I don’t know about you guys, but I was pretty shocked at the quality of film I got when I sat down to watch the sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger. Not only is Steve Rogers a throwback white bread clean moral compass kind of character along the lines of Superman –which is to say kind of boring personalitywise- but he’s not a very high-powered superhero, doesn’t have a memorable rogue’s gallery, and is more of a heroic Marvel Universe figurehead than its coolest character. A good guy to have on your team, but not usually the star of the show. And with untested television directors Joe and Anthony Russo, the odds of an outstanding sequel weren’t great.
On top of the monumental challenge of making a memorable sequel to the least memorable film in Phase One of Marvel’s cinematic universe, in his first two appearances as the character, Chris Evans never really captured the essence of what makes Cap a force to be reckoned with in the comics. In my opinion Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the shakiest proposition Marvel Studios had yet made and it paid off big time, yielding what I consider to be the first solo Marvel outing to compare to the first Iron Man.
In fact, it paid off so big that I got the idea in my head to compare it to what many people consider the heavyweight champion of the superhero film crop: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; another sequel that outclassed its predecessor in most peoples’ minds and attempted to elevate the genre into something more than a shallow popcorn entertainment affair by utilizing modern social and political themes into the story. But which movie implemented its grown-up ideas more effectively?
This is not only another entry in an epic history of Marvel vs. DC battles, but it’s between two of the most closely-matched characters from those universes. On top of that, the two films end up on somewhat opposing sides of the political spectrum. This gives the two opposing films an intriguing dynamic and I think it’s worth exploring.
The rain is maybe a bit much, yeah?
The knee-jerk reaction is to immediately give it to the Bat. Nolan may be dumbing himself down as the money rolls in, but the man has visual panache coming out of most every frame of his work. Enough of it that you easily forget the ridiculous site of a vehicle flying from rooftop to rooftop or Batman on a motorcycle blowing up cars in a parking garage with missiles just because, at least.
Plus, Batman movies are dark and edgy and gritty and black…just like the pit of my soul [tries to keep straight face]. They bring out our inner emo kid. Dark just equals cool, regardless of what actually happens or is said onscreen. How can a movie that takes place mostly in daylight compare to all that cool-looking blackness?
Well, like I said before, Evans really nailed the character this time out. On the other hand I would say that Bale never really captured Batman. If you want to spend a few years of your life attempting to catalogue the number of times Bale’s attempted death metal voice has been mocked across all forms of media, feel free to try. And in terms of killer action scenes…well, it’s not even a fair contest.
I’m not dogging The Dark Knight here as I’m on record as thinking it was pretty awesome overall, but I am knocking it down a peg to put us on even footing because I feel like people have subliminally overestimated its virtues largely due to its stylish aesthetics along with the media frenzy surrounding the late Heath Ledger’s performance and accordingly act as though no other comic book film could ever compare. It’s a theory that doesn’t necessarily stand up well to testing once you get past associated franchise, company, and celebrity fanboyism. Sorry, Bats, but you’ll receive no Nolan bump in this article.
“Are you not aware that I get to tell these guys what to do? Watch your back, Mr. Verboon.”
What really drew my attention to the connection between the two films was their use of real world themes and issues. This is not exactly a new thing in fiction, but it’s still fairly unusual in superhero movies, which usually prefer to take their character themes from the source material. Keeping real world concerns out of it keeps the audience nice and comfortable. Both The Dark Knight and The Winter Soldier took a look at an issue that has flared up in recent years: illegal surveillance.
The Dark Knight explored this concept during the climax wherein Batman has to find the Joker before he does bad stuff so he utilizes sci-fi gobbledygook involving cell phones to monitor the entire city and find the one bad guy pronto. Lucius Fox presents the vague counter-argument that nobody should have that kind of power, but Bats uses it anyways to save the day and then grudgingly allows Fox to destroy it when he threatens to quit making all of his gadgets for him.
It’s interesting that Nolan chose this issue when he did as he was well ahead of the curve. This has only recently become a political hot button after our government was found to be utilizing similar ideas to spy on the populace. Nonetheless, he presented both sides of an argument, although neither was particularly compelling and it’s pretty clear that there wasn’t a major amount of vested interest in the topic.
Seeing that Batman saved the day using illegal civilian surveillance and was quite gung-ho about it, the conclusion seemed to be yes, Batman should totally be able to spy on everybody at once. He’s the Randian hero out to save us from ourselves and he’s special. He’s Batman, damn it! But the film was unwilling to really commit to the premise and took the easy way out rather than pursue the issue. In the next film, Nolan pushed his political views to pretty loopy extremes, but with The Dark Knight he made an interesting statement, even if he was unwilling to really sell it.
What is going on with Fury’s expression there?
