Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review
After a slight stumble with Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s ambitious cinematic universe project gets back on track with this robustly entertaining follow-up to Captain America: The First Avenger. By upping both the political and action stakes, and giving plenty of time to each of the various supporting characters, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered a slick and exciting espionage thriller that engages the brain as much as the adrenaline. It may not be perfect - the action is a bit choppy, and veers into overkill towards the end - but this is still a strong entry in what is unquestionably a golden age of comic book adaptations.
Though it follows on from the events of The Avengers, you might still want to rewatch The First Avenger before going to see The Winter Soldier. There are a surprising number of references to that film’s story, though there is a useful reminder early on about the fate of Captain America’s team during World War II and the origins of SHIELD itself. It’s indicative of Marvel’s care and attention that the title role hasn’t been relegated to a supporting character in his own movie, even as the multi-movie backdrop and overarching story continues to evolve. And, as in Joss Whedon’s Avengers team-up, each character gets their moment to shine.
Steve Rogers himself (Chris Evans, as assured in the role now as he was in 2011) is still adjusting to the present era, his old-fashioned attitudes towards security and freedom bringing him in to conflict with Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) more aggressive stance. When Fury is attacked and seriously injured, Rogers is framed and forced to go on the run to uncover both the conspiracy that has taken hold of SHIELD (might it have something to do with Robert Redford’s shady politician?), and the identity of the mysterious Winter Soldier, who seems intent on killing them all. Along for the ride are colleague Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, in her biggest and best part yet) and new ally Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who has one or two secrets of his own.
The casting of Robert Redford gives a big clue as to where this latest instalment gets its inspiration. Part one harked back to the clean-cut certainties of wartime America, when the moral case for taking the fight to the Nazis was cast iron. Part two takes a wrecking ball to those certainties. This is Marvel’s version of the Watergate saga, and the seismic changes it unleashes gives a new urgency to the story. Infiltration and corruption are the order of the day, leaving Rogers feeling very much alone. That’s the great thing about this character: he might seem transparent and heroically bland, but that very quality can be used to reflect the moral murkiness of those around him. Returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely seem to know this too, and how he can be used to best effect. The dilemmas raised by the film - personal freedom versus public security, privacy versus surveillance - are nothing if not timely.
But first and foremost this is a Marvel film. There’s a lot of story here - a LOT. It barely pauses for breath: Cap and Black Widow dart across the country exchanging banter while dodging bullets, explosions and potential gaps in plot logic with amazing dexterity. If Hitchcock had made a comic-book movie, it might have looked something like this. The only downside to the otherwise bone-crunching set pieces is the clumsy editing, which lets the old school car chases and fist fights lose some of their impact.
There’s plenty of proper comic book stuff too; one fabulous sequence around the halfway mark sees Rogers come up against a pre-internet computer intelligence from the 1970s, complete with banks of whirring tapes and an enormous VHS webcam. There’s plenty more where that came from, especially if you stick around through the end credits. Only the OTT ending takes the edge off the otherwise laudable attempt to keep the characters grounded is some sort of realism. Roll on part three.