Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Let me get the hottest take you’ll read in this review out of the way upfront: 1997’s The Lost World is the best film in the Jurassic Park franchise. As a technical achievement & a special effects showcase, there’s no topping the original Jurassic Park film from 1993, but The Lost World has a much more exciting, bonkers energy to it as a mean, over-the-top novelty in a way that’s always stuck with me. I prefer Spielberg when he embraces the B-movie spirit of his genre films, which are essentially $100+mil versions of Roger Corman’s schtick, instead of trying to “elevate” them into respectable material. The jump scares, suburban-invasion monster attacks, and raptor-kicking gymnastics of The Lost World strike the perfect B-movie tone needed to bring the Jurassic Park franchise into what it always pretends to be but rarely is: a series of creature features about the horrors of dinosaurs invading the modern world. I wasn’t much impressed by Colin Trevorrow’s recent soft-reboot to the franchise, Jurassic World (outside Bryce Dallas Howard’s laughably awful performance therein), but its own horror-centric sequel attempts the same B-movie revitalization that The Lost World brought to its predecessor in a way I can’t help but appreciate. Fallen Kingdom is dumber, meaner, and more over-the-top than the first Jurassic World, but it leans so heavily into the franchise’s modern world dino-horror tendencies that it feels like a remarkable improvement anyway. The only problem is that its characters & dialogue aren’t anywhere near as interesting as its big picture ideas.

Chris Pratt & Bryce Dallas Howard return as the world’s blandest romantic duo, this time with Howard’s absurdly inhuman performance zapped of its eccentricities so that she’s just as uninteresting as Pratt (although she is introduced in an audience-trolling shot that starts with her infamous high heel running shoes). They team up to rescue the world’s remaining dinosaurs from the island where the previous film was staged, as it is under the threat of a very active volcano. Unbeknownst to them, the privatized military they’re helping “rescue” these endangered dinos are actually villainous capitalists who are tasked with abducting the poor beasts only to sell them as organic weapons on the black market. This sets up a political dichotomy between bleeding-heart animal rights activists dedicated to “Save Our Dinos” and capitalist meanies who only want to ravage the earth for “easy” profit (there’s got to be a better way to make money than herding and capturing dinosaurs). The movie uses that political divide to shoehorn in some painfully unfunny anti-Trump humor with throwaway lines about “nasty women,” CNN scrolls joking about the president’s science denial, and a villainous turn from Toby Jones as a dino auctioneer with a grotesque orange-hair combover. The political humor is too vague & out-of-place to mean much of anything, except that the movie is going to age about as well as a canned fart. Likewise, the volcanic dino rescue is an over-labored setup for the movie’s much more interesting second half, even if its lava explosion action sequence does generate some memorable imagery. Fallen Kingdom opens with a punishing tedium not seen in this franchise since the doldrums of Jurassic Park III, so it’s downright miraculous that the film turns itself around enough to thrive as an over-the-top novelty horror in its second half.

All credit to Fallen Kingdom‘s back-half turnaround as a passably decent horror film goes to director J.A. Bayona (hot off the heels of his undervalued fantasy drama A Monster Calls). Outside a few moments of dino-melting volcanic mayhem in the opening stretch, Bayona treats Fallen Kingdom’s first hour as a necessary evil to bring the movie (and the dinos) to where he truly wants to go: a haunted mansion. Bayona comes alive in the film’s second half, where a dinosaur auction goes inevitably wrong and a small crew of unlikely caricatures are locked in a dark Gothic manor with loose, prehistoric monsters. The better half of Fallen Kingdom is a haunted house horror movie with dinosaurs instead of ghosts, the most exciting the franchise has seen since the suburban invasion themes of The Lost World. The way Bayona plays with odd imagery, like dino shadows being cast by lightning flashes or an encroaching claw reaching to rip a child out of the safety of their bed, is some surreal horror nonsense I can’t help but appreciate for its B-movie flavored audacity. The problem is that the movie tries way too hard to justify the indulgence in its over-labored setup (the same way Rampage over-explained a “plausible” reason for its own monster mayhem earlier this year, when it should have stuck to the simplicity of its video game source material). The script also could have used a few joke punch-ups from writers who are, you know, actually funny. Neither of these issues are necessarily Bayona’s fault, though, and the director makes the best of the material he can when he’s actually let loose to play around with the film’s Gothic horror hook (recalling an absurd revision of his much better-written haunted house film The Orphanage).

