Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Calling Stupid On Winter Soldier

I've been reading reviews of Winter Soldier this morning (I watched it last night for the first time) and I've only found two that straight out call it dumb.  Here's one.  Here's another.  I agree.  It is dumb.  Prometheus levels of dumb.  But it has a complicated plot and it and touches on issues that are important to people (drone attacks, government surveillance, freedom, patriotism, friendship and even romance), so I can understand why less critical audiences might think it makes more sense than it actually does.

Not that it has to make sense.  You can enjoy it just for the spectacle.  I didn't.  I thought the first half-hour was mediocre and the rest went from bad to worse.  There wasn't much in terms of memorable action sequences and the characters are dull.  The only interesting character in the film is Sam Wilson/Falcon, but even his character ends up disappointingly.  That's my opinion, anyway, but who cares?  I don't want to judge the movie as a whole and I don't want to discuss personal tastes.  I want to discuss why I think the movie does not have an intelligent plot.  I also think it is very sexist and a bit racist, too, which I'll discuss as well.  (Oh, and see the update, where I discuss the horrifying hypocrisy in the movie's political message.)

First, the plot.  I recommend reading both of the reviews I linked to earlier.  In addition to the points they make, here's what bothered me most about the plot.

1. Project Insight involves three large "helicarriers" (floating drone warships, basically) which are coordinated and can take out something like a million targets at once.  These three helicarriers are supposed to be able to neutralize all threats all over the world.  Somehow.  Seriously, how?  Their inauguration is supposed to be a mass slaughter of close to a million people.  What is supposed to happen next?  The world will sit back and watch as those three weapons of mass destruction float from city to city, killing millions of people?  This could not possibly turn out well for HYDRA, or even come close to realizing Pierce's ultimate plans.  Project Insight is a stupid, stupid project.

2. Black Widow lifts intelligence from a ship and stores it on a MacGuffin--that is, an over-sized yet futuristic-looking pen drive.  Nick Fury cannot access the information on the drive, which raises the question:  How did Black Widow access it on the ship?

3.  Fury cannot access the information for mysterious reasons, so he tells Pierce (Robert Redford) that he wants to hold off on launching Project Insight.  Fury thinks there is something up at SHIELD and that Project Insight might be compromised.  So what does he do?  He tells the head of that project that he is concerned about it.  Remember, just a few minutes before, we got a long speech about how Fury doesn't trust anyone.  Yet, he trusts Pierce enough to let him know he's suspicious about Insight.

4. Why try to kill Fury when he is in his super car?  Why not have a sniper shoot him before he gets in the car?

5.  Fury manages to escape from the Winter Soldier because he has a nifty device that can burn holes in the ground.  Where do those holes lead?  Why doesn't the Winter Soldier follow Fury into the hole?  This isn't the last time people escape certain doom by drilling a hole in the ground.  These holes seem nothing like holes and everything like magical transportation devices.

6.  Fury goes to Captain America's apartment, knows it is bugged, but still talks.  Openly.  About the fact that he needs to stay there.  Sure, he doesn't mention the assassination attempt (though you would think every superhero would have heard about it already, since it devastated a portion of the city in broad daylight.)  But he knowingly announces to SHIELD, which he does not trust, that he is at Captain America's apartment.  Then he stands up.  Of course he's going to get shot!

7.  Let's get back to that pen drive.  Captain America hides it in a vending machine, where it is plainly visible--and where it will become even more visible if people buy one or two particular candy bars.

8.  Somehow, Black Widow (a hacker? at an Apple store???) manages to determine where the data on the drive was created. It leads them to Zola, who is "living" underneath an abandoned bunker in an abandoned military facility.  Nobody thought it might be important to, I don't know, guard Zola?  Why did HYDRA leave him for dead?

9.  Why was Zola still on that tape?  Okay, let's say a room full of tape machines could store Zola's mind. Unlikely, but okay.  All the information on that tape could have been transferred to a hand-held digital computer.  The tape could have been destroyed, or put into storage, and Zola would have been much more hi-tech.  I guess HYDRA didn't trust Zola, or didn't want him involved with HYDRA anymore.  In that case, why keep him connected to HYDRA's network?  And we know Zola is tapped into HYDRA's network, because he knows the ballistic missile is coming to kill them all.

