C aptain America has the cleverest gimmick of any comic-book movie. Government science turned Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) from a patriotic runt too scrawny for WWII into a strapping supersoldier put on ice and, many decades later, thawed into a literal walking anachronism who works for the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. The long, chaotic first installment of this franchise, from 2011 (Captain America: The First Avenger), wasted a lot of time setting this up. But both The Avengers and the smartly conceived, frustratingly executed new Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, know where the jokes are and how to tell them. Mostly, they’re at the expense of Steve, whose cultural gaps everyone has a good time trying to fill.
He keeps a notebook of movies he needs to watch and albums to hear. The war vet and PTSD expert he befriends, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), insists one of those records is Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack. At some point, he and a fellow agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), stand over an ancient computer console and she explains the WarGames joke she’s just made. I know, I know, he more or less says.
This is a superficial but reasonably sophisticated and resonantly human superhero stress. Steve has the visage, endurance, and athleticism of a thirtysomething male (OK, nobody has his athleticism), but, socially, he’s treated like the old man at the start-up. That alienation is different from the foreignness of, say, Thor, a Norseman who crashed to Earth in a funny costume and brought friends. Steve is an American foreigner in the United States. His sense of cool is now simultaneously antique and vintage. To see him in his white T-shirts, leather bombers, and jeans in 2014 is to understand how some of the Greatest Generation took a greaser detour.
Marvel could devote an entire project to playing “hey geezer” with Captain America, to reconciling matters of taste, history, and identity. But these movies are obligated to find a conflict that advances the Avengers’ narrative. The plot here involves a strategic plan to rid the planet of 20 million people for allegedly harmful activities that they’re predicted to eventually participate in. But the theme of that conflict is trust. Steve begins to question whether he can take his boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), at his word. Why would Fury send Captain America to rescue hostages from a battleship in the Indian Ocean without telling him that Black Widow is there on a separate mission? The character’s distaste for secrecy is touching. He’ll need a gallon of mouthwash for a movie in which almost everything Steve has learned is a lie, including the nonsense that Trouble Man is the Marvin Gaye album to cure life’s ills.
Everything is out of control. S.H.I.E.L.D. is severely compromised. Fury is viciously attacked. Robert Redford, as a S.H.I.E.L.D. higher-up, is talking to holograms. And a seemingly indestructible gentleman appears to have taken a break from the WWE’s outlaw outfit to help destroy the planet one highway at a time. This would be the eponymous Winter Soldier. He kills, skids, and sprints in black. He flings his hair and wears a mask only so when it falls off, Steve can be shocked and appalled by the face beneath it. You could see this coming. But it’s a satisfying wrinkle that gives Steve a good moment of consternation.
Evans is the only actor I can think of for this part. He’s on the rugged end of handsome. He could be used to market power tools and $150 cologne. He seems tall. For these movies, he’s puffed himself up to comical action-figure proportions. But he’s playing the “hero” more than the “super.” As Captain America, he’s required to simulate the impossible: leaping up and off buildings, catching his shield as it saws mightily toward his open hands (usually as he’s running or jumping and looking in another direction at the time). Steve’s attractions are also presented as things of the past — he still pines for a now-aged girl (Hayley Atwell) and a dead best friend (Sebastian Stan).
In the last incarnation of the Fantastic Four, Evans was the Human Torch, and he turned the part into the sort of self-obsessed heartthrob who winds up as the sleazy boyfriend on a reality show. You saw him in those two movies, easily among the least of the Marvel universe, and thought, This guy could be a star. With Evans, you often think that. But Hollywood has almost nowhere for his blend of comic cockiness, adorability, and fitness. Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Tom Cruise, Channing Tatum, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Chris Pine are all still working. Evans might have It. But he’s never been It. I imagine he’s fighting for the handful of good one-off parts and is either losing them to stiff competition or the scheduling demands of being Captain America. (This may have contributed to the brief moment the other week when folks thought he was going to quit acting to direct.)
But being Captain America is working for him. A role that should be a prison has actually given Evans’s charisma something to push back against. Steve’s antique status neutralizes the smirking jock he seems to be born to play. Squareness becomes him. The character’s earnestness is a tonic to the smarmy backhanded heroism Robert Downey Jr. uses for the Iron Man movies. Downey’s Tony Stark saves the world because it flatters his ego. Steve Rogers saves the world because it’s right. Stark works for himself. Captain America works for us.
The credited writers of The Winter Soldier, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, do their part. The movie thinks like a comic book. There’s wit and the occasional idea, and the plot twists and harks back to previous adventures. That allows for the amusing virtual return of Toby Jones as the supervillainous Nazi biochemist Arnim Zola and for Mackie to say things like, “How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?” But Sam and Steve bond, more or less, over both having lost wingmen in war — and then Sam becomes the character Falcon (born in 1969, he was the first major black superhero in a comic book), thereby becoming Steve’s new wingman.
The movie is actually more fun when it’s still and its characters are actually talking to each other. Lord knows the directors of The Winter Soldier, Anthony and Joe Russo, are better with gags and repartee than with how to visually navigate an action sequence. The Russos have made a couple of movies — the so-so caper Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me and Dupree, a comedy so abominable that Owen Wilson, Kate Hudson, and Matt Dillon haven’t been the same since starring in it. The Russos recovered fine. They went to television and excelled, putting in work on Happy Endings, Arrested Development, and Community. How one gets from cult-classic sitcommery to mass-cult blockbusting is a complicated process.