The best chance Fallen Kingdom had to be its ideal self was if it were never attached to the Jurassic Park franchise at all. It opens performing the labor of tying its haunted dino house conceit into the mess leftover from the first Jurassic World movie and “closes” by setting up a clear path for the next installment. This post-MCU dedication to franchise filmmaking is a massive burden on the movie’s shoulders, barely leaving any room for its central hook to fully deliver the goods, all for the sake of cross-film storytelling logic. Maybe this burden wouldn’t be as noticeable if the characters were more engaging or the humor successfully landed (that’s generally how it works in the MCU, anyway). As is, Fallen Kingdom barely squeaks by as an enjoyable big-budget Roger Corman descendant, when it should have been the second-best film in the franchise (after The Lost World, naturally). It’s doubtful we’ll ever get another haunted house dino horror film again, so this one’s novelty deserves to be cherished, but it’s also a shame that the opportunity was buried under so much debt to a franchise that doesn’t deserve the effort.

–Brandon Ledet

Atomic Blonde (2017)

There’s been some extensive discussion lately about how nostalgic media had gone too far with its Remember This? relics & references to 80s & 90s pop culture. Titles like Stranger Things & Ready Player One have proven popular with mass audiences, but have also drawn eyerolls from plenty critical outlets for their easy nostalgia bait. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde is the way it hops on that same 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in the few days leading to it being torn down in 1989, the film’s pop culture references include things like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. Its blatant nostalgia for 80s pop culture should make it a widely accessible work, but there’s something off-kilter about its reference points that immediately single it out as a sore thumb outsider.

As nerdy as Atomic Blonde‘s 80s pop culture references can be, its basic pleasures are lizard brain simple. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. Its central mystery about double/triple agents jockeying to get the upper hand at the fever pitch of the Cold War is never nearly as significant as a David Bowie needledrop or a panning shot detailing Theron’s complicated underwear as she gears up for another day of crushing dude’s throats. Costume designer Cindy Evans deserves just as much credit as ex-stuntman director David Leitch or Theron herself for making the movie feel at all distinctive or memorable. The brutality of the action choreography (much of which Theron performed herself) & the immediate pleasures of the soundtrack (which includes acts as varied as New Order, Public Enemy, George Michael, Ministry, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) are entertaining enough as post-Tarantino/Scorsese pop cinema diversions. It’s the fashion design set against the Crimes of Passion-esque neon lighting that helps distinguish the film as its own idiosyncratic work, however, which should give you an idea of how surface level & visual its merits are on the whole.

Although the feeling wouldn’t last long, I was actually very much excited for Atomic Blonde‘s narrative structure when Theron’s ass-kicking protagonist was first introduced. She begins the film already icing her wounds in a freezing cold bath, recovering from a spy mission to the Eastern side of The Berlin Wall. This decision reminded me so much of the archetypal JCVD & Schwarzenegger action pics of the 80s & 90s, which usually introduce the hero at the tail end of one adventure before beginning the one that will command the plot. Instead, this opening is soon revealed to be a feature-length flashback, wherein the story is told in an investigative interview with British & American intelligence agencies. A needlessly complicated plot about double agent assassinations & a McGuffin referenced to as The List gradually emerges, but is told in such sweeping, summarizing swaths that any in-the-moment suspense over the central mystery is left muted at best, incomprehensible at worst. Instead of trying to figure out which of her collaborators has sold her out to the KGB (James McAcoy? John Goodman? Toby Jones?), the audience is better off letting go of narrative completely & indulging in the image of Theron kicking ass to kick-ass synthpop. The flashback structure undercuts a lot of the immediacy of that simple pleasure (with the major exception of an extended stairwell sequence that wisely slows down to allow the sheer brutality to fully sink in), but the strengths of the fashion design, the soundtrack curation, and Theron’s physical presence are enough for the film to persevere.

