Following last year’s entertaining but somewhat rote Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3, Marvel has kicked off 2014’s annual blockbuster season with one of its best pictures to date. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a witty, snappily paced hybrid of spy thriller and comic book mayhem.
The sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger plunges the super soldier (again played by Chris Evans) into the murkiness of the world after the war on terror and Edward Snowden’s revelations about US government spying. The Winter Soldier leaves behind the breezy retro futurism of the first film, channelling instead the post-Watergate cynicism of 1970s political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View.
The film sees Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, struggle to make sense of a moral universe that is greyer than the one he left behind when he fell into a cryogenic sleep near the end of World War 2. His straight-arrow ethics seem out of place in Shield, the shadowy government agency that has recruited him to further the causes of security and freedom.
When enemy agents compromise Shield and put the life of its shady director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in danger, it is up to Captain America and his allies to do what it takes to protect liberty and restore order. In the meanwhile, an elite enemy assassin known as the Winter Soldier is hunting them and Shield is pursuing them as suspected traitors.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo achieve fine a balance between political intrigue, superheroics and humour in their film. Their handling of a character created in the 1940s, one whose code of honour may today seem as quaint as his costume, is clever and confident.
Rather than mocking him with irony, they juxtapose his values with today’s realities and find the world of today coming up short. And realising that his powers — super strength, super speed, a rather nice shield — are a bit mundane compared to those of many other heroes in the Marvel canon, they’ve surrounded him with a compelling story and interesting characters.
For a team best known for comedic work on television, the Russo brothers show great instinct for shooting action. With the exception of the bloated endgame, they forsake the super-powered, mass destruction of the other Marvel films for smaller, closer combat encounters. The muscular opening sequence — a ship infiltration — is a standout.
As we’ve come to expect from Marvel’s productions, casting and acting is excellent. This time, Evans shades the Captain with the melancholy of a man living in the past without losing the idealism that defines him. Scarlett Johansson, appearing yet again as Shield agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, also shows a more vulnerable side to her character.
The chemistry between the two — one nostalgic for a simpler past, the other trying to leave behind a dirty history — is one of the film’s highlights. They’re joined by a new ally in the form of Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon, who has an easy charisma when he’s on the ground but looks rather daft when he’s wearing his military issue wings.
Jackson’s calculating and ruthless Nick Fury is as entertaining to watch as ever. Robert Redford, cast in homage to his parts in Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, grounds the spy thriller part of the film with gravitas. Less successful is Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier, a villain who barely registers as a threat.
The Winter Soldier has its flaws — a plot and story beats that are a little too predictable, a bit of character clutter (seriously, what is the bird-man doing in the film?), and some belabouring of its freedom versus safety theme — but this is great popcorn entertainment.
The film lets its characters breathe, it stays light without getting too goofy, and it has plenty of Easter eggs for anyone with an interest in the Marvel comic universe. Where Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World left me fatigued with Marvel’s films, The Winter Soldier makes me excited to see what happens when Captain America and the other Avengers assemble again for Age of Ultron in 2015. — (c) 2014 NewsCentral Media