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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo

review by J.C. Hartley

Spoiler alert!
It was time for a clear-out here at Hartley heights. The comics slumped in the attic had to go. And what about the unframed comicbook art, purchases made in an auction-site feeding frenzy, when I abandoned my original agenda and bid on just any old thing? My original comics art agenda was British science fiction, such as Dan Dare, Captain Condor, et al, and British superheroes like Garth, the Steel Claw, the Spider, and the character whom we in this house whimsically call Archie the racist robot. Then I expanded. Who could resist an affordable Werner Roth X-Men, a Curt Swan Superman, a Gil Kane Star Hawks? But Val Mayerick's Creepy Tales, Shawn McManus' Green Arrow, Dave Hoover's Captain America, is this really what we're about?

So the Mayerick and the McManus, fine examples of graphic illustration though they were, had to go; but what about Captain America? Well it's a great time to sell, Cap is probably as popular now as when he punched out Adolf Hitler on the Jack Kirby cover in 1941, or when Prince Namor objected to Eskimos worshipping Cap's frozen body in a block of ice, and lobbed him into the ocean. But you know what, I always loved Captain America, and in the two panels I own he's taking on the Super-Patriot, and riding his motorbike, what's not to like?

So why did I, a patriotic Brit, like the star-spangled Avenger so much, when I never really took to Captain Britain? Back in the 1960s, I had loads of Marvel comics stacked under my bed and Captain America was probably my favourite. I loved the suit, I loved the shield, and I responded to the simple black and white morality carried over from the 1940s, however anachronistic that appeared to be on close analysis. My mum hated the fact I loved American comics so much. Did she assume they were Bill Gaines' EC line, had she read Wertham's 'Horror In The Nursery', and Seduction Of The Innocent? I doubt it. Anyway, she made me get rid of them, a heap of 'Silver Age' classics, worth a few quid to collectors nowadays, and no, I'm not bitter; I'd just like to read them again.

I remember one in which Cap and the Falcon have defeated the Mole Man (when is he going to turn up on the screen?), and SHIELD agent Sharon Carter, in her Soho boho artist's smock, and bippety-boppity beret, is waiting for them on the surface. The stress of worrying about her sometime-squeeze is all too much for Sharon and she faints and is carried away to recover. Cap emerges and seeing that his girlfriend is nowhere around thinks she doesn't care enough about him to wait, so he jumps on his motorcycle and takes off like a big wuss. Sharon, now recovered, returns, and seeing that her boyfriend is nowhere around thinks he doesn't care enough about her to wait, and heads back to the heli-carrier in a mighty feminine strop. Now that's frankly ridiculous and more than a little pathetic, too - but think about how it would have played to teenagers with their complicated emotional entanglements back then.

Captain America is assumed to have a moral compass fixed by the events of 1941. He is virginal and sees everything in black and white; there is right and there is wrong. Through the 1980s and 1990s he debated patriotism and nationalism with Flag-Smasher, resigned the suit when ordered to work directly for the US government, and even temporarily had his super-soldier serum extracted, when he tripped out on meth, after an explosion in a dope factory, and became conflicted about the ethics of having drugs in his system. He nearly married Jewish law-student Bernie Rosenthal, but that was as likely as the Red Skull staying dead. Part of the attraction of the character is his 'man out of time' status, how his naïve ethics play against the modern world, and how he gets that floppy fold-over on his boots.

If it was a struggle to see how the character would play on screen, compared to say Iron Man, then Marvel have done very well; they managed it with Thor too. Captain America: The First Avenger was a great romp, better in its early part, and only really going stale with the Fritz-bashing montage with the Howling Commandos, before picking up again in the finale. For Captain America: The Winter Soldier we were promised a different kind of superhero story, a 1970-style spy conspiracy thriller with plot ramifications for the Marvel big-screen universe, Marvel phase two, and the existing TV tie-in with Agents Of SHIELD.

There have been some rather facile comparisons made with Sydney Pollack's Three Days Of The Condor (1975). Well, no one in The Winter Soldier goes out for coffee and doughnuts, and comes back to find his co-workers slaughtered at their desks, but the movie does co-star Robert Redford. The thing about 1970s-style conspiracy thrillers is that the heroes were usually ordinary men getting out of their depth. Redford's character in Condor is a desk-jockey; Elliot Gould is a slacker journalist in Capricorn One; the heroes may have certain skills as in The Parallax View, The Conversation, and Blow Out, but those skills tend not to include mixed martial arts and a ruddy great shield.