Atomic Blonde‘s origins as a graphic novel adaptation and a pet project from one of the minds behind the John Wick franchise are blatantly apparent. Its reliance on the slickness of its imagery and the Hey Remember This? quality of its off-kilter 80s nostalgia are much more firmly in its wheelhouse than the complex double/triple crossings of its Gotcha! mystery plot. Now that Theron’s rock solid protagonist had emerged as a high fashion, animalistically brutal James Bond type, despite the lackluster plot that surrounded her, the world is primed for that Just Another Adventure, JCVD-style sequel. She’s got a killer look, a signature drink (Stoli on the rocks), an established bisexual flair for bedding other agents, and, most importantly, is damn convincing as a physical threat to faceless baddies. Since the movie leaves off at the dawn of the 1990s, she even has a whole new era of odd duck nostalgia bait to milk on her next mission. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde for what it is, but it has some glaring narrative issues I feel could easily be course-corrected in an Atomic Blonde 2. I fear this picture’s box office returns will be too slight to generate a sequel, but at least its sense of fashion has left us with a killer lookbook as consolation.

-Brandon Ledet

Tale of Tales (2016)

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“Every new life calls for a life to be lost. The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.”

It’s almost a cliché concept to explain at this point, but traditional fairy tales are not the saccharine Disney romances they’re often believed to be. Fairy tales are often horrifically brutal stories of otherworldly magic meant to warn real world people, often children, about the dangers of human follies like lust, greed, selfishness, or curiosity. It isn’t often that an authentic-feeling, appropriately brutal fairy tale makes to the big screen. It’s even rarer that it’d be live-action and an original property, rather than an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Tale of Tales is a once-in-a-lifetime gem in the way it not only fills this requirement, but also excels as an intricately detailed piece of high art & cinematic finery.

I didn’t expect to see a more exquisite, idiosyncratic work than Hail, Caesar! all year, but Tale of Tales might’ve blown it out of the water. It’s like The Fall, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover all rolled into one hideous fairy tale directed by Cronenberg in his prime. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.

The film opens with Selma Hayek & John C. Reilly sitting as the king & queen of a fantasy realm kingdom. Hayek is perfectly regal on the throne while Reilly feels plucked from an especially expensive episode of Wishbone, recalling his blissfully clueless husband role in We Need to Talk about Kevin. There’s a strain on their relationship and, thus, the kingdom as it’s revealed that the couple cannot conceive a child as a future heir. Advised by an old, wizardly fella who lives in a cave, the royal couple addresses this problem by slaying a sea beast & eating its heart after it’s cooked by a virgin. The trick works & the queen carries her pregnancy to term over the course of a single night. And that’s when things get weird.

I reveal this plot detail only to illustrate just how varied & far-reaching the territory Tale of Tales covers can be. The tale of the sea monster’s heart is just one facet of just one story that continues to spiral out from there over the course of the film. All told, there are three tales covering three adjacent kingdoms that give this film its shape. Inexplicably, the Hayek & Reilly royalty aren’t even the most interesting characters of the bunch. Tale of Tales is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. The three tales told here all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Each character featured here suffers a hideous fate because of their own obsessive selfishness. And if there’s any who don’t, they likely suffer at the hands of others’, especially the ones who supposedly love them.

I urge you not to watch the trailer to this film if you can avoid it. It both spoils way too much of the plot(s) that you’re better off discovering on your own and completely misreads the tone of the film as a whole. Tale of Tales fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). Don’t be fooled when the film threatens to devolve into modernist showboating with its explicit gore or its exploitative lesbian make-outs in the early proceedings. It’s very much in the tradition of fairy tales in their purest form, immense beauty, cruelty, warts, and all. I highly recommend lending it your full attention & willing imagination, especially if you have the chance to watch it on the big screen. You’ll both love & loathe the places it takes you.

-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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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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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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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.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Captain America – The First Avenger (2011)

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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 & has thus far 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: For me, the key difference between DC and Marvel as companies is that Marvel has always been better at creating characters that are down-­to-­earth and grounded, while DC’s characters are traditionally larger than life and iconic in their titanic stature. Spider-­Man and the X­-Men are relatable characters; Superman and Wonder Woman are inspirational ones. This isn’t absolutely true across the board, and when discussing characters that have existed for nearly a century under the pen of dozens (if not hundreds) of different writers over the decades, there are bound to be many counter-arguments to this admittedly reductive distinction. However, dissecting the different companies’ primary characteristics and output, that difference is the major division between the two. In this sense, Captain America, with his concrete­-if­-antiquated moral code, larger-­than­-life prestige, and well defined ethical concepts, is the Marvel character most like a DC hero, and this, combined with the built-­in fandom that comes from such an outspokenly and inherently patriotic character, has made Cap an enduringly captivating dramatis persona. Despite being only one of many, many jingoistic characters introduced in the build up to (and following) WWII, Captain America continues to be a fan favorite, and it’s no surprise that Marvel has gone to his well many times in their creation of non­-graphic media.

