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Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Peter T Chattaway
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These problems are magnified by most superhero films capitulating toward action film genre expectations, a genre that tends to trivialize death in its haphazard regard for narrative and overwhelming appetite for violent spectacle.

 

My wife and I saw Winter Soldier last night and, while I think I liked it more than most here, the amount of civilian carnage was just staggering. Marvel movies have been trending in this direction, I guess, but I just had a hard time with this.

 

 

 

So of course, you start to wonder, "How did The Winter Soldier know that the car chase would end up *there*? How did he know to stand in That Exact Spot?"

 

I kept this in mind while watching the movie, and I think the film briefly points out that Fury goes down THAT street because it's the only one open—there's a roadblock jamming up the rest of the grid, possibly caused by Le Winter Soldier. 

Edited by Jason Panella
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Just got back from seeing this. Man, what an uneven movie. It's going for the paranoid-thriller vibe, but it commits a pretty serious sin against the form: it ain't paranoid. Or, rather, it doesn't let the paranoia simmer. Questions arise and are answered within minutes--sometimes seconds--of being posed. And they come from the exactly wrong places, if you're going for paranoid thriller. And I can't help but feel that action is substituted for suspense--in which case, why do the paranoid thriller thing at all?

 

Then there's the thematic stuff:

 

1.) Obviously, camaraderie is a major theme here. The whole movie is based around essentially four pairs, with Steve being a member in three of them. Whom do you trust? Your wingman, obviously. For whom do you stick up? Your partner.  And so on. Properly done, these four pairs should contrast with and bring out nuances in each other. The emotional resonance should heighten. But it doesn't work out that way. It stays there, just below the surface.

 

2.) The real subtext here is drones, war on terror, etc etc etc. Really good, interesting symbolic critiques of the national security state. That's all fine and dandy. I'll get to it in a moment. But there's this teeth-grinding exchange early on where Nick Fury says something like " 'The Greatest Generation,' huh? I've read histories. You guys weren't angels," and Rogers replies, "We compromised but we did it to keep the world free." For a second there it looked like the movie was making a feint to address one of the criticisms of the first Cap movie, which was that it sanitized WWII. But, no, apparently we're to take Steve's word for it. Which makes his later visit to the Smithsonian especially maddening. Because so much happened after he was frozen that would have given the moment a sense of genuine ambiguity. He could have looked at a display about Hiroshima. He could have seen the famous picture of a woman with the skull of a Japanese soldier. But no, he's spared that and gets to see a display about himself, which is precisely what the myth of the Greatest Generation is designed to do--sweep away ambiguity. [And yeah, it's a comic book movie and functions on a symbolic, not a literal, level--but if the movie itself raises these issues, it's fair game]

 

All that said, I genuinely liked a couple of things:

 

1.) The theme of partnership, while undercooked, was good as far as it went. 

 

2.) The NSA subtext was fine, as far as it went. Actually, there's some really very good stuff here:

a] The idea of HYDRA and SHIELD growing up together is actually pretty powerful on a gut level; it feels like it gets the military-intelligence complex since the close of WWII to today in a nutshell. It reinforces the myth of Original Innocence that I'll get to in a moment, but it works just as well without that. And then having the Winter Soldier there--an American who has literally been perverted by Hydra and turned from his original ideals to some darker purpose--well, that actually ties in nicely to the partnership theme: the only chance for Buckey to be saved, if he is to be saved (and it's ambiguous in the movie) is for him to be reminded what he used to fight for: freedom and all that stuff. And that gets me to my next point,

 

b] I loved Cap putting on his original uniform for the finale. It worked on two levels beyond plot: first, it served to re-set the clock for him and Buckey. They didn't go very far with this aspect, but it can't be a mistake that the showdown with B. takes place while Steve is wearing the same uniform B. last saw him in. Second, it functioned as a symbolic denouncement of the HYDRA/SHIELD/NSA, with Cap acting--as he should--as a reminder of national ideals. Now--here's where it gets troublesome again--the ideals Steve represents were always a myth. The WWII era wasn't some purer time when everyone acted for the Greater Good. It wasn't an Original Innocence, from which we have now fallen. But, in the broader scheme of things, I'm perfectly happy to let Cap function symbolically here and not get too crabby about the fact that he's not a real WWII soldier. Of course he isn't.

