The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Written by Joseph Oldham.

Photo from the article My favourite scene in Captain America: The Winter Solider comes when the captain (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) infiltrate an abandoned SHIELD bunker in New Jersey and find the preserved consciousness of the captain’s old enemy Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) on a supercomputer, playing the role of a cybernetic Dr. Strangelove. Here Zola describes how seven decades of world history has been subjected to interference by the renegade Nazi organisation HYDRA, spreading chaos and uncertainty so that humanity would give up its freedom for order and safety. I personally find this scene delightful for two reasons. One is that this provides a beautifully literal rendering of a common characterisation of conspiracy theory, that it provides a narrative and ‘explanation’ for the messiness of history. For example, in his famous 1964 essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, Richard Hofstadter writes that exponents of what he terms the ‘paranoid style’ do not simply ‘see conspiracies or plots here and there in history’, but that they ‘regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.’ The other is that this in turn serves as a brilliant metaphor for the nature of the Marvel cinematic project, and its weaving of history, politics, genre traditions and even Norse mythology into a coherent ‘conspiracy’ that runs across the arc of 20th century history. The two Captain America films are where this approach has proven the richest, collectively offering a reflective yet highly enjoyable meditation on the changing role and values of America over the 70 years since the captain was first created.

As somebody whose formative experience of popular culture is rooted in the peculiar ‘60s in the 90s’ phenomenon, one of the things that fascinates me about the Marvel series is the extent to which it seems grounded in a specifically 1960s futurism. Behind the spectacular and highly individualist superhero antics, the films present a continual array of dazzling fantastical technology available to a wide range of characters, whether heroic or villainous. This encompasses both the human-scale gadgetry that characterised the early James Bond films in the 1960s, and the larger scale vehicles and bases typical of the technologically-oriented utopian futures found in Gerry Anderson series such as Thunderbirds (1965-66) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68). But the thing I find most interesting is the way the modern Marvel films barely seem to find this sort of thing remarkable, instead deploying it in a casual and even banal manner; the kinds of high technology which Anderson would typically predict for 100 years in the future is here positioned in the present, in a barely-concealed ‘secret world’ beyond the everyday. It’s hard not to feel like the Marvel films are largely written and directed by people who have grown up with such material and, disappointed that the future (i.e. now) hasn’t turned out like predicted, have simply elected to create a compensatory fantasy of the present to help it match up to expectations.

The SHIELD organisation is also very much in a 1960s mould, fitting neatly into the particularly 1960s fashion for secret organisations with catchy acronyms, like UNCLE in The Man from UNCLE (1964-68) or SPECTRUM in Captain Scarlet. Such organisations, usually defined as international in scope, are notable for the faith that they place on an imagined international consensus and hence worldwide model for law and order, and it is through this framework that they can present globe-trotting narratives whilst defusing the imperialist overtones of earlier models of adventure fiction. This is particularly evident in Marvel’s concurrent excursion into television with the spin-off Agents of SHIELD (2013-), which primarily serves a revival of the light-hearted spy-fi series regularly churned out by British and American television in the 1960s, and concerns Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team travelling around the world fixing problems in a manner that recalls such characters as UNCLE’s Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Meanwhile, in the main film series, Johanssen’s incarnation of Black Widow, in both appearance and disposition, seems like something of a descendent of Emma Peel in The Avengers (no, the other one; 1961-69).

And yet, as I discussed in the short review, there is a clear debt to iconic Hollywood conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s such as Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976), an altogether more paranoid and pessimistic tradition. Indeed, it seems to me that when modern Anglophone adventure fiction looks back and self-consciously revives 1960s utopianism, there’s so often a sense of exploring a perceived historical ‘loss of innocence’ and of the problems of a later era being worked through in the process. In my Alternate Take of Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), I suggested that the space age optimism of the original series was dusted off to critique a cultural bleakness primarily associated with the ‘war on terror’. Here the pastiche of the 1970s conspiracy thriller similarly invokes the broader narrative of a notional ‘crisis’ of the 1970s that eroded the utopianism of the previous decade.

