if they ever worked for the KGB, they would have to have done it in grade school. Early grade school. I know Natasha “started early” in the spy game, but I’m not buying the notion of her being an experienced and competent KGB agent at five to eight years old. As a result, I think the birthdate Zola gave her was wrong. I still think Natasha has a longer past than she seems, and I still think Bucky’s in it somewhere. Maybe next movie.

5. Fake death(s). Oh, look. A major character faked his death. And another one conveniently disappeared. I’d call that a palpable hit. It wasn’t Bucky under that sheet, granted, but it was a fake death. Point to me.

6. Bucky is a super-soldier. Ding ding ding! And he was apparently supered up before he fell off the train, at least according to Steve’s theory of how Bucky must have survived. It’s pretty consistent with Bucky’s flashbacks, too. Go Steve with the inductive reasoning!

7. Arnim Zola resurrected Bucky. Oh, yes. They even used the same real-life history I cited. If you were in a theater on the evening of April 3 and a random woman punched the air and whooped when the Black Widow said “Operation Paperclip” … yeah, that was me. Sorry for the interruption.

8. The Winter Soldier is working for SHIELD. All right, it might be a bit of a cheat to claim both the “Hydra’s back” and the “Winter Soldier is working for SHIELD” theories as true when he was, in fact, working for the organization that I credit as both Hydra and SHIELD … but it was Hydra inside of SHIELD. I’m calling this a win. Look, it was even Pierce pulling the strings, and he was the head of both Hydra and SHIELD. Stop looking at me like that.

9. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark helped build the Winter Soldier. Okay, I was dead wrong about that one. I’ll have my crow medium well, thank you.

10. The Winter Soldier is a false-flag operative. Yeah, more or less. He was working for SHIELD/Hydra (Healed? Shydra?), but attacked Nick Fury under the guise of being not working for them. Check.

FINAL SCORE (not counting the stuff in the videos and the split decisions): Hits 11, Misses 4. Not bad for armchair screenwriting.

So what did you think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Let me know in the comments, while I try to stifle my fannish squealing …

Friday, April 4, 2014

Winter Soldier Review: Mouthguards, throat-cutting, and the hardest thing to do ...

Really, there’s only two things you need to know about my opinion of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Thing one: First—and I say this as a huge Bucky Barnes fangirl—it could’ve used about ten percent more Bucky Barnes than it actually contained. Just ten percent.

Thing two: That’s the only negative thing I can find to say about it. It is otherwise perfect. In many ways, it’s better than perfect.

Honestly, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, and you like superheroes enough to read my blog, open a new browser window right-the-hell-now and buy a ticket to see this. I’m not completely convinced yet that The Winter Soldier is better than The Avengers, but it is definitely in the same intellectual, emotional, and all-around fun weight class. This is the big-budget, high-stakes Captain America movie that you saw in your head when you read the Brubaker/Epting comics, and the one you have longed for in your heart.

One completely spoiler-free example? This movie actually gave Bucky’s story a better ending—well, a better ending-for-now, because you know it’s not over—than the comics. Yes, better than blowing up the Cosmic Cube and reappearing at Fort Lehigh. Yes, better than Steve having to convince everyone he knew that Bucky wasn’t dead again. All I have to say about this ending is stay all the way through the goddamned credits, because there is a scene you have absolutely got to see. Remember the shawarma scene in The Avengers? It’s got a sequel, only it tears your heart out instead of making you laugh maniacally. Glue your butt to the seat and watch both credits scenes. You can thank me later.

And then there’s the overall awesomeness that is the Falcon (seriously, his every scene is solid gold) … and the horror of Steve Rogers in an Apple store … and the best car chase in years … and fight scenes that work on every level … and some of the finest character work in any Marvel movie, ever …

Okay, I think I can breathe now. Time to pretend I’m actually reviewing this movie, instead of just gushing my brains out.

Because here’s the really important part I haven’t gotten around to telling you yet—this movie is a lot more than explosions and car chases and Scarlett Johansson kissing Chris Evans. This movie is after your brain, and your heart, and it’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry.

I really can’t spill too much of the plot in this review, not without spoiling some really great plot twists, so I’m going to focus on theme instead. Because it’s a big, big theme, and really the theme is a lot more important than the plot. The Winter Soldier is fundamentally a movie about tackling the biggest question in heroic fiction—the question of sacrifice. And the answer it gives, as much as it gives any kind of answer, is one that simply must be seen. It’s what elevates this movie from a standard superhero punchemup to something people will probably write dissertations about in the next couple of years. And the punching’s damn near perfect.

As we all expected, The Winter Soldier tackles some big issues on the freedom-versus-security front. Pretty much everyone who saw those trailers expected Captain America’s self-effacing, self-sacrificing 1940s ideals to clash with twenty-first-century paranoia and pragmatism … but nobody could have predicted the way that it actually drives the story. In The Winter Soldier, the central conflict is between Cap’s morality and SHIELD’s, but the sides are not exactly drawn up in the usual way. And the actual physical punching-and-kicking conflict, when it arises, encapsulates the moral conflict perfectly—and in a manner even more heartbreaking and thought-provoking than the original comics managed to do.

For years, Captain America has held the moral high ground in Marvel Comics. Thanks to his long record of unquestionably heroic service, he’s the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong; morally conflicted superheroes regularly seek him out for advice. But as a lot of readers have pointed out, giving Cap the moral high ground in a typical comic book is more problematic than it looks; he fought for years in a bloody world war, with all that entails. He’s not exactly pristine. Take that ultimate superhero bugaboo—death.

