DIR: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo • WRI: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Jeffrey Ford • MUS: Henry Jackman • DES: Peter Wenham • CAST: Robert Redford, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
Steve Rogers – super soldier, war hero and man-out-of-time – is back in the world after a stint as a patriotic popsicle beneath Arctic ice. Captain America’s second solo outing since the so-so WWII epic that was 2011’s The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier sees Cap trading in his wartime crusade against Nazi pseudo-science outfit HYDRA for more cloak-and-dagger espionage under SHIELD. When the intelligence agency closes ranks after a masked super-soldier threatens even their highest levels, Rogers is forced into the fray against an unknown enemy who will ultimately lead him to question everything – particularly his place in a world that has more use for him as a weapon than a symbol.
It’s not exactly a new premise, seeing the quintessential poster boy for the Good Ol’ Days thrown into the morally ambiguous snarl of sleeper agents and sexy sexy spy tactics, but why should it be? The Avengers proved that our summer superhero flicks, smartly-scripted with a dash of character, can follow the commercial course without devolving into a by-the-numbers blockbuster, and The Winter Soldier certainly aims to carry that particular torch.
On the whole, what follows the much-lauded ten minute-preview released online proves stronger than even the ethereal and undefined “buzz” might suggest, the first hour or so delivering a story that is by turns entertaining and, dare I say, engrossing.
Dipping a booted toe into some genres and gleefully cannonballing into others, Cap 2 is a surprisingly subtle blend of nostalgic espionage and pulse-pounding action, all wrapped up under the stars and stripes of a superhero film. The fight sequences oscillate between balletic and genuinely bone-shuddering, rarely feeling overwrought thanks in no small part to a script that is well-paced and self-aware without bordering on trite.
Characterization is key to taking us through the hammier blockbuster aspects – every instance of Cap’s shield caroming off of another henchman’s head without somehow reducing it to patriotically-branded pulp is balanced by a quieter moment, such as Rogers sitting by the bedside of his now-aged love interest from the first film, or lingering in the doorway of a veteran rehabilitation meeting.
Johannson is again on form as the mercurial Black Widow, a glib foil to Evan’s po-faced Captain. Indeed, the leading man himself gets a chance to stretch actorly muscles typically left uncurled in films such as this, and it’s a genuine treat to watch him bring a quiet charisma to the ultimate blank slate that is Steve Rogers, a man with no life outside of his uniform.
However, just as those tracking shots ease their way down Black Widow’s catsuit as she strikes a pose after some particularly intense leg-grappling, I’m sure you sense a “but” on the way.
Thematically, the film follows the heightened stakes of Whedon’s alien attack on New York by attempting to ground Cap in some approximation of the real, the plot making vague gestures towards institutional paranoia and our hero’s waning faith in the powers-that-be. The hot-button topic of a secure state and the taxes it levies on personal freedom certainly forms the crux of the latter half of the film, but by this point a moment late in the second act has cast a new light upon events that ultimately dilutes all that went before and everything to follow.
In the interest of remaining as brief and spoiler-free as possible, suffice it to say that the core conflict of this film is the tension between a straight-laced soldier without a cause and the shady masters only to happy to provide him with one, so long as no questions are asked. In the grand tradition of the espionage thrillers it tips its hat to, The Winter Soldier is strongest as a tale about not knowing who the enemy is, of fighting in a brave new world of moral ambiguity where the word “evil” doesn’t hold the same currency it used to. The very last thing we needed was a flickering black-and-white montage narrated with a smug German (sorry, Swiss) accent whose sole purpose was to solidify this murky morality into solid black and white in time for our final battle, and yet that’s exactly what we got.
This descent at the end of the second act ultimately hamstrings the third, plonking us firmly back into a narrative of hero vs. villain and rendering all of the tropes that earlier seemed playful into reductive parodies of themselves. From here the plot aims for home along the path of least resistance – which, conveniently, intersects with that of most exploding aircraft, least concern for collateral human fatality and spends a great deal of time detouring around Scarlett Johansson’s hips.
Ultimately, the chink in The Winter Soldier’s armour is the same that plagued Snyder’s Man of Steel. Heart, humour, fantastic visual action and a solid villain – the bones of an excellent film were there and could likely still be excavated from an overwrought third act. Unlike MoS, Captain America: The Winter Soldier still makes it out near-intact as two-thirds of an excellent film, and certainly sets up some daring knock-on effects for the rest of Marvel’s ominously-titled “Phase 2”. However, while certainly the beefed-up super-soldier to its weak-chinned predecessor, The Winter Soldier ultimately pulls its punches and I can’t help but wonder at the Cap that could have been.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is released on 26th March 2014