Week of April 3, 2022:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier released April 4, 2014 (where to watch)
Turn, Turn, Turn (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. s1 e17) released April 8, 2014 (where to watch)
Scott Hardie | April 7, 2022

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: This remains one of Marvel's very best productions. If anything, it seems even better in hindsight, after having a bigger picture of the MCU. Here are three reasons why I think it was such a success:

1) Most superhero and action movies have cycles of building up tension and then releasing it with action scenes and then having to build it back up again. This film borrows the air of mystery and paranoia from 1970s spy thrillers (casting Robert Redford was genius) and uses that to sustain tension, such that action scenes like the assassination attempts on Nick Fury serve to increase tension instead of dissipating it. The film builds a great mystery early on, and manages to sustain a relentless, edge-of-your-seat intensity for most of its running time that most other MCU films haven't even attempted. This is an exceptionally entertaining thriller.

2) Captain America needed modernizing. The classic 1940s hero was invented for a different, simpler time, and his Nazi-punching, good-guys-vs-bad-guys morality doesn't fit with the complex shades of gray in our modern world. (Say what you want about America's grave misdeeds both foreign and domestic since the 1940s; I'm not going to get more political than that.) You could drop any Marvel hero into a spy thriller and it could be a fun movie, but it wouldn't shock them or challenge them the way that the twists of this plot affect Steve Rogers. He needed this story about moral compromise in order to continue to function in subsequent productions. And he was uniquely positioned to bring necessary change to the MCU: No other hero would have had the clarity of vision to argue that S.H.I.E.L.D. had to be destroyed too in order to eliminate Hydra completely, but he did and he was right.

3) Nearly everything about the production is top-notch. Marvel was flush with success at this point and could afford the best technical and creative teams in Hollywood. The action and stunts are extremely well done. The production design and costume design are superb. Henry Jackman's propulsive score is one of the MCU's best. The cinematography is engaging and playful without being distracting. (Critics often sneer at the Russos for their plain camerawork, but I can count numerous unexpected shots in the elevator fight and the street knife fight alone.) Everything just clicked and there was barely a false note in the entire two-hour film, with one exception:

The only major complaint that I have is the screenplay's silly idea about Steve and Sam having to do manual replacements of the over-sized microchips on the three airships. It's just incredibly dumb, like the Death Star having one shaft that Luke Skywalker can shoot into that blows the whole thing up. How did Maria Hill get a suitcase with the three replacement cards? How is the most complex and intelligent predictive program in history encoded on a plastic card that must remain inserted for it to work? How are there no security locks on the computer core in each ship? If all three ships must get their card replaced for the mission to succeed because any one of them is enough for Insight, why did Hydra build three ships? How did the targeting system load all of Insight's targets into memory and then instantly forget them as soon as Steve pulled out the last card? How did Hydra not assign one of their own to the launch terminal? There are just so many things wrong with this idea, and I don't want my effusive praise for the rest of the film to imply that I'm fine with this aspect of the screenplay. (Other minor quibbles: The CGI isn't great, especially on elderly Peggy, and the Natasha-matchmaker jokes don't land.)

For me, this is firmly in the top three of all MCU productions including television. There are few other titles that I remember this fondly or that I consider this much of a success. Truly excellent. I could watch this over and over. (original opinion 8/10, today's opinion 9/10)

Scott Hardie | April 7, 2022
This comment contains spoilers for Doctor Strange, Black Widow, and Moon Knight. Reveal it.

Scott Hardie | April 10, 2022

Turn, Turn, Turn: It should be no surprise that this episode is so good, since the series was largely built around Winter Soldier's big twist. The paranoia, double crosses, and revelations here are really entertaining. Sadly for me, I knew about most of them in advance, but it was still neat to see them unfold. (For the record: I knew that Garrett was the Clairvoyant. I knew that Ward was disloyal and would betray the team, but not that he was conflicted about it. I knew that Hand would die, but not that she was loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D.; I assumed just last week that she was Hydra.)

I liked Hand's suspicion that Coulson was Hydra based on his mucking up so many missions and acting so strangely. Too often in shows like this, the hero fails many times (with or without good reason) and there's never any reassignment or punishment, so it's nice to see Coulson's superiors recognize in-world that, hey, this guy may not be the best at his job. And judging from Coulson's coldness toward May at the end, it's nice to see that there will be, for at least one more week, consequences to the doubts raised about her allegiances; that sort of blow to the team's trust shouldn't just be a red herring, easily forgotten once its usefulness to the plot is gone. All of the May material was really great, actually; I liked the revelation that she put the team together herself, and, by her not mentioning Skye, the implication that Coulson's addition of Skye eventually changed everything. Also, I really appreciated the music, both the classic needle drop (which might never be topped by its use in Stephen King's The Stand 30 years ago) and the tense original music.

I know some more spoilers, but not many. Considering that the series was built around an organization that is in the process of ceasing to exist in-world, I'm very curious what plans the showrunners had for it beyond the first season, but the fact that it went on for so long is proof that it found its footing. I really look forward to seeing where it goes next. (8/10)

Scott Hardie | April 11, 2022
This comment contains spoilers for Agent Carter. Reveal it.

Scott Hardie | April 11, 2022

I discussed the S.H.I.E.L.D.-is-Hydra idea with Kelly, and she identified the crux of the matter quickly, which is that there is no significant difference between them. One is coded as "good guys" and the other as "bad guys," but considering that the good guys have already carried out extrajudicial arrests & assassinations worldwide and attempted to nuke Manhattan and operated with virtually no accountability or transparency, how are they the good guys really? Consider the late scene in "Turn, Turn, Turn" in which Hand encourages Ward to shoot Garrett dead. That doesn't seem like something the good guys would do, right? And even if she didn't ask for that, they're still taking Garrett away to a small prison cell for the rest of his life, with no trial whatsoever, with almost no living person even knowing that he's there (beyond, I would hope, a team feeding him and keeping him alive). That's insane. That's not at all the way that "good guys" are supposed to operate. And it's easy for us to say that in 2022, on the other end of the Trump presidency and the January 6 insurrection and rising wave of fascism in America, but people in 2014 still should have had some clue that S.H.I.E.L.D. really aren't good people, and that there's functionally little difference between them and Hydra. Either the show is missing a golden opportunity to explore this subject further (which it might yet in upcoming episodes I suppose), or it's too close to its own subject matter to recognize that there's a massive problem here.

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