Movie of the Month: Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and CC watch Belizaire the Cajun (1986).

Britnee: My family has been living along Bayou Lafourche since the Acadian Expulsion (1755-1763), which was a time during the Seven Years’ War when the British forced the Acadians out of what is now modern day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Isle. They were put on nasty old ships and landed in Southern Louisiana. Some of my relatives were even born on those migrant ships! Of course, there’s so much to Acadian Expulsion that I’m not mentioning here, but I don’t want this to turn into a history paper. As the Acadian’s settled in Southern Louisiana, they became known as the Cajuns. Cajun life was and still is so much different than any other culture in the United States. Unfortunately, there aren’t many films that offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be Cajun. The only film that I believe does an exceptional job of grasping the essence of Cajun life is 1986’s Belizaire the Cajun. The film’s director, Glen Pitre, is from Down the Bayou (Cut Off to be exact), and his ancestral background is similar to mine. He has a true understanding of the Cajun way of life, and it shines through every second of Belizaire.

I’m so glad that I got to share this film with the Swampflix crew because it’s such an important film for folks from Down the Bayou. I used to rent it from my local library when I was a kid, and all my family talked about it like it was the best movie on Earth. Watching it recently made me realize that Cajuns have really never changed. We are still in tune with nature, and nothing in the world means more to us than our family, friends, and faith. Also, I hate wearing shoes more than anything, so it was nice to see the majority of the cast shoe-less and walking around without a care in the world.

The main character, Belizaire (Armand Assante), is such a likeable guy. He’s a goofball with a big heart, and you can’t help but root for him. Brandon, what are your thoughts on Belizaire? Would you want him to be in your inner circle or would you stay as far away from him as possible?

Brandon: The most immediately pleasing aspect of this movie for me was the tagline that accompanied its 25th Anniversary re-release. The posters and trailers for that 2011 reissue all boast that Belizaire the Cajun is “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!,” which is an amusing claim, but a bold one. I couldn’t shake this question from my head while watching the film, thanks to that marketing, and now I’m hung up on it all over again thanks to Britnee’s prompt: Is Belizaire cool? Sure, he’s likeable and we want him to succeed as the titular hero of the picture, but is he cool? Thankfully, the answer is yes . . . mostly.

The only obstacles that hold Belizaire back from being 100% cool are a result of the film’s rural 19th Century setting. We’re introduced to him in the opening scene at his nerdiest: negotiating with a priest about how many prayers he’s assigned to say as penance for the day’s confession of sins, bargaining to lower the number to loosen up some free time. This may be the lapsed Catholic in me talking, but I would not personally rate Christian Humor anywhere near the leather jackets & switchblades end of the cool scale, even if religious faith comes standard with his community & era. What’s even less cool is Belizaire’s persistence in pursuing his love interest: a married woman who has shot him down hundreds of times without him ever taking the hint. I don’t want to hold this fictional 19th Century courtship up to a 2010s standard, but there’s something severely uncool about Belizaire continually stirring up shit in an already volatile marriage out of boredom & lust, especially since the woman who repeatedly rejects him expresses fear that her husband will physically retaliate against the both of them whether or not their flirtations are consummated.

Pretty much everything else about Belizaire is cool as fuck, though. He’s a bearded apothecary herbalist who looks like he stepped off the front cover of a paperback romance novel. He plays accordion in the most popular band at the local fais do-do. He’s extemely loyal to his community, to the point where he’ll stand trial for crimes he did not commit just to buy his innocently accused friends some time to escape. His active resistance against the invading, wealthy Anglophones who aim to evict his people from Louisiana mostly involves good-natured pranks & Old Hollywood swashbuckling – to the point where he’s swinging Tarzan-style from his own execution noose to save innocent lives from danger. I’m not sure the movie that contains him is something I’d call “cool” on its own merits; its production style largely feels reminiscent of cheap TV costume dramas like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. However, anyone in any era would feel safer & cooler having a Belizaire in their inner circle.

If we accept that Belizaire is cool, then the only remaining question raised by that tagline is whether or not the world knows about him. Belizaire the Cajun cannot be “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!” if it never truly reached the outside world. Britnee has indicated that the film has a special place in the heart of folks Down the Bayou, but I have less of a sense of whether it truly resonated elsewhere. I know it experienced some financial backing & signal boosting from celebrities (Robert Redford & Robert Duvall) and film festivals (Sundance & Cannes), but that’s about all I know. CC, do you get the sense that Belizaire the Cajun reached enough people to “teach the world” anything? Is this film’s legacy more detectable as a global educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture or as a rare glimpse of local representation on the big screen?

