For many years now, the Avengers series of feature films – referred to by most fans and online pundits as the Marvel Cinematic Universe – has become to de facto pinnacle of pop fandom. There may be many debates online, but it is generally accepted that the MCU movies are peerless and enduring entertainments that are beyond criticism or reproach. In short, there is a contingent of people in the world who find these movies to be the best movies of all time.
As someone who has been vaguely dissatisfied with the bulk of the series since the beginning (I’m a fan of Iron Man and Iron Man 3, and I have no problems with Guardians of the Galaxy, but that’s about where it ends), I find a lot of angry push-back whenever I try to elicit even vaguely skeptical ideas about the series. When I announce that I am ambivalent to The Avengers, or that I outwardly hate Thor or Avengers: Age of Ultron, I become pilloried and ostracized by the fan community who inform me that I am simply wrong, wrong, wrong. To be fair, I can bring it upon myself; I don’t have to mention that I hated some of these in polite company.
Perhaps my least popular opinion, though, is that I really can’t stand Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When it was released, I thought it was fine enough – at least it wasn’t boring – but there was something tugging at my sleeve about the flick that I couldn’t put my finger on. Even at the time, I was bugged by the movie. Few shared my nagging sense of unease; looking around at other reviews, you would have thought Jesus returned. People loved The Winter Soldier more than life itself, and even Marvel Studios came to accept that this film would be the new spiritual center of the series: They hired the film’s directors to take over the massive Marvel crossover movies after Joss Whedon unceremoniously bowed out.
After a year’s thought, I finally figured out why this film wasn’t sitting well with me. Indeed, the more I think about it, the worse it becomes. I have finally come up with eight reasons why The Winter Soldier is actually the worst film in this series. Read on in outrage, dear readers. And please, I implore you, be gentle to me at the end of it. I need to get this off my chest.
1. Captain America Is Still a Boring Character
I tried. I really tried. I’ve tried to see Captain “America” Steve Rogers as an interesting guy. I’ve tried to see him in the context of changing patriotic attitudes. I’ve tried to see him as a boldly virtuous symbol of America, despite – and not because of – its politics. I’ve tried to see him as a cool badass with fun superpowers… but I just can’t. Captain America is, at the end of the day, a dull character lacking in complexity or texture.
Many have criticized Superman for being too blandly virtuous to be interesting; If he is indestructible, then there is nothing at stake, and if there is nothing at stake, why read about his peril? Superman’s virtue is what makes him interesting. Captain America, though, at least cinematically, stands for the most boring type of blind ’40s patriotism that young people think the country had during WWII… and nothing else. He has no interests, no passions, no love for anything beyond a vague sense of duty.
The most interesting part about Captain America is his displacement in time. He is out of his element in the present day, having been frozen for decades. But this drama has been relegated to the sidelines in his movies. The Winter Soldier taps into this in the film’s first few scenes… and then frustratingly abandons it in favor of the plot. Leaving Cap high and dry in the character department once again.
Poor Cap. Someday, he will be unlocked.
2. The Title Villain Is Forgettable
The titular Winter Soldier – who was, in actuality, a presumed-dead compatriot of Cap from the old days – loomed large in action scenes. He has metal arms, and was just as strong as Captain America, catching his shield in one scene. Also, since he was an old friend, Cap refuses to fight him (after fighting him for ten minutes, but whatever). This means most of the film’s personal drama stems from the fact that Cap is fighting an old friend who has been brainwashed.
But when I think about this movie, the title villain is actually one of the last things that comes to mind. In terms of plot, he serves a purpose, but functionally, the Winter Soldier is little more than a thug. He could be, or look, like anyone or anything. The only point is that he’s as strong as the hero. He has no pertinent lines, no depth, no texture; he’s as boring as Captain America.
What’s more, the revelation that the Winter Soldier is actually Bucky has no impact, because Bucky didn’t stand out in Captain America: The First Avenger. He was just part of the blur of soldiers behind Captain America. In the old comic books, Bucky was important. In the movies, he’s a mannequin.
I suppose the fights were neat to look at, but an adrenaline rush is a poor excuse for a dramatic fight. On paper, I see why they were fighting… but I didn’t feel it. I saw the constructed excuse, but not the drama. I just saw fights, and action can be boring if its done for its own sake.
Next time, just leave Bucky out of it. The story would have been fine.
3. Scarlett Johansson Is Still Miscast
This was actually the third time Scarlett Johansson played Black Widow in this series, but she hasn’t really managed to emerge in any sort of significant way for me. On the page, I can see what Black Widow is supposed to be. She’s a tough, sexy spy with a flip attitude, a sense of humor, and an amusingly aloof and causal attitude about her job. You can hear in dialogue how funny and deadpan she’s supposed to be.
Johansson can be funny and deadpan – I’ve seen her do it – but for some reason, she’s just not firing on all cylinders with this role. I think she’s being poorly directed, not being encouraged to make The Black Widow emerge as someone with presence. She fades into the background. She is flaccid and inscrutable, serving only as something that is nice to look at.
There is a mild scandal in place that Black Widow doesn’t have enough toys in the market, robbing any young girl Avengers fans of the privilege of being marketed to. Perhaps there are no Black Widow toys because Black Widow doesn’t have any panache in these movies. She’s not strong. Like Cap himself, and the Winter Soldier, she’s just kinda boring.
4. It Takes Back its Stakes
Remember that scene near the end of the first act of The Winter Soldier, where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) was being chased by bad guys? And they shot at him and planted a bomb under his car? And he was panicked, but managed to evade capture for a long time? And how exciting it was? And then he got blown up and died? And you were shocked and interested for the first time in this boring movie? And you thought that Marvel studios finally had some balls, and that they would kill off a notable supporting playing in their film series?
And remember how, at the beginning of the third act, it was revealed that Nick Fury was still alive somehow? And that he was able to fake his death with relative ease? And he wasn’t really afraid or changed or in visible hiding? He was just sort of standing there, delivering lines as if nothing had happened? And all the other characters reacted with the minimal amount of shock, and just sort of accepted it?
And remember how disappointed you were that Marvel didn’t actually have any balls, and they wouldn’t dare actually kill off a major character? And revealed that death is meaningless in this universe, because no one dies? Not even the Winter Soldier himself?
Remember all that?