 

3. There were a couple of familiar faces that I wasn't expecting, and seeing them made me really appreciate how workmanlike-good the movie was in its quieter moments. There's some serious drama to be had in Cap's life in this new world, but it gets passed over too quickly for my taste.

 

Anyway. Perhaps I'm too harsh. Perhaps the fights that see as getting in the way of the interesting stuff are really a different kind of symbolic language that I just don't "get." I'm open to that possibility. I have a hard time reading superhero comics because I want to skip over the carefully-rendered fight scenes and read the dialogue. I did really like the bits I liked, and won't object if someone offers to watch it again. So there's that.

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Thanks, SDG. I agree with you about wanting more of the "human element." And the overdone climax bored me as well, though I can recognize the work it's doing in literalizing the much less action-bound climaxes of, say, JFK (to take one conspiracy-thriller that came to mind). [speaking of which, did it bug anyone else that the conspiracy theory strand was started up by Redford's character? That's not the kind of character who typically occupies that role in the conspiracy narrative, and it made the whole movie feel off-balance.]

 

One other thing [spoilers for both Soldier and Star Trek into Darkness]: 

 

It's interesting to me that the conclusion here is in some ways the precise opposite of the movie's most obvious counterpoint 

Star Trek into Darkness. In Darkness, the corruption of the Federation is exposed and all that, but the only way to find real purity is to escape the civilization entirely. The five-year mission is reconfigured from a hopeful outward-expansion; the only way to escape the [metaphorical] darkness is to go into the [literal] darkness of space. Kirk may mouth brave words in the end about holding on to ideals and so on, but in the end, the only way to be "pure" is to get out of Dodge. There's no other way to escape the pervading rot: Khan and his crew are still locked up somewhere, waiting to be deployed again.

 

In The Winter Soldier, Cap's response is--literally--to blow the whole rotten edifice up. It's essentially a revolutionary text, told in over-the-top comic-book-movie style; unlike Darkness, this is a movie that really does want to believe that holding onto ideals, re-telling ourselves the story of ourselves (Cap back in uniform) can work positive social change--can, perhaps, reverse a process that at this point seems like an historical inevitability: the rise of the security state, etc etc etc. So in some ways the optimism that is missing in Darkness emerges in a new voice in Soldier. The exile into which the protagonists go at the end is a consequence of their actions, but it isn't escape, as is the case in Darkness: Cap is planning on hunting down Buckey and trying to reach him--he's still engaged in the redemptive/revolutionary mission. And with his new, um, wingman he has a support structure, even if SHIELD and all it stood for has been demolished.

 

--and that's not even getting into the second credits tag, where we see Buckey visiting the Captain America display at the Smithsonian. We don't know what's going to happen with the character in the franchise, but here, at least, there seems to be redemptive/revolutionary work going on in B. while he visits a monument to [Captain] American ideals. Redemptive story-telling can be more than person-to-person; it can also take place on the level of institutions: a new myth to replace the compromised myth of SHIELD

 

--the other obvious touchpoint here is The Dark Knight Rises, which played on similar themes and which also ended with escape rather than redemption/revolution--although in that case the whole thing is complicated by Robin

 

EDIT: Woah, did SDG's post just disappear or is it my computer?

Edited by NBooth
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Sorry, NBooth! I replied, then deleted my post within a minute or so because I wanted to add some more substantial comments. I thought I had gotten away clean!

Anyway, like I said, great thoughts, NBooth.
 
I love the idea of Cap cross-examining the myth of the Greatest Generation (the idea of Cap contemplating Hiroshima is brilliant). I would especially love to see that juxtaposed with a deepening of the suggestion, only fleetingly gestured toward here (and in Avengers) of a critique of modernity going beyond the surveillance state, etc.
 
Great, we beat polio and all, but what does a man from the 1940s really think of 21st-century America? Shouldn't he make us at least a little uncomfortable, either with his own archaic attitudes, or with his critique of our post-everything attitudes, or both? 
 
Of course the film doesn't want to actually do or say anything bold or controversial. Captain America was originally created as a patriotic nationalist hero, and he's now being marketed to a global audience. He can't really stand for much of anything.
 