CC: I did some very informal polling and very light research so I can say with absolute[ly no] authority that while Belizaire the Cajun certainly had an impact on the Cajun French community that still lived “down the bayou” and participated in the filmmaking process, I don’t think it had a lasting cultural impact outside of Louisiana. It’s still fondly remembered by the folks of Cote Blanche and, based on Britnee’s love for the film, is still being passed down to the next generation of proud Cajuns. However, other than a few passing remarks in (mostly local) publications citing it as part of the Cajun cultural wave that “swamped” America in the 1980s (along with Zydeco music and the food of Paul Prudhomme), it seems to have mostly faded from the public consciousness after 1990. Even in contemporary reviews that were not particularly kind to Belizaire, the traditional Zydeco and Cajun music of Michael Doucet was always given a positive nod. In fact, the only awards attention this film received in the United States was a nomination for the 1987 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Cajun food and music were essential to the sudden national interest in the regions culture in the 1980s. Belizaire the Cajun seemed to be an attempt to add filmmaking to that gumbo, but the Cajun Cinema concept never really took off the way it did in other art forms.

Even if the rest of the world didn’t “get” Belizaire, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Glen Pitre began his career making documentaries and “Gumbo Westerns” in Cajun French, filmed on location, with local volunteers as his cast and crew. It was For Us By Us situation. Belizaire was an ambitious and risky attempt to transcend his niche as a foreign-language filmmaker working in America. Even with the guidance and mentorship of the Sundance Institute, Pitre didn’t “go Hollywood;” he continued to rely on his community to help him create a film that would both celebrate their culture as it was and introduce it to the rest of the country. Belizaire definitely falls into the category of celebration of cultural representation more so than educational tool.

One of the national newspaper reviews I read in preparation for my response was confused about a major conflict between the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns. To them it seemed very abrupt, like the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns had lived side by side and all of a sudden the Americans turned on the Cajuns. Why exactly did the Anglo-Americans seemed so intent on taking the Cajun land? Did they hate them for being Catholic? Were they greedy for land? Were they just plain evil? The answer seemed pretty straightforward to me as someone who’s lived here and knows the history, so I suspect outside reviewers were only confused because they lacked proper context. Boomer, was the motivation for the conflict confusing to you, as a fellow local? Did the movie do a good enough job explaining the larger clash between the Cajuns and the Anglo-Americans before getting into the specifics of Belizaire’s own personal conflicts?

Boomer: Although I grew up in Louisiana and took the Louisiana History class that I assume everybody did when they were in eighth grade, that course’s coverage of Cajun history was pretty underdeveloped. Even with regards to this film that taught “the world,” when I called my local video store, it was still only available on VHS, from Key Video of all companies, essentially locking it away in a format that only we diehards could access, like some kind of arcane knowledge. I don’t really think that any more information than what’s provided is needed to understand the film, since anyone living in 2019 who paid attention to any history class at any point in their lives with a textbook that wasn’t written by Rupert Murdoch knows that the narrative of Western history is invade, kill, and overtake, endlessly, as far as our species has maintained records. That contemporary reviews seemed to need more context than this really only highlights how recently any awareness of historical atrocities has penetrated the mainstream. That being said, it’s not terribly surprising that they may have been confused, as I was, by the focus on anti-Cajun vigilantism in a vacuum. Halfway through the film, when we see Matt’s family’s plantation–and black people onscreen–for the first time, I asked myself what year this was again (1854) and immediately thought “Those are slaves.” It may be that the film critics who came before us thought it was unusual that this went completely unremarked upon when the film’s sympathies lie so firmly with the displaced Cajuns that there’s none to spare for anyone else suffering under Anglos.

I found myself charmed by this one in a way I wasn’t expecting. I loved that Belizaire was essentially a larger-than-life mythical figure who wanders around the swampside doling out folk wisdom and folk medicine at the same time, pulling a reverse Moses (“Let my people stay”) with the local government on behalf of his fellows in diaspora, performing a Samsonian labor by using his ball and chain to break out of jail, and his Messianic archetypicality is solidified when he spends the film’s finale being (not quite) executed between two real criminals, one of whom even accepts his shenanigans. All that’s missing is the cry of “Give us Barabbas!” Britnee, do you see these themes as well, or am I only in a Biblical mood because, as of the time of this writing, it’s Easter weekend?

Britnee: I think you’re on to something with this Biblical connection. Belizaire is a traiteur, which is essentially a faith healer. Traiteurs use their gifts from God to perform miracles and can cure just about anything with prayer and a little help from Mother Nature. My granny actually used to bring my dad and his siblings to one when they were kids! Belizaire is basically Swamp Jesus. Other than performing “miracles,” some of his other Christ-like qualities include his willingness to sacrifice his life to bring peace to his community and his attempts to use reasoning to avoid violence (for the most part). Also, he has the look of Jesus down to a T with his long brown locks, facial hair, loose fitting clothes, and dirty bare feet. It’s obvious that Pitre had Jesus in mind when creating Belizaire’s character.