Following his introduction in March 1941 (nine months before the US officially became involved in the war), Cap made his way to the silver screen in under three years, with a film serial being filmed in six weeks in October and November 1943 that started screening in February of the following year. This serial bore little resemblance to the comics character, which film historians attribute to the likelihood that the original script was written to feature Fawcett Comics character Mr. Scarlet; as a result, there is no super soldier serum, no shield, and no mention of Nazis, and Cap’s secret identity is not Steve Rogers but civilian District Attorney Grant Gardner. This would be Marvel’s only theatrical release until 1986’s Howard the Duck. Two made-­for­-TV films, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon, were released in 1979 and starred Reb Brown; these featured a contemporary former­-marine­-turned­-artist who acquiesces to undergo testing of a “super-­steroid” following an accident and then fighting crime using the costume that he envisioned for the character he created as a visual artist. A Captain America feature, inspired by the financial success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, was filmed and intended for theatrical release in 1990, but the completed film was such a disaster that it was quietly dumped into the VHS market with little fanfare.

After three attempts at a film adaptation, mostly unsuccessful, a new vehicle for Captain America was envisioned. Screenwriters Leslie Bohem (Daylight, Dante’s Peak) and Larry Wilson (The Addams Family) were initially approached in 1997, but the project was put on hold due to a legal dispute between Joe Simon (co-­creator of Captain America alongside Jack Kirby) and Marvel regarding rights and royalties. This suit was settled in 2003, and the film was batted around for a couple of years, with Avi Arad optimistically announcing in 2006 that he hoped to see the film released in 2008. These plans were again put on hold due to the 2007-­2008 WGA Strike, and plans were finalized in late 2008 following the release of Iron Man, with a planned release date in May 2011 (eventually pushed back to July) under the working title The First Avenger: Captain America (with the two parts of the title being swapped later in production). Joe Johnston, well known for his effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and his direction of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Rocketeer, was tapped to helm the picture, and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriting duo behind the Chronicles of Narnia films, wrote the script.

The film follows scrawny Brooklyn artist Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, desperate to participate in the fight against the Axis, becomes a test subject in an experiment to create super soldiers, an experiment based on the studies of German expatriate Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) also participates in the experiment under the supervision of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and British liaison Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). The experiment is a success, but an on­site attack means that the project cannot be recreated. Meanwhile in Europe, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his super-science organization, Hydra, have broken away from Nazi oversight in order to pursue his own interests, assisted by Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Rogers is immediately enlisted as a figurehead for the war effort, but when he goes behind enemy lines to rescue his childhood friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), he becomes a real hero. I already have an idea as to how Brandon feels about this film, but, without further ado, here’s his opinion:

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Brandon: I’m in that weird little pocket of movie nerds who hold Disney’s cheesier live-action flops like Tomorrowland & John Carter of Mars in much higher regard than they probably deserve. That’s probably a large part of why I got such a huge kick out of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. At heart, this is director Joe Johnston remaking his commercial flop for Disney, The Rocketeer, into a much more successful film. I know Marvel Studios gets a lot of flack for valuing a “house style” over individual director’s visions, but I think they got the formula right here.They seemingly matched an already-appropriate director to the style they wanted, something mildly attempted by bringing in Shakespearean vet Kenneth Branagh for Thor, but brought to its full collaborative potential with Johnston’s Captain America. I really like The Rocketeer, but it’s a deeply flawed movie. Captain America recreates The Rocketeer‘s Nazi-punching retro-future with no discernible flaws or blemishes. It achieves the exact aesthetic it aims for with few to no missteps. It’s essentially a perfect superhero movie, easily ranking up there with Batman Returns & The Dark Knight as the best I’ve ever seen. And although it’s more closely associated with being a Marvel property than existing under the larger Disney umbrella, I do believe it snugly fits with the old-fashioned earnestness of the flops mentioned above.