This is an issue going back to the first film, where I wanted Steve to have a back story explaining what America meant to him, and, less crucially, what fighting in World War II meant to him. I wanted to hear about his uncle who had fought in the first World War, his grandfather who fought in the Civil War (maybe he had family members on both sides!), his ancestors who migrated from England in colonial days (Rogers is an English surname).
 
Imagine a prologue with young Steve and his parents at an Armistice Day celebration, and Steve's father teaching him about the difference between true patriotism and false nationalism, about the connection between freedom and duty, etc.
 
Imagine if Steve had a friend who was an immigrant whose family had come to the United States seeking opportunity, working some assembly-line job and loving it, perhaps volunteering with Steve and getting killed in action. 
 
Or imagine if the immigrant friend were Japanese, and to Steve's horror wound up in an internment camp. If it went this route, I would love a scene of Steve visiting his imprisoned friend — and finding him with his love of his new country undimmed.

 

(Hm, that might require dealing with Pearl Harbor. Do we know when Cap went down into the ice in the film? Of course the story I'm contemplating might take more than one film anyway. In any case, Captain America dealing with Pearl Harbor is certainly something that should be done.)

All of this would be an act of cinematic myth-making (and mythbusting), and could help to give the character more gravitas than he has in this incarnation. But Marvel doesn't want mythopoeia, they just want costumed action heroes. Alas.

My 60-second review (which goes into none of the above).  
 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uXgHYpqsRw&index=2&list=PLPu38Ui5dTDINmv5o5eF6Y0GAlkTBqoeP

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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All of this would be an act of cinematic myth-making (and mythbusting), and could help to give the character more gravitas than he has in this incarnation. But Marvel doesn't want mythopoeia, they just want costumed action heroes. Alas.

 

I'd be much happier with their decision if they didn't keep hinting that they wanted to do something more (see also: the Iron Man movies).

 

Great thoughts. I agree that it would be fascinating to see Cap as a real man of the 1940s: square in some ways, regressive in others, startlingly progressive in still others. Kind of like America, actually. The global climate today doesn't permit the jingoistic/nationalist hero, but why can't it permit a symbolic hero who embodies or encounters or works through the tensions that exist in the society? [This could easily go into some very dark places, depending on the screenwriter/director. But there's room for that, too]

 

Then again, Cap isn't based on real WWII, but on its myth: his integrated fighting group may not have existed in real life, but it apparently existed in movies of the period--movies which were self-consciously designed to promote the idea of a multicultural America fighting against a monolithic Germany (segregation at home, segregation on the battlefield, but integration on-screen--another fascinating tension). So, again, we have here America's myth of itself confronting its reality (again, Star Trek into Darkness), and the myth does attempt some sort of critique. But it's buried under the action--for me, at least. 

 

Then again, that's where the Winter Soldier comes in.  Here we have on a person-to-person level a microcosm of the movie's thematic concerns. Since the Soldier has been in operation for the entire period in which Cap was asleep, he's in some ways the unconscious--the libidinal id--of the American Dream. He's the nightmare of Captain America on ice. Not enough is done with the fact that SHIELD/HYDRA is responsible for the Soldier just as it is responsible for Cap's return. It's a cliche at this point to say that the protagonist and the antagonist are two sides of the same person, but in this case I think it's justified: both of these characters are sides of America itself. Equally America, equally struggling to form a vision of what the nation is. And it's fitting that the Soldier's "return" coincides with Captain America's return--as if, after a long nightmare, America itself might wake up and shake off its dark dreams of world domination and return to something else.

 

Memory is key here. The Soldier has his memory erased because he cannot function as the Soldier if that doesn't happen. If the Soldier is Cap's nightmare, then Cap is the Soldier's memory--again, the two of them function symbolically to dramatize the entire period from 1940 to the present. This is all delightfully ambitious, and wrapped up in a candy coating, but the movie's emphasis on action, again, buries it [for me; it's obviously a facet of the genre as it now stands that does little for me, personally, though it might satisfy someone who's more keen on the conventions].

 

I do think that The Winter Soldier is a much better movie after the fact than in the actual watching; like the junk fiction discussed by Thomas Roberts, the movie works best when fitted into the constellation of other similarly-themed flicks: Into Darkness, TDKR, Iron Man, etc--or when brought into contact with larger questions of American mythology. By itself, it ain't much--for all that I just wrote a woefully long post on it. But it really shines when it's set in dialogue.

