I’ve been visiting friends, and since one of our group hadn’t seen all of the Marvel films, we watched Thor, The Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World before seeing The Winter Soldier. (These are friends who love me enough to indulge my obsessions, so, yes, the films we watched had Thor in them. The person who’d not seen them still got an intro both to Cap and where things stood in the MCU, right?)
Anyway, I have thoughts.
First, a confession: Cap has been my least favorite of the superheroes Marvel put into The Avengers. (I like Whineyman, er, Spiderman less, but he’s not a factor here.) It’s not that I couldn’t appreciate the dilemma Steve Rogers finds himself in, waking up to no one he knows and a completely foreign world, and it’s not that I don’t love his nobility (I do!) but I need my heroes to have a sense of humor. I was somewhat relieved when one of my weekend companions admitted the same thing on Saturday.
So that same pal and I looked at one another with delight during the opening scenes of The Winter Soldier, when Steve and Sam are razzing one another. Cap is still the honorable, noble man who wants to do the right thing, but he’s found his sense of humor! I’d not considered this before, but we do see a character arc for him in The Avengers: when Fury comes to give him his mission, it appears as if he’s doing nothing but going back and forth between his apartment and the gym; at the end of the film, he rides off on his motorcycle. That’s paid off here, I think, as he’s out in the world when the film begins.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot for him to be amused by here. Things are dire and get worse, (as is appropriate for a superhero film.) But I like my drama mixed with humor, so the end result is that I liked this film much better than the first Captain America film.
So what did I like, apart from a slightly lighter Cap?
The relationships. (It always, always comes down to the relationships for me.)
- Natasha: It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m a romantic at heart. I read romance, I write romance, and I love me some ‘ships. But I also really, really love male and female friendships, so watching these two navigate their relationship (particularly the conversation about trust) while referencing the running gag of her trying to find him a date was a high point of the film for me. (Also? She’s wearing an arrow necklace all the way through the film. Reference to Clint?)
- Sam: I like male friendships, too, and enjoyed watching this one develop. One thing that struck me right from the beginning was Sam’s ease with Steve. He respects him as a soldier, but isn’t particularly in awe of him, and later, coming to understand his own background as someone who was given special powers (albeit on a temporary basis) by the military, that makes sense. But his commitment to Steve isn’t just to a super soldier, or even to the mission at hand (as we see at the end when he doesn’t go with Fury) but rather to the man who’s earned his loyalty. I like that, and hope that we see Falcon again.
- Bucky: …and on the front of male friendships and loyalty, I love the way they told this part of the story so freaking much. I often play the ‘guess what they’re doing’ game, so I was taking bets with myself as the film progressed: we’d see Cap kill his friend (this seemed unlikely to me, and I’m glad I was right); we’d see them fight and then Bucky would, in a moment of high tension, join with Steve to defeat the bad guys. But the first scenario would have compromised Cap’s character in some ways, and the second would be too easy. This, where he stays true to himself in respect to both the mission and to his friend, and his doing so allows Bucky to begin to unravel his own identity worked perfectly. (Also – how awesome was that second stinger scene?)
People are complicated, relationships more so, and I love when that’s respected by films.
The overall plot succeeded for me, as well. I prefer long stories, and part of the reason I like TV shows and book series over standalone films is that you get more payoff: more moments in the story that reward you for having followed the characters over time. (Which is difficult to do, of course, since writers have to accommodate new audience members.) Our lives don’t happen in a vacuum, a two-hour moment of time without context, so a story that builds on the past makes it easier for me to suspend my disbelief that it’s fiction. I want to believe this could all happen, that these people, this world, could be true. (Even where superheroes are concerned, or perhaps especially so.)
That kind of integration and payoff is what the Marvel SHIELD films are giving me. Although we don’t see them in the film, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are referenced, and seeing Loki’s scepter in the first stinger is another link back to the bigger story.
And then there’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’ve not loved the TV show as much as I wanted to, mostly because none of the characters but Coulson have really engaged me yet – I don’t dislike them, but I don’t really care about them, either – but I’m now very interested to see the effects of the S.H.I.E.L.D meltdown on another group of people. It’s that integration thing again.
Now the things that didn’t work for me:
- Nick Fury’s not-death: It’s not that I wanted him to die; I didn’t. But I want to believe death can be a real risk in this universe, and it’s getting harder for me to do so: Coulson died in The Avengers, came back to life; Loki appear to die in The Dark World and didn’t, (and yes, he’s very hard to kill, but if even his brother the demigod believes he’s dead…), and now we’ve got Fury’s now-I’m-dead-now-I’m-not trick. I’ll henceforth be assuming all deaths are fake in this universe until proven otherwise.
- This was a little explodey for me. I like action films, and there were plenty of character moments in this to balance out the car crashes, but it did feel like there were a lot more ‘action’ scenes (stuff blows up! cars get wrecked! more stuff blows up! more cars get wrecked!) than in the last few films. It wasn’t enough for me to not enjoy the story, but when I start thinking, ‘ooh, that’s a really colorful fireball’ it’s safe to assume that action-fatigue has set in. (Which, since I’m not a teenage boy, is totally a thing.)
On the whole, though, this was a very solid story for me, in terms of character, relationships, and a satisfying story in its own right that also sets the stage for the next chapter in the Marvel universe as a whole.
(*whispers* I still love Thor the most.)