Something that I wanted to touch on with Belizaire is the murder mystery that’s thrown in the latter half of the film. I think it’s incorporated well and doesn’t disturb the film’s flow, but it’s still pretty surprising as the beginning of the film is more of a historical drama/love story. Brandon, what are your thoughts on the whodunit within Belizaire? Did you like how the film was a mix of genres or was it too much for one movie?

Brandon: Based on the opening text scrawl that quickly explains the historical context for Cajuns (once again) being evicted from their lands and the film’s first-act depictions of that very conflict, I did not at all expect this to turn into a murder mystery. I suppose the more expected route would be for Belizaire and his romantic rival to gradually come to an understanding that unites the two opposed communities and saves the Cajuns from being pushed into Texas, tidily resolving the conflict forever. That more traditional plot would have ensured that this film would be a VHS-era classroom standard throughout Louisiana, an educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture that doesn’t vilify Anglos in the process. Instead, we suffer through a shockingly violent whipping, a subsequent murder seemingly committed in retaliation, and a death-row criminal trial where the accused repeatedly escapes imprisonment to prove his innocence and expose the true killer. I don’t know that the murder-mystery plot was my favorite aspect of Belizaire the Cajun, mostly because it’s clear who the killer is long before their identity is revealed. I do love that the film was able to surprise me with that genre shift, though, since I felt like I already could see the pattern it was going to follow ten minutes into its story only to be proven very, very wrong. It also helped the picture feel like a legitimate Hollywood production on a scale far above its locally-funded indie cinema budget, especially in moments where Belizaire is allowed to attempt some swashbuckling stunts (punching his rivals, jumping off of buildings, swinging Tarzan-style from his own noose, etc.). It’s the aspect of the film that most makes it feel like a major motion picture instead of a classroom teaching tool and, thus, it’s the one that most subverted my expectations.

As strange as the introduction of a murder mystery halfway into the film feels from a narrative structure standpoint, the resolution to that mystery is almost even more unexpected. Belizaire reveals the true killer to his community and their oppressors from the vantage point of his own execution platform the very minute he’s meant to be hanged. It’s a lengthy, dialogue-heavy climax that plays directly into Cajun superstitions about gris-gris in a fascinating way, while also working hard to tidy up every disparate subplot in a single maneuver. CC, was the execution sequence a satisfying conclusion to this story for you? What did you think of the tactic of allowing Belizaire to hold court for a lengthy period of time as a climax to this picture?

CC: That third act, woof. I think that climactic scene took way, way, waaaaay too long to play out. Belizaire insists on executing his entire last will and testament at his actual execution. The scene grows comically and exasperatingly long as he hands out each and every bottle of medicine, bundle of herbs, and pinch of dirt he can conjure up before building to his big finale. Then, at his own hanging, in front of each and every gathered individual of the community, after giving each person a gift, after they begin to chant that they love him and don’t want him to go, he starts to build the case that perhaps he was not the murderer after all. His method for circumventing his own death is a rather neat trick, but one that should have been achieved in half the time.

Boomer, the only major facet of the film we haven’t discussed so far is the music, even though that seems to be its most enduring legacy outside Louisiana. Does that longevity surprise you? Did the music stand out to you as exceptional?

Boomer: I watched this with my best friend, and every few minutes, I would turn to her and say something along the lines of “I’m surprisingly charmed by this, Kat.” As has been mentioned, although I had never seen this movie and don’t remember ever even hearing about it, the title Belizaire the Cajun immediately transported me to elementary school movie days based on its name alone. Kat and I got into a discussion and, although I have always thought that I just don’t like period pieces, we came to an agreement that period pieces were fine-to-great, as long as they weren’t cheaply made (this is the difference between something like Barry Lyndon or The Favourite and every lousy western you’ve ever sat through). I watched this on an original domestic 1987 Key Video VHS release (my dear beloved Vestron handled the international release, operating out of West Germany) rented from the wonderful people at Vulcan Video, and the grain of the video combined with the lack of any immediately recognizable actors put me in the mindset of a rainy day recess, and I was pretty resistant to what seemed like a bargain basement period drama at first, until I gave myself over to it and was carried away. All of this is to say that, to be honest, the music didn’t leave much of an impression on me, unfortunately. I was more captivated by the bizarre nature of the story and the twists. I remember zydeco music, to be sure, especially during the scene at the dance, but even then I was more invested in some of the minor but impressive aspects that made sense (like the fact that the dance starts during daylight, which it would have to, as pre-electricity night travel was dangerous even before the Anglos started their little vigilante bands) and the fun little moments from the minor characters (“I’ve only got two rules: the drunks stay outside, and the drinks stay outside”). The only other times that I noticed the music were when it felt out of place; the jaunty jig that plays during one of Belizaire’s escapes really breaks the mood. There were moments when the sound editing really struck me, like the ambient animal noises of the bayou and bayou-adjacent in many of the night scenes, but the music just didn’t stand out to me.

