Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital.
The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie.
The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less).
Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain.
Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile.
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But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things.
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It is the principal consensus that Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece. Not because it stayed faithful to the sentiments of its beloved predecessors, but because it dared to expand upon them. Toy Story introduced an enjoyable one-note tale of a cowboy doll clinging to his owner’s favoritism, allowing room for its follow-up films to explore the humanity of this theme in much more depth.
This is the charge that faces the Finding Nemo franchise, what with sequel movie Finding Dory newly announced — will the next chapter for the Pixar pisces just be a rehashing of the 2003 road comedy? Or will the latest venture delve more explicitly into the most interesting subject introduced in Finding Nemo: mental disability?
The superficial plot design of Finding Nemo likely spawned from road comedy staples from the days of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, but the journey beneath the sea hearkens to a more recent, much heavier entry in the genre: Rain Man. When the uptight straight man Marlin (Albert Brooks) takes up begrudgingly with flighty loner Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) on a globetrotting quest to find his lost son, we're transported to the cross country trek of Charlie and Raymond Babbitt (Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman) in Barry Levenson's Oscar-winning picture. Self-serving Charlie teamed up with his estranged brother Ray, an autistic savant, not out of compassion or fraternity but to further his own conquest for his father's inheritance. Along the way, Ray's disability provides a number of hurdles (he can't board an airplane, can't go outside when it rains, can't be touched) and opportunities (his knack for quick counting does the boys quite a few favors at the blackjack table) alike for Charlie as their travels take them to strange places (backwoods motels, doctors offices, Vegas casinos) and situations ranging from comical to emotionally resonant.
With Marlin and Dory, it's the same song: Marlin monopolizes on Dory's unique ability to read human English (and speak a bit of whale, as she'll proudly boast) as they traverse the realms of sharks, jellyfish, sea turtles, and a school of John Ratzenberger, bounding from moments of laughter and tears all the while. But beyond the surface value similarities, the relationship between Marlin and Dory is reminiscent of that of the Babbitt brothers. Impatient Marlin is at his wits' end with Dory's demanding mental state. The biggest hurdle along the way for the duo is Dory's short-term memory loss, not a mere character quirk in Finding Nemo but a bona fide disorder that prevents her from living independently (when left alone by Marlin towards the end of the film, Dory's anxieties kick up and overtake her memory altogether, leading her to forget the entire mission she and her fair-weather had just braved).
Alongside a forgiving and accepting Marlin, Dory's traumas are assauged and her memories bolstered. But we don't imagine that Finding Dory will do away completely with the trait that defined DeGeneres' fan favorite character in the first movie. What they should do, instead, is really tackle the issue, diving headfirst into a multifaceted, emotional and intellectual story about living with (and living with someone living with) mental disability. Sounds like a silly venture for a Pixar movie, maybe, but just think of the Toy Story franchise: a trilogy that expanded from "What if toys came alive when we left the room?" to a heartrending allegory about self-preservation, loss, and identity.
Finding Dory has an opportunity to build upon the simplistic ideas that made Nemo a charming one-off feature — to make the characters worthwhile in further episodes, we'll have to see a deeper exploration of what makes them tick. Marlin is plagued with insecurity, Nemo with a physical disability, and Dory (who, as the title would indicate, is the focal character in the new movie) with a mental disability. And this disability deserves an intricate center stage treatment.
As mental impairment is a subject matter that Hollywood has tackled time and time again, Finding Dory can learn from the example of past greats. Beyond Rain Man, we have a number of other public and critical favorites that can provide example of moving and insightful ways to depict the journey of a mental disability sufferer. A constant among many of these films is the director's drive to shatter society's expectations of the spotlit figures — nobody believed much in Forrest Gump's titular hero at the beginning of the movie, but Tom Hanks' most memorable cinematic character went on to take part in, if not institute, just about every great event in American history. Ditto Radio, on a much smaller scale: Cuba Gooding, Jr. portrayed a mentally disabled young man whose spirit brought a small town football team to unity and grandieur.
Dory's limitations did not keep her from achieving victory in Nemo, but then again we didn't see the extent to which they anchor her down. Following in the footsteps of uplifting sagas like Forrest Gump and Radio, Finding Dory might look to chronicle the wowing capabilities of memory-loss victims in the same way: perhaps her indomitable zest for life will outweigh her handicap in the sequel's story, branding Dory with the sort of embrace of self-worth advertised by Hanks' and Gooding's pictures.
There are, of course, much less "whimsical" accounts of mental disability in recent cinema: the 2001 movie I Am Sam might have endeared viewers to Sean Penn's character and invited them to truly understand the complexities of his condition in an unprecedented way, the film didn't offer the fairy tale ending many might have expected, or hoped for. It might unlikely for Finding Dory to bear to the wills of bleaker realism, but not implausible. Toy Story 3, Up, and Wall-E rank as three incredibly heavy, often dark, movies. In this vein — and borrowing from the attitudes of I Am Sam, of Rain Man, of the "Flowers for Algernon" film adaptation Charly — we might look for a Finding Dory that actually sets standing limitations on Dory. She will never be able to live on her own or even remember things prior to the present hour, it's a somber state of affairs. Perhaps for a character so enamored, a story this real is what fans deserve?
We have no idea just yet what Finding Dory has in store. Maybe we'll just find ourselves in another seafaring journey filled with laughs and whimpsers. But maybe we'll see a real examination of the internal struggle of DeGeneres' character — that's how the movie can truly work wonders; Pixar does best when Pixar dives deepest.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures(2)]
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