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It's a cliche at this point to say that the protagonist and the antagonist are two sides of the same person, but in this case I think it's justified: both of these characters are sides of America itself. Equally America, equally struggling to form a vision of what the nation is.

 

You mentioned to me on Twitter you haven't read the comics. Whatever Marvel decides to do in its film universe, this has been, uh, played out quite on-the-nose in the comics.

"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"I want to believe in art-induced epiphanies." -- Josie
"I would never be dismissive of pop entertainment; it's much too serious a matter for that." -- NBooth

"If apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him." -- Josie

"What if--just what if--the very act of storytelling is itself redemptive? What if gathering up the scraps and fragments of a disordered life and binding them between the pages of a book in all of their fragmentary disorder is itself a gambit against that disorder?" -- NBooth

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My wife wanted to see this, so we ended up watching it this evening. Even with low expectations, I was bored to tears. In fact, of all of the Marvel Studios pictures, I might like this one the least. The only time my interest perked up was when Zola was revealed to be living as a computer bank, which was the kind of preposterous comic-book-ish surrealism that I love. Unfortunately, it was over as soon as it began, and we were back to the dreary, explosion-heavy action sequences.

 

The similarities may be unintentional, but there's a lot of overlap with the Metal Gear series here (with the anime-ish weirdness nearly completely absent, unfortunately). The story of Winter Soldier is, in the broad strokes, essentially the story of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of the Patriots, and the Winter Soldier himself is astonishingly close to the presentation of Gray Fox from Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.

Edited by Ryan H.
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This is probably not fair to Ryan, whose post prompted this reply but wasn't the cause of it, but has anyone else but me noticed how often men in A&F posts blame their wives for their presence at movies they don't want to watch? 

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I enjoyed it, mostly.  The action scenes were staged with lots of energy without being chaotic.  The actors clearly enjoyed themselves, and I really enjoy Samuel L. Jackson's and Scarlett Johansson's personas as Nick Fury and Black Widow.  The comparisons to the NSA raise valid points, but I didn't think the film delved into them enough to make an impression one way or the other.

 

My biggest complaints were: I almost instantly predicted Redford's character arc; I didn't think that could have been more obvious had the filmmakers tried, and as portrayed in the film, I thought the Winter Soldier was one of the most boring villains ever.  However, he did make me appreciate just how much I enjoy Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

 

And the first of the post credit scenes had me fairly excited for The Avengers 2.

Edited by Evan C

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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This is probably not fair to Ryan, whose post prompted this reply but wasn't the cause of it, but has anyone else but me noticed how often men in A&F posts blame their wives for their presence at movies they don't want to watch? 

Ken, you might not have meant to put me on the defensive, but, just for the record, I didn't mean to express any degree of displeasure with my wife . I was simply trying to provide some explanation as to why I ended up seeing The Winter Soldier after previously stating that I was unlikely to see it.

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The action scenes were staged with lots of energy without being chaotic.

I found the action scenes pretty dull; they're comprehensible, yes, but they're all pitched at the same unyielding level of intensity, and none of them feature anything resembling an imaginative scenario (though they do manage to do some fun stuff with Cap's shield).
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The only time my interest perked up was when Zola was revealed to be living as a computer bank, which was the kind of preposterous comic-book-ish surrealism that I love. Unfortunately, it was over as soon as it began, and we were back to the dreary, explosion-heavy action sequences.

 

I'm in total agreement.  I was imagining all of the sorts of imaginative things they could have done with a computer-consciousness army.  Maybe some sort of Zola-Modok hybrid or something.  But the screenwriters weren't interested in the film going that way.  They just wanted to get back to the bulletfire.  

 

Incidentally, I wasn't going to reply to this topic further, but my wife wanted me to add more thoughts.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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Good point about the disturbing amount of civilian carnage in these Marvel movies. I began noticing the trend with Avengers, but it's probably been there all along. Part of the comic book origins? I don't know, because it occurs to me that as a non-reader of the comics, I'm in much the same position as a watcher of these Marvel movies as a non-reader of Game of Thrones novels watching the HBO series.

 

That said, I found myself somewhat more engaged by The Winter Soldier than I had been by Thor 2 (?) or Iron Man 3 (?), partly because of the interpersonal character stuff, which worked for me, and also because I was trying to fit it into the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so that was interesting.