Another little moment of verisimilitude worth pointing out in conclusion: my best friend recently finished law school at LSU, and when Willoughby is being told off by Rebecca, there is a moment where she tells him that he’s not in Mississippi anymore and that, per Louisiana law, she will inherit half of Old Perry’s property. Kat turned to me and said that this was true and had always been true, and that the French had been pretty progressive with regards to the inheritance and property rights of daughters. So score one for Louisiana for once.

Lagniappe

Boomer: It amuses me to no end that we are releasing this conversation during the madness surrounding the final season of Game of Thrones, considering how much of that conflict also revolves around estates, the relative rights of bastard children, and last minute legitimizations of heretofore unrecognized heirs.

CC: I really liked the scene where Belizaire negotiates with the brother-in-law of the man he supposedly murdered to get an increasing number of his farm goods in exchange for a false confession that he has no intention of delivering. It’s a classic Br’er Rabbit-type con.

Brandon: The sound quality on the 25th anniversary DVD wasn’t exactly impeccable, so we ended up watching most of this film with the subtitles switched on for clarity. I highly recommend the experience. For some reason, the captions translated the Cajun French phrasings into English instead of merely transcribing them as-is, which means that while you’re watching Belizaire solve a murder mystery you also get to learn a little French as lagniappe.

Britnee: A large number of Cajuns from Down the Bayou are very hostile towards immigrants and refugees. There’s even a huge billboard in Cut Off with a photo of a victim of a car accident from over 20 years ago that says something like, “My son was killed by an illegal immigrant” (the car that hit the victim was driven by an undocumented shipyard worker). I’ve always hated driving along the beautiful bayou side and seeing that ignorant eyesore. Re-watching the reenactments of violence against the displaced Cajuns in Belizaire just added to my confusion of anti-immigrant sentiment Down the Bayou. I’ve had countless arguments with my elder family members about the similarities between modern day refuges and our own ancestors, and I always get the same response: “It’s not the same.” Perhaps it’s time for them to give Belizaire another watch.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid must have looked like a natural on paper, but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing. This despite the fact that it contains several good laughs and three sound performances. The problems are two. First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman’s script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it’s a Western.” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

I often use the “I’m just not into Westerns,” excuse to avoid having to actually engage with films in the genre, but what am I supposed to do when a Western clearly just isn’t into itself? Arriving in the strange middle ground between the big budget Western and the small, ramshackle productions of New Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is at war with its own nature. It wants to both please the old guard by revisiting a John Wayne era of Hollywood filmmaking, yet side with the existential rebelliousness of its contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde. I suppose it found the right balance for a lot of people in consolidating those two sides, but I found it to be something of a bland compromise between two spiritually opposing filmmaking styles. Maybe if more of Butch Cassidy‘s sardonic, self-hating spirit were allowed to disrupt its outlaws-on-the-run premise I would have been won over as a modern, Western-ignoring cynic. As is, I found it to be kind of a middling choir.

Paul Newman & Robert Redford, pretty much the dual definition of Hollywood Handsome, star as two train-robbing bandits who find themselves on the run from ever-encroaching lawmen after a job gone bad. Katherine Ross (who’s been popping up in quite a few of these late 60s pictures) tags along as a lover & conspirator and the trio wind up mounting one final stand in South America. That’s a fairly reductive plot synopsis, I’ll admit, but it covers pretty much the entire arc of the film as long as you’re willing to disregard stray sequences where Katherine Ross teaches the boys rudimentary Spanish so they can rob Bolivian banks or flirts innocently with one of them on a bicycle to Bury Bacharach’s “Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head,” (which was, bafflingly, written for the film). The real hook of Butch Cassidy, though, isn’t the strength of its story, but the then-refreshing casual banter of its two anti-hero protagonists. I’ll admit that aspect of the screenplay does help cut down on the film’s boring, idyllic tough guy Western aesthetic, but the exchanges are too few and far between to amount to much except brief reprieves from the otherwise oppressive stillness of the genre film they disrupt.

