Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2014, 136 mins, 12
Director (s): Joe & Anthony Russo
Writer (s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Cast includes: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders
UK Release Date: 27th March 2014
2013 was another stellar year for Marvel at the box-office, continuing their presumed quest for domination of every entertainment platform known to man. Yet despite vast financial earnings, the studio laid a turd with last autumn’s “Thor: The Dark World”, an abysmal cartoon akin to an onerous toy commercial looped with satanic mercilessness. It was an uncomfortable sit, all noise and no finesse. Characterisation and plot haven’t always been the #1 priority at Marvel HQ, but the degree to which they were overlooked in favour of ear-splitting pizzazz reached a nadir with the Asgardian sequel. Thankfully “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” returns some stability to the brand, continuing on from the solid grounding of 2011’s “The First Avenger”. The original Cap adventure benefited from an immersive WW2 setting, and whilst “Winter Soldier” can’t quite hit the same escapist standard, it makes definite effort to engage with another period of American cinema. Gone is the triumphant flag-waving, leaving behind a cold, mistrusting tinge recalling the famed conspiracy output of the 70s. Of course no film under the Marvel banner is going to commit fully to the idea of genuine paranoia or have fits of anxious, interior delirium replace vats of explosive spectacle, but directors Joe and Anthony Russo at least safeguard a visual identity for the hero, ensuring that Cap’s attachment to period merely changes rather than disappears completely.
After a series of missions are compromised through the selective sharing of vital objectives, Captain America (Chris Evans) becomes concerned about the integrity of S.H.I.E.L.D. Voicing his troubles to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) only leaves the Captain more uncertain, as he is exposed to the unsettling Operation Insight, designed to protect citizens by preventing crime before it unfurls. Discouraged by this apparent contradiction of Civil Liberty, both Fury and the Captain are quickly rendered fugitives, hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D on the grounds of treachery and deceit. Leading the charge is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a high-ranking government employee willing to use the mysterious and deadly Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) to achieve his nefarious aims.
Joe and Anthony Russo are known for their TV work and the average 2006 comedy “You, Me & Dupree”, making them unusual choices to tackle such a blockbusting behemoth. What surprises more is the competency with which they articulate the action and story, never becoming overwhelmed with the scope of the Marvel universe. They don’t necessarily imprint a distinct visual style on “The Winter Soldier” -in fact the photography by Opaloch is more or less indistinguishable from Seamus McGarvey’s work on “The Avengers” -but they maintain a slick veneer and keep the action beats coherent. In fact the conclusion of “The Winter Soldier” ranks among the better finales in the studio’s catalogue (traditionally a weak spot), serving up spectacle with refreshing slathers of humanity. This success largely rests on the hulking frame of Evans, who is once again a ball of earnest vulnerability, the actor able to access a deeper level of consciousness than most of his superhero cohorts. The audience cares for Captain America because he is sweet and sincere, an old-school hero with tangible vulnerabilities beneath his invincible shell. The Russo Brothers do well to keep his interior struggles front and centre, licking coats of capable CGI polish around a conflicted and engaging human core.
Captain America remains a fish out of water, but we start to feel him process modern America here, and what he finds isn’t always to his liking. “The Winter Soldier” has fun taking a bastion of purity and placing him within a cynical world, using an array of twisty plot contortions and slippery supporting characters to define the film’s paranoid aspirations. “The Winter Soldier” isn’t nearly as dark or thoughtful as the genre greats it gently acknowledges, but the film definitely grapples with ideas traditionally above its station, painting our America as one run by politicians who believe freedom is a luxury that slows the accumulation of power. It’s amusing to juxtapose the Nazi villains of the opening chapter with the suited and booted boardroom shysters here, embodied menacingly by a game Redford. Clearly screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely feel the contrast is pertinent, as the movie proceeds to open up glaring connections with Cap’s 1940s past to kitschy yet intelligent effect. It’s a pretty broad commentary, but any ambitious discourse in a blockbuster is discourse worth acknowledging.
Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson reprise their franchise duties in sprightly fashion, the latter particularly grateful that this particular entry requires her to do more than look sexy and mobile in a cat suit. Evans and Redford are the MVPs, although Anthony Mackie is proving to be a beneficial screen presence for any movie, bantering capably and mustering decent action credentials as The Falcon, a makeshift associate of The Captain. The Winter Soldier is more of a costume designer’s wet-dream than a genuine threat. He’s been armoured to within an inch of his life, but in reality the antagonistic hole is Redford’s to fill, his relaxed malice proving scarier than any assortment of carnage Stan’s jacked assassin incurs. During the finale Stan gets some room to exercise his dramatic chops, but he’s slammed off the screen by a committed Evans, who rams the movie’s dramatic intentions home with aplomb.
At 136 minute “The Winter Soldier” actually validates its runtime more credibly than most Marvel outings, spacing its set-pieces out with strategic candour, the slippery narrative helping to keep intrigue at a palpable dosage. Of course it helps that Evans is a hero worth rooting for (take that Thor) and the Russo Brothers aspire to do more than ignite a heap of digital dynamite. “The Winter Soldier” is a strong piece of escapism, with enough thematic nuance, cine-literacy and performative confidence to push toward the upper tier of Hollywood’s increasingly crammed superhero canon.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014