 

My nonexistent spouse did not force me to see this film.

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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The action scenes were staged with lots of energy without being chaotic.

I found the action scenes pretty dull; they're comprehensible, yes, but they're all pitched at the same unyielding level of intensity, and none of them feature anything resembling an imaginative scenario (though they do manage to do some fun stuff with Cap's shield).

I won't defend the film in that regard, the action scenes were pretty generic.  However, the scenes had a clear definitive choreography and a bit of weight regarding the outcome.  Which is more than I can say for the I-can-punch-you-through-more-buildings-than-you-can-punch-me stupidity that nearly bored me to sleep in Man of Steel.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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The only time my interest perked up was when Zola was revealed to be living as a computer bank, which was the kind of preposterous comic-book-ish surrealism that I love. Unfortunately, it was over as soon as it began, and we were back to the dreary, explosion-heavy action sequences.

I'm in total agreement. I was imagining all of the sorts of imaginative things they could have done with a computer-consciousness army. Maybe some sort of Zola-Modok hybrid or something. But the screenwriters weren't interested in the film going that way. They just wanted to get back to the bulletfire.
Oh man, if MODOK had showed up, everything would be forgiven.
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I'm in the Ryan and Russ camp about the Zola-consciousness being the high point. I'm a comic nerd forever though, and I forgive these Marvel films harder than any films in history. It's just so much easier to suspend your disbelief when there's a super-hero running around in tights, and you love him anyway.

I had a ball with the new Cap. (But I liked the new Thor even better, for its fun not only with Loki, but with the Portman/Thor romance, too.)

It was nice, too, that with the new Thor, they were at least blowing stuff up on another planet. I agree that the large-scale stuff is feeling a little un-creative.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 3 months later...

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 weeks later...

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 weeks later...

My latest for Crux, on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Man of Steel and the late Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott.

 

Less than two months ago, the British Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott died after a lengthy battle with cancer. In the weeks prior to his death, his name became improbably entangled in a viral Twitter storm that made international news in connection with the superhero movie “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” now available on home video…

 

What did Caldecott as a Catholic writer see in superheroes? Last year, in one of his final essays, he wrote about Superman and the gritty 2013 reboot “Man of Steel” — a movie that, for what it’s worth, he admired more than many critics and viewers, including me…

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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  • 1 month later...

Turns out that U.S. spy agencies used 1,000 Nazis during the Cold War.

 

Evidence of the government’s links to Nazi spies began emerging publicly in the 1970s. But thousands of records from declassified files, Freedom of Information Act requests and other sources, together with interviews with scores of current and former government officials, show that the government’s recruitment of Nazis ran far deeper than previously known and that officials sought to conceal those ties for at least a half-century after the war.
 
In 1980, F.B.I. officials refused to tell even the Justice Department’s own Nazi hunters what they knew about 16 suspected Nazis living in the United States.
 
Some spies for the United States had worked at the highest levels for the Nazis.
 
One SS officer, Otto von Bolschwing, was a mentor and top aide to Adolf Eichmann, architect of the “Final Solution,” and wrote policy papers on how to terrorize Jews.

 

Edited by NBooth
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  • 2 months later...

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 1 year later...

To quote something I wrote on Facebook the other day:

I remember liking Captain America: The Winter Soldier well enough when it came out two years ago, and I have the vague impression it's one of the better-regarded Marvel films, but last night I watched it again on Netflix and... it tired me out. *Way* too much gunfire. *Way* too many people being killed. *Way* too many plot holes. *Way* too many grand this-is-the-end gestures that got undone (either in this film or in one of the films that have come out since then). The fact that people and objects and organizations don't stay dead or lost even when the film makes killing or losing them look like a Big Deal really stands out to me now that I've been reading The Prydain Chronicles to my kids, because in those books every loss is utterly permanent and all the more deeply felt because of it.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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There are a handful of moments where Winter Soldier comes together, but it's mostly a cacophonous bore: a lot of punch-smash-punch-smash shot with little formal skill or imagination. More than anything, it's the Russos' quasi-Bourne aesthetic that drives me nuts and saps all the life out of the thing.

Still, Marvel fans seem to love it. I see endless gushing about it in more fanboy-ish corners of the web.

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