Ebert complained in his 1969 review that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s production was too bloated and its pacing was too slow & labored to match the rebellious nature of the spiritually similar (but far superior) Bonnie & Clyde. I can’t disagree with either point. Just as one character remarks to Newman & Redford’s titular bandits, “It’s over. Your time is over. You’re going to die bleeding. All you can do is choose where,” the same feels true of the genre their characters are serving & lightly subverting. The Western genre is in some ways antithetical to the New Hollywood era, since it was such a routine mainstay of the old Studio System formula, especially in this film’s lavishly produced form. You can feel Butch Cassidy attempting to change with the times in its mid-gunfight quipping and its shrugging tagline, “Not that it matters, but most of it is true.” It could have pushed those tendencies a whole lot further, though. One version of the screenplay had Butch & The Kid watching a movie adaptation of their lives in a South American cinema, heckling & nitpicking its perceived inaccuracies. The idea was reportedly cut for being “too over the top,” which is a shame, because it’s the exact kind of blasphemous energy this film needed to be worthwhile as a genre update. I assume I’d get some backlash from more dedicated fans of Westerns as a genre for that stance, but that’s okay. I don’t speak their language.

Roger’s Rating: (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Batman (1989)

-Brandon Ledet

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2014)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was very nearly a different kind of movie. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely announced before the premier of the first Cap that they had already been hired to draft the sequel’s script, and there were three choices for direction: George Nolfi, F. Gary Gray, and sibling directorial team Anthony and Joseph Russo. Gray would certainly have been the most interesting choice, as he would have been the first person of color to helm an MCU film and have helped with Marvel’s ongoing diversity problem (as demonstrated just in the past week by the announcement that Danny Rand would be portrayed in the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series by white Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones). To date, only two films based on Marvel properties have been directed by non-white directors, Hulk (Ang Lee) and Blade II (Guillermo del Toro), and only one has been directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone. At present, Black Panther is set to break this white streak with director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), although the revolving door of directors (with Selma’s Ava Duvernay and Gray himself having been attached to production at different points) makes one wonder if there will be any more upsets between now and when production actually begins. Ultimately, Gray passed on the project in order to direct last year’s Straight Outta Compton, and the reins to the film were handed over to the Russo brothers, best known for their work on the early (good) years of NBC’s Community.

Those who are only familiar with the movies may be unaware, but S.H.I.E.L.D.’s contribution to the primary Marvel Comic universe took place largely outside of the context of superheroics. In fact, one could read comic books for several years without ever finding out that such an organization exists within that world; I certainly did. When interest in strong men and Amazons waned in the mid-Twentieth Century while the popularity of western, detective, and horror comics grew, S.H.I.E.L.D. took on prominence as a vehicle for telling stories about war and espionage, with books like Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. The idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. should play a role in the founding of a superhero team is taken wholly from the Ultimate Marvel comics, a sub-imprint launched in the early 2000s to provide an entry into the comics world for new readers whose interest in the medium came as the result of the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men films. Forsaking the moniker “Avengers,” the equivalent team in the Ultimate books was known as “The Ultimates,” featuring a line-up of heroes that were brought together by Ultimate Nick Fury, who was consciously drawn to resemble Samuel L. Jackson in the hopes that he would be interested in the role should a film adaptation ever come to fruition. Many of the ideas that made their way into the MCU found their origins in the Ultimate imprint, with some scenes in the films even shot to be evocative of similar scenes in the comics (Thor’s visit from Loki, who lies that Odin has died in the first Thor film, is probably the most direct lift). The MCU has so far managed to mix stories from both the main books and the Ultimate line with new ideas to make sure that even comic book readers can never quite predict what twists the narrative will take. For instance, in the Ultimate Universe, Black Widow is revealed to be a double agent who turns on the rest of the team; non-readers who see Winter Soldier won’t have this knowledge and thus don’t know whether Natasha can be trusted, while readers who love the MCU Romanoff will constantly be anxious, wondering if she’ll follow in her ink counterpart’s footsteps, adding an edge to the movie.

Writing duo Markus & McFeely initially wanted to do an adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline (from the mainstream Marvel books) but were hesitant to commit to that idea, unsure if they would be able to make the story fit into the MCU while also doing it justice. Ultimately, with encouragement from MCU coordinator Kevin Feige, the two drafted the script as a political conspiracy thriller that incorporated elements of that plot but that also included S.H.I.E.L.D. in a larger role than in Brubaker’s story, given the greater prominence of the agency in the film franchise. Feige was quoted as saying that stories about Cap dealing with the fearmongering and political unrest of the seventies and eighties was “a hell of a journey” for the character. Although they couldn’t do stories set in that time period due to the fact that this version of Cap was frozen during that era, they “wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor.” As such, the script was written with the intention of incorporating elements from political conspiracy thrillers of that era, like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