It’s possible both to like the comic-book movie they’ve made and to be driven nuts by how terrible it looks. It’s the sort of thing you notice only when people are fighting. That, of course, is a problem. People are often fighting, and the fights have been shot in the chaotic manner of bad action movies. The camera jitters and jumps and cranes and whips. What it never seems to do is sit still. That hostage rescue on the ship occurs at night, and, in 3-D, the drabness of the ship and exterior darkness turn that sequence into murk. The editing grinds up motion into meaningless bits. The shots don’t match and the images come at us so hectically that the editing can barely keep up with itself. At some point, we’re no longer watching an action movie. We’re watching mirepoix.
During that early hostage rescue, there’s a fight between Captain America and a parkouring French-speaking bad guy on an open deck. And the pacing slows down enough for us to appreciate what might pass for framing. Each man occupies one end of the screen. But even then it’s not enough to qualify as satisfying. I suppose the movie is going for intense immediacy. It’s trying to goose your pulse. It winds up raising your blood pressure. So much money and time and planning has gone into creating effects and staging these sequences. During the climactic finale, set amid skyscrapers and sky, Mackie has to run across an entire floor as a ship crashes behind him and then leap out of a window. The stress of that moment was compounded by the number of cuts required to pull it off. There’s a very good fight on a Washington, D.C., highway that’s equally unattractive. Is all this formal chaos meant to disguise the use of stunt doubles or the directors’ lack of confidence?
Writing about The Raid 2, which opened last week, Grantland’s Alex Pappademas ended his besotted review with a plea to appreciate the professional, loving violence of the movie before the arrival of The Winter Soldier. His word for the action was “artisanal.” And he’s right in using it to distinguish between a grindhouse astonishment and what amounts to a commercial for a megamovie slated to open next summer, between mayhem and mess. Most of the action sequences in action movies look the opposite of artisanal now, and the cruddy-looking assemblage doesn’t prevent them from being big hits.
You have to go to the art house or to, say, FX’s Justified and The Americans and Cinemax’s Banshee to find competently filmed stunt choreography. No audience will revolt because The Winter Soldier looks as if it were made in a food processor. I had fun. But I could have had more. I’m not demanding filmmaking or visionary talent, per se. I’m demanding competence. Given the fealty these movies have shown toward comic books and their fans, it shouldn’t be too much to ask for the same respect to be shown toward movies. Steve Rogers would get it. Artisanal is just another way of saying, “This is how people used to do their jobs.”
Under the Skin might pass for artisanal science fiction. It’s strange and arbitrary the way science fiction was from the 1970s and early 1980s, whether the movies were flamboyantly idiosyncratic like Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth or commercial but unrelentingly eerie like Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Jonathan Glazer made Under the Skin and it’s communicating with those and certain other movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s, but Glazer proceeds down a dark road of his own devising.
The opening sequence alone is worth more than the price of a ticket. It’s just rioting color and deafening soundscape, but you watch and listen and wonder and wait for a concrete image to take shape, and eventually something does, and the shape taken is that of Scarlett Johansson, who’s well used in The Winter Soldier, but ingeniously deployed here. An alien force of some kind assumes a body very much like Johansson’s. In a skirt and jacket, she stands against a white background and proceeds to teach herself to speak (in an English accent), then winds up driving a van around Scotland picking up men who can’t believe their good fortune.
They talk, she parks, and leads the man inside. She disrobes and then so does he, following her, but led by his erection. What ensues is brief, nightmarishly serene and wondrously awful, and every time it occurs you find yourself feeling worse for the men and more perplexed about the woman seducing them. For whom is she working and what do they want? Glazer demurs, playing instead with the rhythm and doomy atmosphere. The film is based on a Michel Faber novel the way tomorrow is based on today. There’s a vision at work, and just at the moment when you think Glazer’s going to open out the movie and perhaps take us to outer space — he’s the sort of director whose cosmos you want to see — he goes the opposite direction and has the Johansson character discover humanness and feelings. It’s not the happiest of awakenings.
I saw Under the Skin at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and people walked out. It’s cruel and, in its way, violent. You look to Johansson for warmth, sympathy, or remorse and get only mild amusement at death and at the tenderness and vulnerability that lust awakens. A friend compared it to a coffee-table book and said he didn’t see it going anywhere. But it just doesn’t go anywhere expected. Glazer’s made an icy thriller of ontological and existential proportions. What does it mean to be human, to be alive? In Johansson he has a star who doesn’t fear being a repository of those questions. She’s at her peak as an actor right now, and, at the movies, all of her great work lately involves the power of her body. Even in Her, where she has no body, her voice acquires physicality.
It’d be easy for a movie to misuse her sexuality, to turn her into a freak or worse. But when you watch Johansson now — in the Marvel movies, too — she appears to have control over how she’s used and looked at; she can defend herself. She and Glazer are toying with those ideas in Under the Skin. The movie is simultaneously erotic and antierotic. You watch Johansson drive that truck (those scenes are semi-improvised) and wait for a false move. But there’s nothing but inquisitive serenity and red lights. In the second half of the movie, lost without truly knowing it, Johansson starts to break your heart. Even though she’s playing an entity who has no self, she succeeds at giving that sack of skin a soul.