From the outside looking in, I wasn’t exactly sure why I had been seeing so much Captain America merch around lately. Captain America t-shirts & jackets are seemingly becoming just as ubiquitous as Hulk Hands were in the early 2000s, except without the iconic quirkiness of the product design to explain the merch sales. I totally get the appeal now. Chris Evans’ Cap is perfectly charming in his 1940s “just a kid from Brooklyn” moxie, especially once he explains that he’s desparate to enlist as a soldier in World War II not to kill Nazis, exactly, but because he can’t stand bullies. So far in the MCU, our heroes have been an ivy league academic of a scientist, a billionaire playboy arms dealer, and a Norse god. Against these titans, Captain America/Steve Rogers stands as the little guy . . . literally. Through a surprisingly smooth bit of CGI magic Chris Evans is shrunken down into a scrawny little baby of a protagonist with a long list of health problems that prevents him from enlisting in the Army. As opposed to the Hulk’s experiment-gone-wrong origins, Captain stands as an experiment-gone-right. A kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) sees as much potential in Steve Rogers’ moxie as the audience does, and with a little help from Tony Stark’s eccentric bajillionaire daddy (who looks nothing at all like a young John Slattery, by the way) transforms the Captain into the muscled-up beefcake superhero Evans embodies so well. Captain America is a 100% earnest, sarcasmless virgin who physically cannot get drunk. He’s essentially the antithesis of Tony Stark & it’s a welcome change of pace for the franchise at large.

Captain America is a too-good-to-be-true ideal of an American super-soldier, something straight out of a propaganda reel. My favorite part of this film is the way it accentuates that idea instead of downplaying it. Both sides of the war are greatly exaggerated as a Defender of the Free World, Captain’s weapon is a shield made of unobtanium, uh, vibranium & instead of fighting run-of-the-mill Nazis, he faces a futuristic force of futuristic super-Nazis equipped with laser cannons & lead by the even-worse-than-Hitler monster villain Red Skull (whose CGI design is even more impressive than scrawny Rogers’). More importantly, before Captain finds a particular use for himself in the Army, he’s employed as a public face for the war’s propaganda machine, marking the first time I can recall where a Marvel character (if not any superhero at large) exists in a world where he stars in comic books & movies. That’s such a cool idea. An even cooler idea is what happens when he actually starts fighting in the war & the movie devolves into an actual winning-the-war-effort montage instead of faking one. It’s one hell of a callback to the earlier propaganda montage, not to mention a fascinating bit of meta narrative play, and it works like gangbusters.

A lesser film would’ve tried to turn Captain America’s inherent cheese into something darker, grittier, but Joe Johnston’s The First Avenger embraces the cheese wholesale. Far removed from the post-Dark Knight doom & gloom casting its shadow over most blockbusters in recent years, Captain America first introduces its hero in costume selling war bonds at a USO show & first using a shield by wielding a trash can lid in a back alley brawl. This line of irreverent, but wholesome humor is balanced expertly with some surprisingly severe touches, especially in the introduction of Hydra as a worse-than-Nazis force to be reckoned with & in its higher-than-usual wartime bodycount (which includes a kill that might stand as the best propeller death since The Titanic). I said in our Thor review that I wasn’t sure exactly when the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema, since the first few films felt oddly old-fashioned. It’s curious that a film set in the 1940s stands as the first glimpse of the franchise’s transition into becoming the modern standard. It’s a thoroughly fun watch, but stands as the MCU’s most brutally violent film at the time of its release, striking a more or less perfect balance. I’ve heard that 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier is an even better example of the superhero film as a genre, but it’s difficult for me to imagine it getting much better than what’s accomplished here.

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Boomer: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Captain America (I hate the subtitle) the first time I saw it. I remember that the frail bodied Steve Rogers looked really silly on the big screen, which put me in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. This wasn’t my only complaint either; I didn’t care for the way that the film seemed to go out of its way, from very early in the runtime, to focus its attention on Hydra as a proxy for the Nazi forces rather than on Hitler’s forces proper. I also hated the way that Cap’s war experiences were condensed into a single montage, which I felt undermined the character’s relevance as a long­-term soldier. Looking back, though, I can’t believe I was such a stick in the mud about it.