To cement that connection, Robert Redford, who had appeared in both of those films, was cast to portray Alexander Pierce, the man to whom Nick Fury reports. Another new face in the cast was Anthony Mackie, who plays Sam Wilson, a character from the comics codenamed the Falcon. Cap and Falcon have had a long working relationship in the comics, with the Captain America comic even being retitled Captain America and the Falcon for 88 issues from 1971 to 1978, as the two duplicated the two-buddies-travel-the-world-and-have-different-social-perspectives narrative of the groundbreaking 1970-1972 Green Lantern/Green Arrow books. Emily van Camp was eventually cast as Agent 13, a longtime Cap love interest from the comics (originally introduced as Peggy Carter’s younger sister then later retconned as her niece given the nature of comic books’ static timelines) after beating out Alison Brie, Emilia Clarke, and Imogen Poots (among others) for the role. The film also introduced Crossbones in his civilian identity as a S.H.I.E.L.D. footsoldier revealed as a Hydra interloper; in the film, he is portrayed by Frank Grillo.

The nature of the time jump at the end of Captain America meant that most of Cap’s supporting cast would not be able to reappear in this film, although there is a heartbreaking cameo by Hayley Atwell as a very old Peggy Carter, and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes plays a prominent role. Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cobie Smulders reprise their roles from other MCU features as Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill respectively. Maximiliano Hernández, who had previously appeared as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell in Thor, The Avengers, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., also appears in the film as a turncoat, as does Garry Shandling’s senator character from Iron Man 2 (it’s a good thing that Stark managed to keep the senator’s hands off the Iron Man suit, then). Toby Jones also reprised his role as Hydra scientist Arnim Zola, both in flashback and as an electronic ghost.

So, what did you think, Brandon? Captain America got high praise from you; how does this one fare?

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threehalfstar

Brandon: I was head over heels for the first Captain America film, which played like a retroactively-perfected version of The Rocketeer. Captain Steve Rogers’ bully-hating, Nazi-punching earnestness was a much welcome antidote to the sarcastic, megalomaniacs like Deadpool & Iron Man who often test my completist patience. I was, of course, stoked to catch up with the second installment in the Captain America series not only because I found the found The First Avenger so perfectly sincere, but also because ever since this project began The Winter Soldier has been sold to me as the height of what the MCU has to offer. I don’t want to say that I was exactly disappointed by the film that was delivered after all that hype, but I will say that the burden of expectation definitely colored my experience in a negative way. From the outside looking in, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fine action film, a perfectly entertaining superhero movie that does a great job of tying the Marvel mythology in with real-life political intrigue. However, I think the film stands as a dividing line between the franchise’s die hard fans who greedily eat up the ins & outs of the Marvel lore (particularly the narrative arc of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the more casual observers such as myself who are mostly looking for an escapist spectacle with a cool hero in a kooky costume (which is more in line with what The First Avenger delivered). Fans who love the MCU enough to devotedly follow all of its short film bonus material & televised spin-offs are likely to love The WInter Soldier. The more detached devotees will enjoy the film’s action sequences & cool cat protagonists, but perhaps with less hyperbolic rapture.

Freshly unfrozen in the modern world, Captain Steve Rogers is simultaneously dealing with the post-Battle of NYC PTSD issues that Tony Stark wrestled with in Iron Man 3 & the same kind of fish out of water awkwardness as his Norse god buddy/fellow beefcake model Thor eternally suffers. Besides having to catch up with cultural markers like Marvin Gaye & Star Wars that he missed while taking an extensive nap on ice, Rogers also has to deal with the fact that his one true love (and ABC star) Peggy Carter lived a full life without him & is now spending her last days alone in a hospital bed. Friends & colleagues pressure Rogers to ask someone less geriatric for a date, but he refuses to move on. Of course, these small personal concerns are dwarfed by an evil world domination scheme Rogers has to put to a swift end. The Nazi offshoot Hydra from the first Captain America film is apparently alive & thriving, having successfully infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. & subtly influenced all of the world’s war & unrest from behind the scenes in the decades since the second World War. Can Rogers stop the Hydra from hijacking an advanced weapons system & using a sinister algorithm to destroy every one of its potential enemies in one fell swoop before it’s too late? Of course he can. He is The Greatest Soldier in History, after all (having now graduated from comic book hero status to living museum exhibit in his own lifetime).