There are numerous key reasons why (at least for the depth of historical narrative provided by a light-hearted superhero movie) 1970s paranoia can be positioned in opposition to 1960s utopianism. A growing tide of revelations of the unethical activities of the CIA and NSA did much to damage the mystique and allure of the secret agent, causing the decline of the spy-fi series in the new decade, whilst growing controversy surrounding the Vietnam War arguably helped to undermine the vision of international consensus represented by organisations such as UNCLE and SHIELD. The rise of the new conspiracy thriller, meanwhile, is commonly understood as a response to such contexts and also the political crisis of the unfolding Watergate scandal. Appropriately, The Winter Soldier seems implicitly haunted by an idea that the early 1970s was where it all, in some sense, ‘went wrong’ for America; this ranges from from the uploading of Zola’s consciousness to a computer system in 1972, enabling HYDRA to further advance their plans, to the same year’s release of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Trouble Man’, a song which Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) claims to sum up the 70 years of history missed by Captain America, and which is later adopted as the closing anthem of the film.

Between them, The Winter Soldier and television’s Agents of SHIELD have simultaneously provided a much more thorough examination of the workings of SHIELD than previous entries in the Marvel film series, and whilst both are rooted in a 1960s sensibility of the secret organisation, neither has been unable to avoid the conspiratorial shift in consciousness. Rather, both texts have enthusiastically embraced the possibility for more complex, conspiracy-based narratives, updating these to encompass more specifically contemporary issues. The central threat of The Winter Soldier in particular is provided by a vision of technological dystopia that resonates with contemporary scandals involving NSA surveillance and drone warfare. There are, however, limits to how far SHIELD can be critiqued, given that it has thus far served as the principle glue in the construction of Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’, and one assumes that they would prefer it to retain enough integrity to function in future instalments. The Winter Soldier pulls off a clever cheat in showing SHIELD as infiltrated by the Nazi organisation HYDRA, allowing it to consider the sinister potential of SHIELD whilst retaining the idea that a ‘good’ SHIELD is possible (thereby having its cake and eating it). At time of writing, an equivalent mood of paranoia is present in the background of Agents of SHIELD, with Coulson and his team grappling with the question of how far they can truly ‘trust the system’, although it remains to be seen how this will play out, and indeed how effectively it can incorporate the fall-out from the events of The Winter Soldier.

Nonetheless, the gruelling paranoia of the conspiracy genre is inevitably overcome here by an optimism located in the liberating super-powered agency of the superhero. The positioning of superheroes as protagonists in a conspiracy thriller creates an odd tension, but interestingly, I would argue, serves to address many of the complaints commonly levelled against the superhero genre. For example, in his ‘Avengers Dissemble' polemic on this site, John Bleasdale argues that such films:

"...are almost fundamentally bound to be mendacious and reactionary. All superheroes have big lies in their DNA. The secret identity is one such lie… Another lie is that humanity is helpless to stand up against problems without the super-powerful intervening, and thereby as often courting our ingratitude as our acclaim. These lies of the superhero film essentially evidence a distrust in society."

Yet it seems to me that combining the superhero and conspiracy genres effectively provides a solution to this problem. When faced by sinister conspiracy forged by people with contempt for society and the looming spectre of dystopia, then surely this is an instance when the championing of individual agency is unambiguously a good thing. I’m not sure that even in ‘normal circumstances’ the positioning of ‘we’ (the audience) in relation to superheroes and the on-screen public is quite so simple as Bleasdale characterises it, yet the triumphant assertion of the individual’s role in the face of a scenario that threatens to erase it altogether seems hard to quarrel with here.