This is a delightful movie and represents a continued positive change in the MCU’s direction with regards to protagonist characterization. Steve Rogers is the polar opposite of Tony Stark from the ground up and represents the better angels of our nature. He’s the kind of self-sacrificing role model you or I hope we would have the temerity to be should we be given great power (while Tony is a genius bro who uses his great intellect to build toys for himself and cover his sex and substance abuse issues while only working toward the greater good when he has no real choice). Evans is also the perfect choice to play Cap. There are plenty of men wandering around Hollywood with the physical presence needed to fill out the Cap suit, but Evans brings a humility and humanity to the role that could easily have been lost if casting was only looking for the perfect human specimen (which isn’t to say Evans isn’t, because damn). This could be difficult to pull off, as there really isn’t that much of a character arc for Cap this go­-round; he experiences a lot of changes that don’t affect his characterization up to the loss of Bucky, which is a flaw in the film’s design but also allows room for the character to grow over the course of the films to come.

Sebastian Stan doesn’t seem to be given a lot to work with here, but as obsessive Stan fans on Tumblr who have vivisected all of his scenes with long essays in effort to delineate character moments have shown us, he does some great work with his background role. The casting of Tommy Lee Jones as yet another irascible veteran badass is a little on-­the-­nose, but he’s a lot of fun to watch in his gruffness and begrudging respect, even if it is all a little rote. Dominic Cooper in particular deserves praise for differentiating the elder Stark from his son, embodying many of the same qualities while also demonstrating grief and self-­doubt, effectively portraying a greater depth of character in Howard’s supporting role than we’ve seen in two featured appearances from Tony. On the other hand, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was far too over­-the­-top, calling to mind Raul Julia’s portrayal of M. Bison in the terrible Street Fighter adaptation. Toby Jones’s Zola was likewise poorly executed, as his simpering and faux­-sycophancy was obnoxious; every time the villainous duo was onscreen, the film devolved into a bit of a cartoon. Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the introduction of Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, a.k.a. the Best! MCU! Character!, even if there are moments in this introductory chapter that undermine her badassery (i.e., her apparent jealousy).

Johnston’s experience with period drama and action do the film a great service. Markus and McFeely wouldn’t have been the first team I would have thought of to pen a Captain America flick, but their work on the Narnia adaptations means they, like Johnston with The Rocketeer, have also plied their trade at WWII­-era escapist fantasy period work as well. The pacing is a little strange, as the film invests a great deal of the first act in establishing Steve’s motivations and ideals, compresses all of Cap’s great and valorous wartime battles into three set pieces and one brief montage, and has an epilogue longer than one would expect in a standard action movie. The unusual plot structure helps the audience feel somewhat time-­lost, however, which adds to the film in equal measure to the extent that it detracts from it. The film also manages to set up future installments without that distracting from the cohesiveness of this film as well. Overall, this is the first truly great film of the MCU, and cemented, at least for me, the long term viability of this franchise.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Lagniappe

Boomer: Continuity-­wise, Cap will, of course, go on to participate in the Avengers films, the first sequel The Winter Soldier, and the upcoming Phase Three flagship feature Civil War. Best MCU Character Peggy Carter has now appeared in more individual Marvel productions than any other character, with her appearance here and cameos in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-­Man, and, of course, her leading role in Agent Carter (catch the premiere of Season 2 on January 19!). Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark reappears on that series in a supporting role as well, but the film’s most far-­reaching addition to the MCU canon (other than Cap himself) is the first appearance of Hydra, which will have implications that reverberate way down the line. In non­-continuity news, I always forget that future Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman and future Game of Thrones competitor Natalie Dormer are both in this film in small, inconsequential roles, so it’s a nice re-­surprise to see them here.

Brandon: My biggest gripe about the MCU as a whole has been its individual films’ shoutouts to outside properties often having no immediate consequence. There’s a little bit of that wankery going around here, mostly in a last minute Nick Fury cameo (as always) & in a post-credits stinger that promotes the then-upcoming Avengers crossover movie in a hilariously awful “You Wouldn’t Steal a DVD” editing style. For the most part, though, other Marvel properties are incorporated into the fold for more purposeful effect here. Daddy Stark is given an integral role in the creation of Captain America instead of merely making an appearance. Even more importantly, the MCU’s MacGuffin-at-large, the Infinity Stones, aren’t especially interesting in the abstract, but I don find it highly amusing that Hitler would be desperately seeking an Infinity Stone in this version of history. They even create a little bit of retroactive connective tissue here by making it perfectly logical that Tony Stark would be in possession of Cap’s shield in a throwaway gag in the previously-released Iron Man 2. Even if Nick Fury’s presence is again mostly inconsequential (as has been in the case in every MCU film besides Iron Man 2), they’re still working in the right direction here.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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fourhalfstar