What’s most interesting about The Winter Soldier is the way it complicates who & what is Captain America’s enemy. Rogers joined S.H.I.E.L.D. because it was partly founded by his one true love & he finds great value in reliving his wartime specialty: rescue missions. S.H.I.E.L.D. is too powerful to trust, however, especially since its participation in a worldwide (& maybe even intergalactic) arms race is what provides the weapon that Hydra intends to use the wipe out its enemies wholesale. By showing the faults of our modern day surveillance state by attaching a gun to each camera, The Winter Soldier approaches the most biting political commentary the MCU has offered yet, especially when Rogers criticizes his S.H.I.E.L.D. overlords for “holding a gun to everyone in the world & calling it protection” (a theme that will later be repeated in Age of Ultron). I don’t think the film’s political themes are ever explored any deeper or more thoroughly than they’d be in any other high budget, explosion-heavy action film, though. For MCU die hards who’ve been following every Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode & tangentially-related S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology-related media, the film’s big reveal that the organization has been hijacked by Hydra might’ve landed with massive impact, but the betrayal never feels too significant from an outsider perspective. It’s mostly a political thriller springboard for a cool action movie with a lovable hero & some of the best fight choreography in the MCU outside the Avengers films (including increasingly inventive uses of Captain’s shield in its hand-to0-hand brutality).

It feels almost like a betrayal to nerdom at large to say I really liked this movie but didn’t love it, but that kinda points to the way Marvel Studios have spread their properties so, so very thin. In the greater, 10,000+ hour span of MCU content, The Winter Soldier is a major turning point & a fulfilling payoff for irons that have been in the fire for years. As a standalone property surviving on its on isolated merits, its a very solid picture, but far from the pinnacle of any of its various genres: political thrillers, action flicks, superhero media, etc.

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fivestar

Boomer: I love this movie. It’s the MCU picture that I’ve watched and rewatched the most and the one that I find the most enduring, thoughtful, and well-paced; for my money, it’s the best of them all. It’s a testament to Winter Soldier’s excellence that, despite the fact that I got dumped two hours after I walked out the theatre on that 2014 afternoon, it wasn’t ruined for me (like so, so many things were in the wake of that breakup). I can look back on that day and say, “Hey, that was one of the worst days of my life, but I also saw Winter Soldier.”

I’m not ever sure where to start with all the things that make this film work for me. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy flick (and even some bad ones), and the tonal similarities between Winter Soldier and things like Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, and most obviously (and explicitly) Three Days of the Condor hit all the right buttons for me. It brings Black Widow into the foreground in a way that the previous films attempted with mixed success and introduces a great new hero character to the mythos in Falcon, and both Johannson and Mackie bring a lot of energy into the mix that harmonizes well with Evans’s leading man charisma. Redford is perfect in his role as the turncoat leader of the World Security Council, and the film puts a lot of work into including and subtly commenting on contemporary issues of security, privacy, and systemic violence. Evans was serviceable in his previous appearances as Cap, but he clearly understands the role better here than in the earlier outings: Cap is a man who fought a brutal war that history has painted as a righteous one, and as such is best suited to remind those around him when they are repeating the mistakes of the past.

The film draws a clear line between itself and other films of the same genre that came before, both within the text (most notably with Natasha quoting War Games) and metatextually, especially with the casting of Redford. Although his most notable contributions to political thrillers were his roles in All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, I also have a fondness for Sneakers, which shares plot elements like computer algorithms and heisty shenanigans with Winter Soldier. Of course, the movie to which I feel this film is most tonally similar isn’t your standard contemporary political thriller like your Sneakers or even your classics like The Parallax View: it’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

I’ll keep this as brief as I possibly can, given that I have a (deserved) reputation of making everything about Star Trek, despite any obstacles. The Star Trek franchise was always about creating the rhetorical space that science fiction inhabits when it’s at its best: commenting upon contemporary social mores through a lens that provides the viewer or reader with enough metaphorical distance that he or she can see the absurdity and beauty of the human experience. (Last year’s Hugo Awards were undermined by a small group of rabid people who fail to realize that this is and always has been the purpose of the genre.) As such, the classic 1960s series created by Gene Roddenberry featured groundbreaking elements like people of color and women being treated as colleagues and equals by their white and male crewmen while also exploring the relationship between different earth cultures by projecting them onto extraterrestrial confederations.

Most notably, this was demonstrated by the way in which the Klingon Empire was a clear stand-in for the Soviet Union, and this was made all the more textual in The Undiscovered Country, which opened with a Chernobyl-esque disaster that places the Federation (the society in which Kirk and Spock abide) in a position to finally hammer their swords into plowshares… or bring their enemies to their knees. In the midst of all this is Kirk, who has fought the Klingons all his life and even lost his son to them; still, the Federation believes that, just as only Nixon could go to China, only Kirk can present the Klingons with a metaphorical olive branch. Unfortunately, Kirk ends up being framed for the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor and is assigned to a Siberia-esque gulag, while Spock works out the mystery. Working from opposite ends toward the middle, the two find a peace-endangering conspiracy that has wound its way around the heart of the seemingly-utopian Federation, fueled by long-stewing grudges, cultural fascism, and speciesist (read: racist) attitudes.

