The Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems, will always struggle with conflicting impulses: tell a great story, or propagate the brand? Therefore, it may be time for me to finally make peace with the fact that even the best Marvel movies will be marred by the producers' unwillingness to color outside the lines too far. Lowered expectations will make for a better blockbuster experience, at least, even though it feels like a defeat to settle for mere adequacy. We grow older, we make compromises to be happy. Oh well.
I came to this realization after seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which at its heart is all about compromise. Straight-arrow Cap has to contend with the dawning realization that his eponymous country has grown quite comfortable with deals made and actions undertaken in the shadows. As a guy who wears the stars and stripes on his uniform and carries a shield, he's uncomfortable with the cloak and the dagger. Captain America doesn't compromise his values, so he's shocked when he discovers that America does (only for good reasons, of course, of course). Something has to give in this irreconcilable conflict. It's not long before the twists and double-crosses start flying thick and fast, and for a while the film is pleasantly murky and paranoia-laced.
But Marvel has a fledgling TV series and an entire orchard of film properties to tend to, so they eventually abandon the gray areas for a much more clearly defined (and surprisingly violent) conflict between good guys and bad guys. It's all presented quite entertainingly by codirectors Anthony and Joe Russo—the action sequences are some of the most thrilling to come out of the superhero genre thus far—but its attempts at complexity and thoughtfulness never cohere in a meaningful way. It's not even clear that the filmmakers fully understand the import of the tropes they're playing with. The closing credits are emblematic of this disconnect: they play with starkly contrasting black-and-white images, which are visually striking but dissonant with the movie's themes of moral ambiguity and the corrupting influence of power on even "good" guys.
Such flaws would be easily addressed by more risk-taking with the characterization of the film's central figures, but as I said, Marvel has its brand to think of. They can't mess around too much with the universe they're building, for fear that monkeying with one part of their massive edifice will cause structural weaknesses elsewhere. Whatever brain-tickling questions arise from The Winter Soldier's narrative are squelched by the audience's suspicion (and the later confirmation thereof) that the apple cart will be jostled but not completely upset.
I don't mean to be too hard on the film. It's among the very best of the superhero films to come out in the new millennium, and at least it aspires to do more than distract and entertain. But Marvel seems content with merely aspiring to greater things, instead of outright achieving them. If only they had the convictions of their flagship hero.