It would be better if I just plugged my nose and downed the Avengers Kool-Aid because these movies aren’t going anywhere. Here we have Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), the ninth of these pictures since 2008’s Iron Man and surely not the last (the next Avengers movie comes out in 2015 with another Captain America movie following in 2016). I have no doubt that we won’t have to wait long for another Iron Man, another Thor or for a different character to get its own spin-off franchise (Nick Fury, the director of the secret organization the Avengers work for, has his own movie coming up). At least the Iron Man movies are numbered. Pretty soon I’m going to forget if Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes before Thor: The Dark World or The Avengers: Age of Ultron and wonder where the Days of Future Past figures in all this.
I mention all this because I am constantly reminded that these movies are less movies and more products, ones that have a not-so-hidden agenda to sell the next product, overtly. Most of these movies have secret scenes after or during the credits that hype the next installment (this one has two!), allowing the audience to forget what a forgettable experience they’ve just had and look ahead to the next forgettable experience, but this time with a different big name villain or a favorite comic book character who already comes with his or her own fan base and devotees, which saves the screenwriters the time of creating a character. I get depressed by this because it boils filmmaking down to casting, screenwriting down to what will make a good trailer and audiences down to consumers. I’ve decided to take my frustrations out on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, not because it most exemplifies this but simply because it’s the latest one I’ve seen.
The story returns us to the life of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Captain America, who you’ll recall (as I vaguely did) was turned into a supersoldier by science to fight Nazis in World War II and was cryogenically frozen to be reawakened in The Avengers (2012) and now is the poster-boy for American military might. He works for S.H.I.E.L.D., the secret government organization that protects the world and is run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and whose week-to-week exploits can be seen on ABC every Tuesday courtesy of Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. The threat this time comes from those darned Nazis again who are back, believe it or not, and just refuse to learn their lesson. It turns out that they’ve been controlling the world all along, since the end of the war, secretly manipulating us into giving away our freedom in the name of technology. Now, with cellphones and wiretaps and whatnot, they have us where they want us and they are back to genocide. The Watergate scandal, that was them. Vietnam, totally the Nazis. They pulled all the strings. It must have really burned them to allow the nation of Israel to exist, but I guess some sacrifices had to be made for the big plan.
As their bureaucratic puppet, they have Pierce (Robert Redford) who supervises S.H.I.E.L.D. while sabotaging its interests. As its muscle, they have the Winter Soldier, a feared assassin who elicits the reaction, “You’ll never find him. He’s a ghost.” The identity of the Winter Soldier is revealed as quite the shock, and experts in the first Captain America movie might find it that way. I had forgotten most of the original movie and therefore found it underwhelming, which I think is a problem with saturating the market with nine movies and one television show in six years, all of which interconnect, then expecting us to remember and care about an underwritten character from one movie to the next. There’s another problem that arises when you make separate superhero movies in advance of a movie in which they all appear together and then you continue to make separate movies about them afterward. We’ve had three individual superhero movies since The Avengers brought them all together: Iron Man 3 (2013),Thor: The Dark World (2013), and now The Winter Soldier. In all three, the hero faced a situation upon which the fate of the world rested. Wouldn’t those be appropriate times to call together the rest of the Avengers, all of whom are presumably in your cellphone? Actually, scratch that, you can’t use your cellphone because the Nazis are monitoring them.
The Winter Soldier does have another of those Avengers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who is a bridesmaid but never a bride (she’s had supporting roles in Iron Man 2  and The Avengers but never her own movie, which is a bit of a slap in the face considering Marvel has something called Ant Man in production right now). Together she and Captain America strive to save the day. The highlight of the whole series was the wink-wink humor that Joss Whedon brought to The Avengers, and some of that is visible here, particularly early when the movie jokes about Captain America, whose spirit remains in the 1940s, and his discomfort in the modern world. I really enjoyed the revelation that he has a running journal of all the things he has to catch up with, a list that included the entries “Star Wars/Trek,” “Thai Food” and Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. Like Thor (2011), which was also most original when it was having fun with its fish-out-of-water hero, these moments are too brief ,and by the end, Captain America quits being a personality and turns into a punching machine. I enjoyed a number of the action sequences, particularly two car chases, but very little leapt off the screen and permeated the memory, which isn’t good because I’m going to need to know this stuff when the third one comes out. And that is, in effect, my main problem with these movies. It’s not that there are a lot of them; it’s that none of them dazzles. I just can’t shake the feeling that they are designed to elicit the response of “I can’t wait to see the next one” more than “I really enjoyed this one.”