Bleasdale offers the ending of The Dark Knight (2008), in which Batman (Christian Bale) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) conspire to mislead the public for its own good, as an example that typifies this problem. By contrast, however, a narratively climactic moment of The Winter Soldier comes as Captain America takes control of the PA system in SHIELD’s headquarters and reveals the truth of the HYDRA conspiracy. There is therefore, in effect, a reversal of the usual positioning of secret knowledge in superhero films, and in this regard The Winter Soldier establishes a solution to the longstanding ‘problem’ of the superhero film (albeit on a one-off basis), by juxtaposing the superhero with forces that embrace secrecy and a disregard for society at far more terrifying extremes.

Of course, as a critic of the superhero genre might argue, this is a championing of individual agency based on superhuman feats far beyond what any ordinary viewer who is invited to identify with the captain could experience in literal terms. And naturally, following almost immediately after the low-key, dramatic ‘revelation’ climax is the inevitable high-octane second climax based around massive-scale fighting and blowing things up. But surely we can invest in and enjoy this as a more metaphorical expression of liberating individual activity in the face of stifling institutions, much like you don’t actually have to be the Slayer to emotionally invest in the multiple metaphorical levels of ‘slaying your demons’ in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)? (Indeed, it is not for nothing that Joss Whedon’s characteristic approach has proven so readily compatible with Marvel’s house style.) After the pent-up tension and alienation of the conspiracy narrative, therefore, the action climax provides the liberating and cathartic demonstration that the actions of individuals still matter.

Across all three of his film appearances to date, Captain America has been a character I have been delightfully surprised to like. To a Marvel outsider like myself, his name and history as a Second World War propaganda icon led me to fear the possibility that he might turn out to be the most straight-laced, pro-establishment action hero imaginable. Nonetheless, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) overturned my expectations through a savvy analysis of his propaganda role in its original context, making the character far more interesting and personable than I had anticipated, and The Avengers continued this by establishing an interesting role for him as a more innocent figure than the more cynical contemporary Avengers that surrounded him. However, it is the implicit juxtaposition of the character with several decades of American history that has given me a deeper appreciation of how the character can and has successfully been made workable for the contemporary film series. It seems to me that, in evading the obvious role of a straightforward assertion of American individualist supremacy that his creators (in both real life and the diegetic narrative of The First Avenger) intended, he has instead come to symbolise something of a conscience for America. In the context of a conspiracy narrative like this, his name seems less of a statement and more of a question, querying the values that America holds to be important, and its ability (or lack of) to live up to them. This is facilitated by a (rose-tinted) view of the Second World War as being innocent of the systemic corruption of 1970s conspiracy culture, as indicated when the captain symbolically rejects the latter by reclaiming his original 1940s uniform.

And perhaps another reason why the character functions so well in a conspiracy narrative is that these films invest far less in the dichotomy of his two identities than many superhero films. That Steve Rogers and Captain America are the same person is so widely accepted that the names are used more-or-less interchangeably throughout the films, and even his mask is far less concealing than in the case of other superheroes, making him far less subsumed by the ‘secret identity’. There is thus a refreshing ‘openness’ to the character which benefits narratives such as this that are predicated on positioning him as an ‘outsider’ to the much more secretive and monstrous system.

As with earlier Marvel films, The Winter Soldier benefits enormously from the studio’s commitment to a long-term multi-stranded ‘cinematic universe’, with various threads spun together from previous entries. It’s the sort of thing that could so easily have ended up as obscure and self-indulgent, but in practice it has proven to be a highly innovative and rewarding new method of serialised storytelling for the cinema that shows no sign of outstaying its welcome. The particular elegance comes from how it draws together not just reference points from within Marvel’s own ideas, but also wider Hollywood genres and real history, developing a kind of pseudo-history which sits as an intriguing mirror to the real one. In particular, The Winter Soldier picks up on a surprising number of plot threads and themes introduced in The First Avenger, and collectively the two Captain America films function as a fascinating meditation on shifts in American culture over a 70 year period. This approach invests them with a rich historical consciousness that is rarely so developed in either the superhero or conspiracy genres, both of which are usually resolutely contemporary in focus.