Steve Rogers, alias Captain America (Chris Evans), with a STRIKE team led by Agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) - the Black Widow, take part in an operation against terrorists who have seized a SHIELD spy vessel in foreign territorial waters. The team liberate the vessel, but Cap clashes with Romanoff who he feels has put the hostages at risk by downloading intelligence from the ship's hard drive for Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury is unable to gain access to the information and this leads him to suspect a breach of security surrounding Project Insight, a scheme to link three new heli-carriers to satellite surveillance to pre-empt global threats.

Fury asks SHIELD senior executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to delay the project, but then he is left for dead after an ambush, with Rogers and Romanoff forced to go on the run. Teaming up with special ops soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who wearing a wing-pack becomes the flying Falcon, Rogers and Romanoff discover that former Red Skull aide Zola, after extraction by American agents after World War II, has managed to subvert SHIELD from within, with the organisation now heavily infiltrated by operatives of Hydra. How would Cap have felt about real-life Nazi and SS member Werner von Braun who, avoiding trial for war crimes, went on to spearhead America's space programme; one day you're overseeing British cities being pounded to a sticky black paste the next you're selling the idea for Man In Space to Walt Disney.

Pierce comes out as a Hydra agent, using legendary assassin the Winter Soldier to cut a swathe through SHIELD ranks and hunt down Cap. In the world's worst kept secret, the assassin is revealed to be Rogers' old buddy Bucky Barnes, kept on ice since the war and mind-wiped and defrosted for wet-jobs. Rogers recognises Bucky and vice versa, but the latter is so damaged he is unable to grasp the import of the revelation. Zola's master-plan has been to create an algorithm which will predict those individuals who will pose a threat to Hydra's plans for a new world order of stable conformity, and using the heli-carriers' weaponry, configured with satellite surveillance data, to exterminate those threats worldwide. Cue explosions. Cue more explosions. The hand-to-hand is pretty good but there are far too many explosions.

Everyone comes back except Bucky Barnes (and Uncle Ben), was the old chestnut trotted out to acknowledge Marvel's reluctance to kill off characters permanently. Killing off characters was precisely what I admired about Marvel back in the day; the return of Jean Grey was the writing on the wall for me, and after she came back I took subsequent deaths with a sackful of salt; the demise of the Red Skull, Magneto, and Donald Pierce were par for the course, villains' deaths don't count. Bucky Barnes' early return seems entirely appropriate for the movies, in the comics Cap was driven by guilt for decades by his young sidekick's demise, while attempting to sabotage Baron Zemo's rocket, guilt was the driving force for a lot of heroes then. While acknowledging a certain amount of the comics' mythos, this tranche of superhero movies has leapfrogged to recent storylines rather than rake over old ground, this is why they have largely worked, and why they often don't work for me; I'm afraid my head is still stuck under my bed in the day-glo 1960s when I first discovered the Marvel universe.

'Captain America 3' is confirmed and apparently will go head to head with 'Batman vs. Superman Dawn of Justice', the Justice League of America's origin story, or whatever it turns out to be. Presumably, Cap will attempt to track down Bucky, and as Agent Rumlow turned out to be a Hydra agent, and took a pounding from the heli-carrier at the end of the flick, we can guess he'll come back rebuilt as his alter-ego Crossbones (Frank Grillo even sounds like a super-villain name). This also introduced Carter (Emily VanCamp) as Rogers' minder and potential love interest; but one assumes he'll be held back from pursuing her too closely, as she turns out to be his old love Peggy's relative and I guess that's just too creepy for the old virgin.

Evans is excellent as Captain America; I actually prefer his playing to the uptight thickhead Cap often came over as in the comics. His relationship with Natasha is the source of most of the humour in this movie. Johansson is a force of nature and it isn't for a mere critic like me to sit in judgement, suffice to say when Jenny Agutter was beating up on everyone I was really disappointed when it turned out to be the Black Widow in disguise. It was great to see Batroc in this film, and in purple, even if he wasn't the twirly moustachioed tumbler from the books. The end of the movie has the traditional post-credits sting which introduces Baron Strucker, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch in time for 'Avengers: The Age of Ultron'.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier



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