I like Captain America the comic book figure both on his own with his place in the universe of characters that Marvel comics has illustrated. I even liked the first Captain America film, which perhaps makes me a bit of a natural outlier. But there is so very little that the second Captain America film (possessing the subtitle The Winter Soldier) gets right that questions abound from watching even the most minimal portion of film in it.
The main character from the first film, the Captain (Steve Rogers himself) is reprised by Chris Evans (Puncture). Some of the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. who he encountered in The Avengers appear in this film as well, namely Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Coach Carter) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, Iron Man 2). When an important figure to Rogers is killed, he finds himself hunted by those who he considered allies, allies who are developing weaponry and air power designed to preemptively neutralize threats, perhaps even before said threats make themselves known to anyone. This is done with the occasional help of a superhuman specimen named The Winter Soldier.
Now I generally like the Marvel films and am willing to roll with the punches on a lot of things. And when Anthony and Joe Russo were announced as directors of the film, it piqued my interest to some degree as I have enjoyed their contributions on shows like Community and Arrested Development for some time now. Then I learned that Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus were helming the script. Retroactively I got nervous, because the last time one (or both) of them was involved with a Marvel film it was the disappointing yet profitable Thor: The Dark World.
But holy jumpin, The Winter Soldier is downright baffling at the micro and macro levels. Take a first act shootout where Fury has to battle his way out of armed troops attempting to kill him. In a sequence where thousands of bullets are expended, nobody thinks to shoot the tires out from a vehicle to slow it down/incapacitate it? I mean, putting aside a cliché of a similar number of immense ammunition being spent and no one dying or getting hurt, that not so much as a tactical decision like that is even considered is…something. Or to borrow from one of the co-directors' previous work, some of the sequences are reminiscent of the paintball episodes from Community (yeah, I know they may not have been significant contributors to it, but I am not letting that get in the way of a good joke). And when it comes to The Winter Soldier, it seems to be executed with such an obvious hubris to it that is unknowingly sinks a good deal of credibility it may have had. It is one thing to be a one-off ‘shoot ‘em up' film like, well, Shoot ‘Em Up. But The Winter Soldier has some naturally built-in seriousness if nothing else from the hours worked and millions of dollars spent to perpetuate all things Marvel; this effort throws a lot of that away.
On a higher level within existing mythology, decisions that affect the story and its significant ensemble come from thin air in The Winter Soldier, or at least done with a wink and nod to the clandestine operations of S.H.I.E.L.D. I can get doing it occasionally for optimal effect, but doing it so often here cheapens its worth not only here but in future Marvel films, for the sake of a myopic convenience within one film in the next six to eight that are trying to weave a bigger tapestry of characters and events for Marvel for years to come.
On an even higher level, particularly within the context of trying to move stories along within the Marvel universe, there does not appear to be much in terms of an overall strategy or storytelling goal that the franchise wishes to achieve, and one could make the case that such a strategy has not existed since The Avengers blew everyone's minds (myself included). It seems like Marvel and those entities who share responsibility for it have crossed over to brand preservation as opposed to decent storytelling, and the work since then (this, The Dark World and the S.H.I.E.L.D. television show) have suffered as a result of it. If I am Joss Whedon's agent, I wonder how many Brinks trucks I can back up to the Marvel gates for money to right the ship back to a point before people start to sour from it.
Looking at The Winter Soldier from the vacuum-ist of vacuums, Evans does have moments of depth where he carves out some emotional resonance to the Steve Rogers character, and Jackson is up to as much of a task that he is given within the script. But Johansson disappoints and as Alexander Pierce (an old friend of Fury's), the appearance of Robert Redford (All Is Lost) is surprising to see here at first, then as the film goes on, one realizes he must be here for the backend points. The only other character worth watching is Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), who plays the exercise companion of Rogers turned, very quickly I may add, into sidekick.
Don't get me wrong, I own the Marvel Cinematic Universe Blu-ray boxed set that houses the Marvel films preceding (and including) The Avengers, and I have seen almost all of the Marvel films in theatrical or first week video releases, save for one. I have been pretty much all in for Marvel for some time now, but The Winter Soldier makes me question just what it is that Marvel is doing at this point, and I hope if not for this film (which I doubt, as it accomplished the goal of ‘Making a crapton of money in its release Week'), perhaps subsequent ones will garner some level of skepticism on what it is that S.H.I.E.L.D., if not Marvel, is doing with these characters. This latest version had me doing something I had not done since some genius remade Red Dragon, and that was cut bait and run before the credits completely unfurled. An unlike the Thomas Harris series, there are years of uncertainty left for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel, but The Winter Soldier brings a subliminal level of dread to them.