On the other hand, Captain America: The Winter Soldier left no doubt about where it stood and produced possibly the most compelling argument I’ve seen on film as to why. Whereas The Dark Knight demanded we acknowledge that as long as it’s Batman and it’s to stop a supervillain plot happening this instant, we should give up on our rights to privacy, The Winter Soldier went on to show that when such technology is allowed to be used at all, the odds of it always staying in the right hands is pretty slim and that the right hands are likely to realize that fact. Hence the illegality.
In The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury and SHIELD develop some gobbledygook of their own to scan for individuals who pose potential threats and neutralize them. This combines aspects of the US governments’ current surveillance of its citizens and throws in a little Minority Report for good measure. The kneejerk defense of this is that if you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about, freedoms be damned. We’re the good guys! NINE ELEVEN!
At this point, Cap has a choice to make. His America wouldn’t tolerate such a grievous breach of the very principles it was founded on, but Fury and SHIELD are about the only things he has in this new world, having missed out on his entire lifetime after being frozen during WWII. Thankfully, the bad guys step in to explicitly iterate exactly why this sort of thing can’t be allowed and all of the characters we like get to be on the same team after all. Yay! Even so, Fury’s anecdote about his grandfather carrying a gun through his neighborhood to dissuade would-be muggers was actually a more relevant, effective, and personal argument in favor than we saw from Batman’s end.
Muggers cross the street to avoid this BAMF.
So which middle film of their respective trilogies did it better? Although The Dark Knight had the good sense to present both sides of the argument briefly and leave it mostly up the audience to decide where they stood, one could argue that this decision was more of a copout than anything; a way to appeal to both sides at once without offending either. Personally, I’m more of a “pick a side and then present a conclusive supporting argument if you can” kind of guy when it comes to art, but I respect that Nolan didn’t allow it to take over the movie. More screen time for Ledger.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier chose instead to make a definitive statement on the topic; one that is pretty difficult to counter. Again, they didn’t allow it to take over the entire film, but at the same time the plot of the film hinges so strongly on the concept that it’s impossible to extricate it. In The Dark Knight you could easily have removed that entire aspect without really changing the story much or even substantially shortening the film, making it seem almost tacked on as an afterthought. In terms of successfully integrating modern political themes into the story, you’ve got to give it to the Captain.
The Dark Knight did an amazing job portraying the Joker as a symbol of anarchy incarnate; the physical embodiment of mankind’s unrestrained twisted destructive impulses, providing the perfect opposite number to contrast against Batman as the bringer of order. But what a lot of people will miss is the opposing contrast between order and chaos’ respective evil and good twins: control and freedom.
The Winter Soldier may not have the charisma of a Joker, but as a symbol of a man who is stripped of his freedom and left entirely at the mercy of authority, he is a perfect opposition. Cap is a man free to think for himself and act according to his own values and nobody else’s, and he accomplished great things that way. The Winter Soldier can only accomplish what he’s ordered to do with no control over who is giving the orders, again offering a fascinating contrast to The Dark Knight.
The concept that “freedom isn’t free” is usually used in the media to imply that if we stop dropping bombs on third world children or sending our own young men and women into hell holes to get shot at, we’ll be overrun with…unfreedom, I guess? The way I personally interpret that phrase is that if you want freedom, the price is accepting that it not only gives good people freedom to do good things, but bad people freedom to do bad things as well. Is living every day in a police state worth the cost of potentially stopping an occasional heinous act? It’s up to you in the end, but I’m of the opinion that there is a right and wrong answer.
I love that superhero movies have gotten to the point where they are comfortably utilizing the kinds of themes that used to be reserved for conceptual science fiction stories. It both facilitates discussion of real life issues and elevates the genre from popcorn entertainment to blur the lines of legitimate art. You can get your butt-kicking action and iconic mythical heroes along with your socially relevant commentary all in the same place. That’s a win for me.
It’s also interesting to me that a film like The Winter Soldier can integrate a concept like this into its story as well as it did and not get nearly as much praise for it as a film that did it in a significantly clumsier manner and is widely considered the most artistic superhero film ever made. Objectively comparing story elements from both films seems to bear out that Captain America’s sequel was not only better put together, but better represented the hero’s themes and source material.
There’s no doubt that Ledger’s Joker is better than any performance yet seen in a Marvel film (with respect to RDJ), but in terms of constructing and implementing a story onscreen, I think that this latest film has been sorely underrated, particularly considering it was directed by two first-timers best known for their work on Community. Where’s the love?
Paid critics be damned, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily one of the best put-together superhero films ever made from where I’m sitting. Individual aspects may not measure up to similar aspects of other films, but in terms of the total package, it’s threatening perfection. There’s room for improvement for sure, but it’s still a sterling example of where the genre is and should be going. That’s pretty much what I said about The Dark Knight six years prior so it’s about time Marvel tried their big boy pants on too.
Speaking of which, it’s about time the Marvel ladies got their due. Bring on the Black Widow!