Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo
Following the alien invasion of New York, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still trying to adjust to the 21st century, and attempting to find purpose in the murky world of S.H.I.E.L.D. When events begin to suggest that not even his closest allies can be wholly trusted, he goes off grid, with the aid of fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) to uncover the truth behind both the conspiracy and the mysterious Winter Soldier…
One of the major strengths of the Marvel films thus far is their ability to encompass a wide range of genres under the general ‘comic book movie’ umbrella. The ‘Iron Man’ franchise brings in elements of science fiction and broader action films. With ‘Thor’, there are shades of high (and low) fantasy with a touch of space opera. The first ‘Captain America’ film was a pulpy affair, harkening back to matinee serials in a similar vein to ‘Indiana Jones’, all Nazis and ray-guns and thrilling derring do. It even found room for a song and dance number.
‘The Winter Soldier’, for much of its running time, sits firmly in the political thriller camp, at least thematically. Even before consideration is given to the plot, Robert Redford’s casting as a senator draws attention to this focus, recalling his long association with such films, as has been heavily discussed in the promotional material. It’s a smart direction to take. To some, Captain America is probably the toughest of Marvel’s current roster of characters to bring to the screen successfully, similar to DC’s Superman. He’s a decent, pure-hearted man, a throwback to bygone periods and old-fashioned values, and…well, Captain America. It’s easy if inaccurate to dismiss him as a jingoistic tub-thumping all-American patriot. To my mind, what he really stands for is basic decency, but then again that’s equally un-fashionable in some circles; anti-heroes seem to be far more popular these days, and even amongst his stable mates the Captain is seemingly a less shaded character (contrast Tony Stark’s flippant, cynical exterior and wounded, vulnerable interior, or Thor’s initially boisterous, immature warrior). Putting him at odds with some of America’s less palatable institutions, or their fictional counterparts, is a neat way of allowing that moral integrity to come to the fore without calling to mind the (inevitable and somewhat tired) comparisons to the puppets of ‘Team America’. For the first hour or so, there’s a perhaps surprising level of sophistication to the plot, raising questions that very much resonate with real life issues of freedom and civil liberty.
Then you reach the halfway mark, certain revelations are made, and an unfortunate amount of that ethical debate is undermined if not quite discarded. It’s a real shame. No one is going to call the Marvel films masterworks of intellectual and philosophical subtlety, but particularly over the last two or three films they have shown a tendency to reach a little higher than the average blockbuster. While ‘Winter Soldier’ keeps elements of that maturity going, certainly on a character level, it becomes a fairly standard good guy vs bad guy romp which is thoroughly entertaining but disappointing.
To say more would be to spoil, so I shall move to other areas. Chris Evans seems much more comfortable in the role than in his previous appearances, perhaps more comfortable in a less ridiculous costume than he sported in ‘Avengers Assemble’, and clearly relishes the more mature material. It helps that there are some far more solid characters around him; Scarlett Johansson walks away with the screen more or less every time she’s on it, showing sides to the Black Widow that haven’t been seen on screen before – here, her tongue is nearly as deadly as her assassination skills – while Anthony Mackie’s Falcon provides sterling support as a more modern, ironically grounded counterpoint to the Captain’s war experience. There’s also a beefed up role for Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, building on some of the dubious decisions made in ‘Avengers Assemble’. In other roles of note, Sebastian Stan is effectively blank (for the most part) and Terminator-esque as the titular Winter Soldier, but more could have been made of the character. There will clearly be follow-ups to this strand in future films, but one of the Marvel films’ strengths thus far has been some strikingly nuanced antagonists (albeit more effective in some instances than others), and for the vast majority of the film he is little more than a superhuman thug.
That said, while he may be thin on characterisation, he is incredibly effective as a threat to our heroes, and the setpieces are probably the highlight of the film. The final section is perhaps a little overlong, and for all the romping spectacle a little traditional blockbuster (things explode, a lot), but there are a couple of scenes earlier in the film that really stick in the mind – the Captain effortlessly retaking a ship from some pirates, and a surprisingly brutal brawl in an elevator.
Ultimately though, the spectacle is all that ‘Winter Soldier’ really excels at. ‘Iron Man 3’ combined better setpieces with more emotional depth, while ‘Thor 2’ cements itself in the head by being funnier than most out and out comedies. ‘Winter Soldier’ has some interesting developments for the overall Marvel franchise, some solid performances and a sharp script which all combine to make it a really good film – but if it had kept that murky tone going, it might have been great.