Unlike, say, Batman, there has never been any question about whether Captain America’s killed people. You can count the number of people Spider-Man’s killed on the fingers of one hand, but Captain America used to walk around with a giant death-frisbee, backed up by a teenager with a machine gun, accompanied by two guys who could light themselves on fire and a perpetually pissed-off sea king who liked ripping Nazis limb from limb and who once tried to drown all of New York City because he had a bad day. They killed a lot of people, is my point. They did things that you do not usually want your superheroes doing, and they were celebrated for it. Now, nobody who’s studied history thinks they were out of line to do those things, of course (there’s a reason Nazis are everyone’s favorite all-purpose movie villains), but it kind of blows a hole in the Captain-America-as-moral-paragon theory to remember that he did his fair share of throat-cutting with that shield.

Well, guess what? He’s not so ruined anymore. The throat-cutting’s still there—oh, my, is it ever still there—but this is not the Steve Rogers you knew.

In an early scene, after Steve complains about SHIELD turning a rescue mission into a black-ops job, Nick Fury brings up this very point—the Strategic Scientific Reserve did a lot of dirty work back in the day, so what’s Steve whining about now? But for once Steve has an answer. Like a lot of good guys doing bad things, he believed he was doing them for the sake of the greater good—so that bad things would no longer be necessary. Not so they could be institutionalized by the organization his friends founded, and certainly not so they could be repeated on a planetary scale. Maybe you don’t agree with him on that—maybe you think an organization like SHIELD is necessary, and you believe you can’t run it without spying on everyone and occasionally assassinating people who get in your way—but from that moment on, you believe that Captain America thinks it’s possible, and you understand why. And you very much want him to be right.

All of a sudden Steve Rogers has his naïveté back, and the audience really wants him to have it. By portraying Steve’s history of violence (and the surprisingly large number of people he kills on missions in this movie) as a deliberate act of self-sacrifice rather than a moral lapse, the movie places him on the moral high ground even as he’s literally trying to scrub the bloodstains out of his clothes. And by embracing that violent edge and going way past it, on a global scale and on a daily basis, SHIELD is devaluing that sacrifice. No wonder Steve is pissed. Instant conflict.

Unlike the 50 years of stories that mostly portrayed Captain America as morally perfect and absurdly claimed that he had never done anything so questionable as killing anyone, this version of Cap has taken a long walk in the darkness, and has gotten a good look at the abyss—and now he’s deliberately standing between it and his spiritual descendants. No matter where you stand on the Patriot Act, the NSA, or any other aspect of the way the world’s been run for most of my life, you understand immediately why Captain America’s doing what he’s doing, and why he considers it worth his life to do it. He is choosing, over and over again, the kind of sacrifice that defines heroism. And you’re going to bloody well root for him if you’ve got a sympathetic bone in your body. That’s the kind of character Steve Rogers is.

So whatever else happens in this movie—and especially in Cap’s inevitable conflict with his brainwashed best friend, Bucky/the Winter Soldier—that tension runs underneath it all. Can Captain America pull the world back from a brink that few people know, or care, is there? Can he do it without having to commit one last dirty deed—killing an innocent who also happens to be his oldest, closest friend? Because even if you’re not going to care about the big abstract questions of freedom and security and surveillance and control and destiny and free will and whatall, you’re going to damn well care about whether Steve, the kid from Brooklyn, has to put his best pal Bucky out of his misery. (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot of misery. I don’t think I’ve ever been so creeped out by a Winter Soldier mindwipe scene. OMG, I wanted to hide under my seat when I saw that mouthguard …) And that’s the real genius of this movie. It’s got a moral conflict on a grand scale … and it manages to play it out on the most intimate human level.

With a fairly clever twist, which I will not spoil because I like you guys way too much, the way in which Bucky is brought back from the dead and the way in which he’s used against Steve perfectly encapsulates the larger question at work. This is something a lot of movies try to do, but few if any do it as well as this one. If Steve can’t stop Bucky from fulfilling his mission, the world burns. But if Steve has to kill Bucky to stop him, Steve will burn in its place. The only way to save the free world and the soul of Steve Rogers is to save Bucky, both as he is now and as he was in Steve’s memories.

And here’s the good bit. Saving Bucky like that is just about impossible.

Did I mention there’s no Cosmic Cube in this movie? No Tesseract? I was right about a lot of my batshit-crazy predictions in the blogathon, but I was wrong about one thing: Bucky is not being controlled by anything like that particular cosmic macguffin. There’s no magical glowing box for Steve to grab and say, “Remember who you are.” If he’s going to save Bucky this time, he has to do it the hard way. And the hard way is a form of self-sacrifice that even Steve Rogers has never had to consider before. He’s not crashing a plane into an ice field now, and he’s not doing his country’s dirty work. He’s … well, I won’t spoil it. But it’s hard for anyone to pull off, and it’s harder still when it’s Steve Rogers who has to do it, and hardest of all when he has to do it while looking into the frightened, confused eyes of Bucky Barnes. (And while Bucky’s trying to bash Steve’s skull in with his metal arm. Because the plot doesn’t stop for angst.)

I’m not saying he does it. I’m not saying he doesn’t. Hell, I’m not even saying the movie actually makes clear whether he succeeds or not—something happens, but it’s kind of open to interpretation. And that’s as it should be, I think. This question is one that’s put to the audience as much as it is to Steve Rogers. Even Bucky gets a say, ultimately, in its answer, but it’s not completely up to him. It’s up to us.

Kind of heavy for a superhero movie, I know. But it’s that weight that makes this movie so very deeply worth the watching.

Okay, that and that one scene after the very end of the credits. Eeeeeeeeeee …