More broadly, I find it genuinely impressive how confidently and elegantly the Marvel films have, to adopt my metaphor introduced above, weaved their ‘conspiracy’ (or in the common parlance, constructed their ‘universe’) out of these historical and fictional elements. It demonstrates the considerable advantage of rewarding your audience’s long-term commitment, rather than simply hitting the ‘reboot’ button at the first sign of trouble, as has been the case in other parts of the superhero genre (most infamously the Spider-Man series). With the Marvel approach, the narrative terrain gets richer and richer with every new instalment, giving future films more to draw upon and play with. In addition, the fact that the series is composed of crisscrossing smaller series, each with its own protagonist, does cumulatively have the effect of dispelling the intense individualism to which critics often object, creating a world that is more than the superheroes that inhabit it.

What is developing here is, I think, a genuinely unprecedented mode of serialised storytelling in the cinema that is entirely deserving of praise, both in terms of requiring a skilful and imaginative editorial vision to execute, and in being rewarding for its audience. And yet this is something which critics often seem inclined to view in cynical terms. For example, Bleasdale is critical of how ‘the idea of franchises has rendered itself invisible’ and ‘films are made with sequels already built-in’. I find it interesting that in such criticism, the idea of planned serialisation is assumed to somehow lack integrity, the underlying assumption seemingly being that standalone films are inherently nobler. In a similar vein, short reviews of both Thor (2011) and The First Avenger on this site grumble suspiciously about them being mere ‘trailers’ for The Avengers. I can certainly understand where this cynicism comes from, as there are clear business imperatives for pursuing such a strategy. And yet, to be absolutely honest, if criticism of the Hollywood cinema assumed that art and commerce were always irreconcilable opposites, then we’d be left with little to talk about in this area. In any case, the fact that subsequently Marvel have consciously elected to return to these solo outings, rather than simply reaching for the low-hanging fruit of immediate Avengers sequels, suggests to me more investment in the artistic possibilities for ‘opening out’ the world provided by these less ‘busy’ instalments than their critics often credit them with.

In the short review, I described The Winter Soldier as occupying a ‘mid-season’ position. This is terminology deliberately drawn from television, historically the most prominent media for serialised storytelling on the screen. Indeed, whilst certain ‘high-end’ television series are routinely praised these days for bringing supposedly ‘cinematic’ values to television, it seems to me that Marvel are quietly and unobtrusively doing something which might be conceptualised as the reverse, porting modes of serialised storytelling that have been prominently developed on television over the last few decades into a popular film series, to a much greater extent than anyone has really done before. (Of course, I have no doubt that modes of serialisation in the comics is also a key influence, though I am less qualified to comment on this area.)

Some of this has been apparent for a while, with running plot threads, cameos, teasers, and the trademark post-credit scenes playing a role akin to the cliffhanger. Yet it is only with the onset of Phase 2 and the willingness to do more solo films that we are getting a sense of how this works in the long haul and in broader structural terms. Following the ‘season finale’ of The Avengers, we are now back to a run of ‘case/monster-of-the-week’ instalments, each with more space to develop ‘smaller’ themes, whilst building up to a second finale. It seems extraordinary to describe a $170 million film in terms that make it seem so banal, yet as I suggested in the short review, it is this positioning that really benefits it. (Indeed, somewhat ironically, Marvel seem to be achieving narrative strategies that I would associate with television with more style and verve on film than on television itself, with Agents of SHIELD as yet still struggling to establish its own dynamism.) This structure and variation in pacing makes sense of how Marvel can release such a huge volume of material and yet not reach a point of saturation, as each instalment is demonstrably attempting something different whilst being paced according to the logic of a larger structure. It is, of course, highly unusual to hear anyone complain about a TV series they’re enjoying having too many episodes. And thus, at the risk of being a credulous dupe of Marvel’s own elaborate conspiracy, I eagerly await the next instalment.

This Alternate Take was published on April 23, 2014.

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