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

Berberian Sound Studio’s (2013) Sound-Obsessed Roots in Blow Out (1981)

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During our Swampchat discussion of June’s Movie of the Month, the Brian De Palma political thriller Blow Out, I pointed out that “Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.” The entire time I was watching Blow Out I was aching to revisit Peter Strickland’s oddly engaging Berberian Sound Studio to see how the two films compare. It turns out that while Blow Out distills the process of making movies into a single element, recording sound, Berberian Sound Studio breaks it down even further until there is nothing left. De Palma used sound recording as an anchoring element for a story that had great impact outside the world of film-making, a world tainted by serial murders & political intrigue. Strickland’s film, on the other hand, rarely allowed the audience to leave the recording booth & gets lost in its own sound-obsession.

Although they are working within separate genres with their own respective aims & are separated by three decades of film-making, it’s not at all difficult to draw a connection between the two works. First of all, they’re connected by their basic movie-within-a-movie structure. In Blow Out, Travolta’s sound technician protagonist is working on a cheap slasher film for which he cannot find an actress with the perfect scream to match a brutal shower stabbing. When asked if he ever works on good films, Travolta responds “No, just bad ones.” The befuddled sound technician in Berberian (expertly played by character actor Tobey Jones), on the other hand, is hired for an Itallian giallo film called The Equestrian Vortex that also gradually proves itself to be a tawdry, violent horror film (although the director insists they’re making art). We’ve explored the giallo lineage of slasher films before in our discussions of former Movie of the Month Blood & Black Lace, but the connection is rarely as clear as it is in the comparison here. While Travolta is looking for a single scream to accompany his cheap slasher movie (when he’s not investigating assassinations in his free time), Berberian Sound Studio depicts countless micro-searches for the exact same thing. The exact sound of a neck being sliced or a witch’s hair being yanked from the scalp or even the standard damsel’s death rattle are all meticulously sought after here. Berberian depicts a wizardly crew of demented Gallaghers smashing melons, pulling turnip roots, and tormenting actresses to capture the perfect sounds for what amounts to a slightly artier version of the trash that Travolta’s is mindlessly cranking out in Blow Out.

However, as stated, the films do have disparate aims for their respective sound obsessions. Blow Out uses sound as a doorway to a world outside the recording booth. It’s a dangerous world, but it’s an exterior one where big, important things are happening. Berberian Sound Studio, in contrast, becomes psychedelically insular. It not only gets lost in the recording booth, but also in the idea of sound itself. There’s so much horror & dissociation in the sound techniques employed in the film that it reaches an otherworldly state of mind that mimics the broken psyche of Bergman’s Persona just as much as anything it echoes from De Palma’s film. When you watch Berberian on Netflix with the closed captions enabled, the screen is filled with ludicrously long lists of sound descriptions desperately trying to keep up with every aural element in play. Early in the film a character ominously warns/promises, “A new world of sound awaits you. A world that requires all your magic powers.” It’s doubtful that the protagonist or most of the audience took him as literally as he meant it, but Berberian really is a lot more interested in the magic of sound than the more technically-minded Blow Out.

If I had to boil down the difference between the two films, I’d simply point out that Travolta’s protagonist spends most of his run time trying to piece together a crime scene & to capture a maniac killer, while Jones’ character is trying to get reimbursed for an airline ticket & to hold onto his basic sanity. De Palma’s approach weaponized sound to strengthen his political thriller’s arsenal. For Strickland, sound wasn’t a powerful tool; it was the entire point. The movies do share an impressive amount  of overlap, though, especially in Blow Out’s early, growling winds & in both film’s audiophile obsession with analog equipment. It’s difficult to imagine either film could be set in 2015 without being changed drastically. It’s doubtful that either film would mean much of anything once digital equipment removed a lot of the incidental sound from recording booths. The clacking & whirring of film projectors and tape recorders are essentially the two films’ lifeblood. Even the sound of the instruments that capture & display images are essential to cinema in these two films’ worldview. That’s the kind of synesthesia we’re working with here: there’s a sound even to the imagery. Blow Out just happens to use this attention to sound to open a door, while Berberian chooses to lock itself in the dark & swallow the key. They’re both overwhelmingly successful in their respective endeavors.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit last week’s Swampchat on the film.

-Brandon Ledet