10. Wait, what?  HYDRA destroys Zola in order to kill Captain American and Black Widow?  Like that was their best option?  And Zola actually tells them the missile is coming, giving them time to prepare and, ultimately, survive?

11.  Why does the Winter Soldier speak Russian (and with a Russian accent) up until he takes his mask off, at which point (and for the remainer of the film) he speaks English with an American accent?

12.  At the beginning of the film, Captain America has a fist fight with Batroc the Leaper, who seems impossibly strong and extremely difficult to kill, or even seriously injure.  Batroc is not supposed to have superhuman strength or powers, so how is this supposed to make sense?

13.  Pierce tries to kill Captain America because he thinks Captain America is lying about Fury. That's just a suspicion, though, and not a good reason to try to assassinate one of his strongest assets.

14.  There is surely a better way to kill Captain America than by cramming a bunch of thugs in a glass elevator with him.  Again, sniper, anyone?  Or poison?  Or just wait until Project Insight is up and running and use the helicarriers!  The elevator idea was almost as stupid as Project Insight itself.

15.  When the good superheroes finally get control of the three helicarriers, why do they have them shoot each other out of the sky?  How many lives did they endanger?  Three helicarriers exploding directly above a city center?  Seriously?

16.  Back to the pen drive again.  So we eventually find out that Fury had hired Batroc to hijack that ship.  And then had Black Widow, Captain America and Rumlow stop them, giving Black Widow the chance to access the data on the computer.  Why was the ship's computer so important?  More importantly, why not have one of the hijackers get the data for him?  Fury puts lives in danger by hijacking the ship, and then puts more lives in danger to have people fight the people he hired to hijack the ship just to get data which the hijackers could have easily gotten?  Ugh.  (Maybe Fury didn't really have the ship hijacked?  In that case, who did and why?  Remember, a high-ranking HYDRA agent was among the captives, and at least one high-ranking HYDRA agent was among the rescuers.)

17.  Here is a list of more plot holes.  Not all of them are legitimate plot holes, but several are good.  In particular, check out 3, 4, 8, 14-18, 20, 24, and 28/29.

The only female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Black Widow, and she is only an almost-superhero.  She doesn't have any superpowers to speak of. She's just a highly trained soldier and spy.  (In The Avengers she had an almost-super ability to manipulate people into giving up secret information, but that almost-super ability is nowhere present in Winter Soldier.)  The bigger problem is that Black Widow can't even have a leading role in a superhero movie without playing second fiddle to a male lead.  And, of course, there has to be a strong romantic element, too, or else audiences might get uncomfortable.  Yes, there is an unspoken attraction between her and Captain America.  There is romantic tension and even emotional intimacy between them.  She kisses him more than once:  the first time, he slyly admits to being aroused; the second time, she is clearly emotionally vulnerable.  Also, she cares more about hooking him up with her friend than almost anything else.  She repeatedly talks about it in the middle of a highly dangerous mission at the beginning of the film and then brings it up again at the end of the film.

Black Widow is the only even partially-developed female character in the film.  Of the other four female characters, Agent Hill is the only one necessary to the plot, and she has no personality to speak of at all.  The other two named female characters (Peggy and Kate) are only there because they are past or potential love interests for Captain America.  The fifth and nameless female character is one of the heads of SHIELD, and she disappears during the final act of the film without any explanation.

Finally, the film does not pass the Bechdel test.  It has only one scene where two women talk to each other:  Hill and Black Widow talk for all of five senconds as they watch doctors operate on Nick Fury.  However, they are only talking because they are concerned with Fury's fate, and they are only talking about the investigation into who shot him.  So, while the film does clearly pass the first part of the test (there rae at least two named women in the film), it only barely, by a tiny thread, passes the second part of the test (two women in the film do talk to each other, but only two women, and they do so for all of five seconds).  Winter Soldier does not pass the third part of the test, since the two women are talking about what happened to a man.

