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 …

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