5. The Usual Complaint About These Things…
The commonest critical complaint about the Avengers series is, ironically, the reason most fans like them: Their interconnectivity. Each film leads into the next with even more dramatic continuity than pre-planned YA series adaptations. And, as we know from press releases, this series is going to go on for at least 35 more years, with 117 movies already being written, all of which will connect directly with the films that came before them and after them.
This structure works well on TV, and is perfect for comics, but when it comes to feature films, there is a vocal contingent of cinema lovers who resent that movies are beginning to look more like TV. That is to say: the movies have so much setup and expansive meta-narratives running through them, that they often – and sometimes for extended periods – feel like little more than ads for following chapters. When are they going to stop setting up, and get to the actual movie?
This was the most obvious problem with Iron Man 2, and Age of Ultron, but it’s an element that is lingering throughout the whole series (Guardians of the Galaxy was mercifully low on this shit). I feel like this film is not about the stakes we’re seeing on screen, but how the result of the film’s action will effect a later chapter.
This is, of course, a more general complaint about the series in general, more than a problem with this film specifically.
6. It Sticks to Old Themes, Rather Than Try Something New
What is the overall theme to the Avengers series? It all goes back to the first Iron Man. In that film, Tony Stark played a weapons magnate who learns that his weapons are being stolen and used for conflicts they weren’t built for. He then turns noble, and tries to undo his damage. It’s a metaphor for the way America so brazenly sold or gave weapons to the Middle East during the Cold War, but eventually had to fight the very people we gave weapons to. Iron Man, then, is about how our attempts to fight evil often beget more war.
Looking over all the Avengers movies, you’ll find that this is the common theme of the whole series. The heroes attempt to undo wrongdoing, but end up inviting more conflict. War begets war, and that is tragic. It’s a metaphor that is salient in a nation that’s declared war on “terror.” This, of course, is an odd theme for a series of movies that revels so heavily in its violent set pieces and ultra-explosions, but that’s as may be.
The Winter Soldier isn’t necessarily wrong for returning to this well; it’s a pertinent idea. But to revisit the same theme yet again (this was the ninth film in this series), one begins to see the seams. We get it. Everything the Avengers do is actually only creating more mad guys who would kill the world. The ideas are fine, but the series, by this point, needed better ways of exploring them, or perhaps needed to explore them more deeply and explicitly.
7. It Backs Off From its Most Interesting Plot Point
This is where I get into spoilers, and start coming down to the real reason this film pisses me off.
Throughout the first half of The Winter Soldier, we’re given a tantalizing look at the real conflict in Captain America’s character: America – the government and the ideal that drives Cap – has transformed so much since his WWII youth, that a true patriot from that era wouldn’t recognize the country anymore. America is now all about fear, military might, suspicion, spying, preemptive war. This is, indeed, the real American milieu in the modern age, and something we all recognize in the post-9/11, post-Bush era. Endless war has replaced idealized peace. Captain America seems to be at odds with this not only philosophically, but his attitudes are putting him in danger from a government that finds his idealism dangerous. That stuff is all interesting. Indeed, Cap even says “You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection. This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” We’ve heard that before, haven’t we?
The film, then, is pointing to a scene where Captain America renounces America, and has to fight against his own government, which has, just by natural evolution, turned into something twisted. Right?
Wrong. As it turns out, the evolution of suspicion – you know, the real-world paranoia that comes from the actual government – was not a natural progression (as it was in real life!), but the work of secret bad guys. Yes, in the film’s biggest (and dumbest) plot twist, it’s revealed that the government was actually infiltrated by Nazi agents as long ago as the ’40s, and that it was the secret Nazi agents who have been, for decades, encouraging America to behave badly.
So Captain America is actually not fighting against his own government. Once again, he’s fighting against Nazis. Which means there is no philosophical conflict after all. Everyone can agree that Nazis are bad. Nazis bad. America good. Period. Once you remove the moral ambiguity, and place the government’s wrongdoings in the hands of “Bad Guys” – and Nazis, no less – you have a maddeningly empty movie that chickens out of its most interesting element.
8. It Exonerates America’s Wrongdoings by Placing Blame on Secret Nazis
And, by extension, we finally come to the real reason this movie pisses me off so damn much.
If America’s wrongdoings are actually the work of secret Nazis, The Winter Soldier is implying – infuriatingly – that America is still incorruptible, and that any injustice we may have committed for reasons of avarice, stupidity, imperialism, warmongering, Kafkaesque mixups, or just plain wickedness are now totally exonerated.
Politics doesn’t work like that, and the makers of The Winter Soldier know that. The government is capable of wrongdoing. We’ve seen corrupt and bumbling politicians. We’ve heard of scandals and wars committed for bad reasons. America is most certainly capable of wrongdoing. As a people, we have to learn about what goes on in the government, vote for people we believe to be honorable, and change the laws to prevent corruption. Despite our best efforts, laws are still occasionally broken.
The Winter Soldier would have us believe that any and all government corruption was committed by a group of anti-American zealots. The government is innocent, kids! Trust them! If they ever do anything bad, it’s not bad decision making! It’s secret Nazis! This is like blaming “society” after you get caught shoplifting. Or the Boogieman for messing up your closet.
This is a morally irresponsible message, and I cannot abide by it.
Is the film still thrilling? On a surface level, perhaps. Is the tone right? I like the thriller-ish tone, actually. Does It look great? The effects and fights are first rate. But does it do us wrong? Ultimately, yes.
Previously by Witney Seibold:
10 Ways Deep Space Nine is the Best Star Trek Series
The 10 Best Greatest Pinball Machines of All Time
10 Things Old People Nerd Out About that You Should Get Into
8 Reasons Video Games Will Never Make Good Movies
10 Reasons Why VCRs are Better than What we Have Now