Nick Fury still hasn't been given a chance to show he is as much of a badass as he appears to be.  So far, he is all talk and no action. In all nine of the recent Marvel movies, why can't Nick Fury play a substantial role in the action and have a well-developed character?  His character is barely developed in this film.  He is more of a plot device than anything else.  The only character development Fury gets here is that he tells a story about his grandfather the elevator operator.  Fury has got to be over 40, which means his character was born before 1974.  His grandfather would have grown up well before the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and would have experienced Jim Crow first hand.  That might seem like an irrelevant historical detail, but consider it in context.  The writers could have given Fury a much more racially sensitive story about his grandfather.  Instead, he tells of his grandfather the badass who carried a loaded gun with him on his way home from work every day.  This gives heritage to Nick Fury's own badass persona, but it is stereotypical gangsta.  (See my Update 2 below for more on the film's gangsta narrative.)  This is arguably racist, and certainly racially insensitive.

Then there is Falcon, who describes himself as a slower version of Captain America.  He says, and I quote, "I do what he does, only slower."  As it turns out, Falcon does not think for himself.  The only decision he ever makes in the movie is to be loyal to Captain America.  This is a man who left the military and found a meaningful life helping others overcome personal tragedy and loss.  He drops all that, he says, because he can help Captain America.  I guess no deeper motivation than that is necessary.  There's also the fact that, like Black Widow and Nick Fury, Falcon is an almost-superhero.  He is just a highly trained soldier who knows how to use some top-secret gear.  Presumably other soldiers were trained, and could easily be trained, to do the same thing.  Oh, and it turns out Falcon is not going to appear in the next Avengers movie.

Looking at the non-white and non-male characters in this film, I would not say the film does a good job of diversification.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is still extremely white and extremely male. Fortunately, the next Avengers movie will have a stronger female presence and Guardians of the Galaxy looks significantly more diverse in all respects.  As for more intelligent plots and characters, however, I'm not holding my breath.

Update:  I found another review which calls stupid on the movie.  This one has some interesting observations about the movie's racism and also gets into the hypocrisy of the movie's political message.  I was originally going to write at length about that, too, but my thoughts got too complicated and long-winded.  My basic problem is this:

The movie ends with the "good" superheroes taking orders from Captain America ("Captain's orders!") and then claiming immunity from the criminal justice system.  What is the justification?  Fear.  The American people need Captain America to be above the law, like a fascist dictator, making rash decisions, killing people, endangering countless other lives, stealing military secrets and weapons, and undermining governmental agencies, because:  fear.  That is the line that Black Widow sells.  I'm not saying Captain America or any of them deserve to go to prison, but that is something the criminal justice system is there to determine.  The superheroes are using the same logic that Alexander Pierce used, and which they killed him for.

Update2:  I've transcribed the elevator scene where Fury gives his grandfather monologue:

Captain America (C) and Fury (F) are in the elevator and F has just given C access to Project Insight.  They're riding down towards the hellicarriers.

C: You know, they used to play music.

F: Yeah.  My grandfather operated one of these things for 40 years.  My granddad worked in a nice building, got good tips. He walked home every night, a roll of ones stuffed in his lunch bag.  He’d say hi.  People would say hi back.  Time went on.  Neighborhood got rougher. He’d say hi, they’d say, “keep on steppin.”  Granddad got to grippin’ that lunchbag a little tighter.

C:  Did he ever get mugged?

F:  [laughs] Every week some punk would say, “What’s in the bag?!”

C:  What’d he do?

F: He’d show’em! A bunch of crumpled ones, and a loaded .22 Magnum.  [pause] Granddad loved people.  But he didn’t trust’em very much.

They see the hellicariers.

F: Yeah, I know.  They’re a little bit bigger than a .22.


I'd forgotten that the hellicarriers were directly compared to the guns in the grandfather narrative.  The idea is that, just as a world-weary black man in the ghetto needs guns to keep his hard-earned money, SHIELD needs hellicarriers to protect the good, honest people of the world from evil.  Nick Fury isn't motivated by a desire to fight the racism that his grandfather faced at the hands of white people.  He doesn't even acknowledge that.  Instead, he's motivated by a desire to keep what's his from the violent hands of poor, black hoodlums.  He's a gangsta out to fight gangstas.