The Marvel Studios cinematic universe has always been about putting the fun back into funnybooks, with Phase II in particular bringing the mirth. The delightfully dynamic antics of The Avengers have always managed to neatly and elegantly sidestep the murk and darkness that has plagued so many other superhero properties, while Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and the fantastic Guardians of the Galaxy trailer have been as responsible for as many split sides as tension-sponsored armrest-grips.
Captain America, however, is a slightly different beast. The First Avenger was cracking fun, a flawed but charming Indiana Jones-style romp with heart to spare, but taking Steve Rogers out of WW2 and firmly into the 21st Century poses a different set of challenges. The man that was once such a standout is now just an outstanding man, a mere mortal living in a world of gods, aliens and hulks. Fine for an ensemble piece such as Avengers Assemble, with Whedon’s movie giving Chris Evans just enough to screen time to play up the fish-out-of-water and man-out-of-time aspects of the character, but how can Captain America be expected to carry a movie himself amidst such larger-than-life company?
The answer, as discovered by debutant directorial siblings Anthony and Joe Russo, is simple enough – acknowledge the fantastical elements of the Marvel universe with nudges, winks and easter eggs, but focus on an altogether different element of the world of earth’s mightiest heroes. The Winter Soldier is a good old-fashioned 70s-style conspiracy thriller filtered through a four-colour lens; a movie packed with enough car chases, slugfests and hi-tech gadgetry to satisfy thrillseekers, but one that wrings as much excitement and tension from lengthy conversations as it does pyrotechnics.
Cap’s comeback finds the Super Soldier attempting to build a new life in Washington DC, living and working in the shadow of The White House. Firmly positioning the good Captain in his Sentinel of Liberty guise as opposed to the Star-Spangled Avenger, the Russo’s (and their screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, returning from The First Avenger and The Dark World) deserve credit for crafting a brave and interesting plot, eschewing traditional superheroic feats in favour of raising genuine questions about the price of freedom and the dangers of a surveillance society.
That’s not to say that The Winter Soldier feels out of place within the Marvel U – there are more costume changes than a Lady Gaga concert, a chucklesome Stan Lee cameo, acrobatic fight scenes that wouldn’t look out of place on an Xbox, a mid-credit scene (worth sticking around for), a post-credit scene (no real loss if sacrificed in the face of the bladder-bursting running time), a larger-than-life villain of the piece, and a wry sense of humour that adds colour without ever becoming overbearing. It’s just a treat to enjoy a comic book caper that talks up to its audience, daring to give us something to think about – and changing the entire status quo for the future of Marvel Studios’ output in the process.
Cap’s unassuming nature – and Evans’ generous inhabitation of the character – also lends itself to a fine supporting cast, ensuring that The Winter Soldier applies plenty of personality to its key players. This is undoubtedly Samuel L. Jackson’s meatiest role yet as Nick Fury, less a facilitator and pen-pusher and more of a grizzled old soldier, and one of many characters forced to confront their own mysterious past. Interestingly Fury also appears to be one of the few men capable of suggesting that maybe – just maybe – Steve Rogers’ own history isn’t as squeaky clean as he would like the world to believe.
Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson is given ample opportunity to shine as Black Widow, yet another character on the run from their previous actions. Sharing most of Cap’s scenes from the second act onward, and stealing a number of them, Johansson enjoys a pleasant, easy chemistry with Evans, while providing a subtle but hugely appealing sense of vulnerability behind the catsuit-clad ass kicking. We still don’t know a huge amount about this interpretation of the KGB convert, or indeed just what we can believe about what we are told, but something tells us that we’ll be learning more about Natalia Romanova in Avengers: Age of Ultron and beyond.
The same probably can’t be said for Anthony Mackie sadly, whose Sam Wilson is a hugely welcome and engaging addition to the supporting cast. Mackie brings a cocksure and loquacious contrast to Cap’s square-jawed stoicism and adds a different dimension to the buddy-picture qualities of the movie, but Wilson’s alter-ego of Falcon fulfils almost the same visual and story purposes as Iron Man (who is often mentioned but never seen this time around). A cynic might suggest that in addition to making a nod to Cap’s past, Falcon was written into The Winter Soldier largely to avoid another hefty payday for Robert Downey Jnr.
Numerous other franchise stalwarts make reappearances – some anticipated, some less so, but all very much welcome. Sadly if the film has one flaw it’s the villain-shaped one that has dogged Phase II thus far; the titular antagonist is seriously short-changed. Visually striking, and blessed with one of the most fascinating and “OMFG!” origins in the history of the Captain America comic book, The Winter Soldier of The Winter Soldier fails to ignite the imagination in the way he should beyond a heart-stopping introduction. With an origin explained away in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it montage even briefer than the WW2 mosaic of the original, and a shortage to screen-time (especially alongside Chris Evans), this feels like something of an opportunity lost. Hopefully it’s a slip-up that will be rectified further along in the Marvel U.
This is a mere gripe as opposed to a bona fide complain though, as the Russo’s have taken to action cinema with genuine aplomb; previously best known for their comedy work, this has proved to be yet another leftfield directorial masterstroke from Marvel. The distinguished siblings resist the urge to play with every new toy in their box and fling the camera with gay abandon, opting instead for comparatively static but devastatingly effective lensmanship. Following a frenetic Bond-style pre-credits action extravaganza The Winter Soldier holds off on the showpieces for much of the first act, but it’s in no way a poorer experience for it; in fact, one of the highlights of the entire picture is a humble elevator ride. The movie even manages to pull what the otherwise-exemplary Iron Man failed to do – make boardroom conversations (admittedly ones that revolve around Robert Redford, another inspired addition to the cast) fascinating and gripping.
To learn that Marvel have hit yet another one out of the park is nothing new – while the bubble is certain to burst eventually, the studio that Stan built shows no sign of serving up a stinker just yet. It’s the manner in which they have succeeded with The Winter Soldier that is so impressive, providing a shift in tone into something more serious and adult, but nothing so hackneyed as the now-obligatory ‘darker sequel’. Captain America may not be many peoples favourite character in the year 2014, but this is arguably the most politically-relevant blockbuster of recent memory.