The Undiscovered Country is a fantastic movie, and although it’s not the best entry in the film franchise (Wrath of Khan is the undisputed champion), it’s a viable contender for runner-up. The Winter Soldier plays out similarly with its revelation that Hydra was never destroyed, but that it was instead reborn by planting its monstrous seeds within S.H.I.E.L.D. from its conception. Like ST6, this film also features the great and historical hero who finds himself framed and caught up in political machinations, dealing with strategic espionage maneuvering which is far outside of his control but in which he has a vested personal stake. Both films take the tropes and traits of the conspiracy narrative and add them to their respective genres, elevating both films to increased notability outside of their franchises.

And Natasha! Romanoff is back, baby, taking on heavier narrative lifting here than ever before and not only rising to the challenge, but killing it. Natasha never comes off as a sidekick here, instead acting as the perfect foil to Rogers. He’s the perfect soldier, and she’s the perfect spy: the focus on the ways that their respective skills and worldviews inscribe, complement, and conflict contributes to the film’s constant momentum. Johannson nails the small moments of vulnerability and the fact that Widow is always a few steps ahead of everyone else, like she’s accustomed to always being the smartest person in the room. This is just as much a story about her as it is about Cap, despite how much of the plot is devoted to his feelings of having failed Bucky. The film also does a better job of displaying professional respect and friendship between the two than most films are able to with a male-female friendship, and their emotional arc is perfect, forsaking the easy road of creating a romantic relationship between the two.

If anything, the titular Winter Soldier is the weakest link for me here. Part of that may be that his true identity as a brainwashed Bucky is no secret to comic fans (and it kind of surprises me that it was a shock to film-goers, given how recognizable Stan’s face is even with a mask on). It provides a counterpart to Cap’s friendship with Natasha, but it’s not as emotionally satisfying to me. Cap and Bucky’s friendship was built up in the first film, but it never quite clicked for me; I’m not as invested in the two of them as the franchise wants me to be, mostly because we actually see the two of them interact with each other much less than we see Cap interact with Natasha or even Tommy Lee Jones’s General in the first film. His involvement raises the stakes for Cap personally, but not for me.

That doesn’t make me any less invested in loving this movie, however. It hits the sweet spot for many in virtually every way, and I can hardly thing of a disparaging thing to say about it. Every few months, we see a new thinkpiece being published that asks if this genre is on its way out. Although I haven’t really seen any signs of slowing or stopping at this point, I’d wager that Winter Soldier will long outlive its peers in the public consciousness even if the MCU draws to a close.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing that has been super impressive over the last few MCU features is how they’ve turned around my frustration with one-line cameos & half-assed tie-ins. I think that The Avengers, while not the height of the franchise, was an entirely necessary step in bringing this whole mess of a universe into an increasingly sharp focus & The Winter Soldier in particular is a great collaborative effort that directly reflects that shift. It’s doubtful that Nick Fury or Black Widow will ever star in their own standalone vehicles, but they’re both given way more to do in The Winter Soldier than ever before. Black Widow has already had ample time to show off her badassery in previous pictures, but her extended presence is always a welcome asset. This is really Nick Fury’s big break as a major player, though, and it’s fantastic to see him elevated form a walk-through cameo in a stinger to a fully-realized character. It’s also incredible how characters like Falcon & Bucky are shoehorned in there (even if I spoiled their individual reveals for myself by watching MCU content out of order) without ever cluttering up the film’s proceedings. Again, The Winter Soldier is a well made political thriller-leaning action flick that covers a lot of ground in its massive 2 1/2 hour runtime. I’m not sure that each of its characters & themes are given enough room to properly breathe & resonate, but there’s an impressive juggling act in how many personalities & plotlines get involved in the first place and the film delivers a wealth of entertainment in its genre-based treats alone.

Boomer: The furthest-reaching repercussions of this film on the franchise is the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infected by Hydra from its very inception. For me personally, S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been a non-essential element of the MCU; sure, most of the stories would be different without their involvement, but not by much and not necessarily detrimentally. This reveal did end up creating more plotlines for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with that series finally developing into something worth following in the wake of Winter Soldier, but it also annoys me. The rest of the MCU must now pay lip service to this development constantly, with references to Hydra showing up in shows and films that don’t really relate to S.H.I.E.L.D., if as nothing more than a bogeyman. Other than films where it wouldn’t make sense (such as Guardians of the Galaxy), all the villains relate back to Hydra now, if only tangentially. It makes me like past, unrelated villains like Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane more in retrospect, since they weren’t required to tie in as heavily. It’s not that I feel the franchise is hamstrung by this revelation, but I find it weakens a plot when everything has to tie back into one evil mastermind or organization, limiting storytelling possibilities.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2013)

fourhalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.