Despite playing not a small part in the almighty success of The Avengers back in 2012, there seems to be a recurring opinion among film audiences that Captain America is the most boring of Marvel’s superhero bunch. Lacking the distinctive powers of his teammates and dressed up in the American flag, it’s not difficult to see why he’d be dismissed as a jaded US allegory, but that would be an unfair assumption.
The truth is Cap is a character that’s very easy to get wrong. However, stick him in the right context (preferably, one in which he is at odds with current socio-political events rather than being defined by them) and he instantly becomes a far more compelling proposition. Thankfully, that just happens to be the case with The Winter Soldier.
It’s been two years since Earth’s mightiest heroes disassembled and man out of time Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, always watchable and evidently more comfortable in his red, white & blue skin) is adjusting to life in the 21st century, all while working as a highly effective covert agent for S.H.I.E.L.D., often alongside fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson).
But Rogers is increasingly uncomfortable with the secret organization’s Orwellian methods, going so far to accuse director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of “holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection”. When terrorists appear to be attacking S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside, including a bionically enhanced ghost agent known as the Winter Soldier, it is up to a rogue Captain America to identify the perpetrators and restore order.
The problem with The First Avenger was that, despite an enjoyable first half in which the Captain’s origin was effectively handled, the rest of the film was marred by uninspiring combat montages and a camp sci-fi flair that jarred with the WWII setting. It was almost as if screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely felt that turning in a script featuring Nazi villains would’ve been too politically incorrect, a creative license that did not prove detrimental to the Indiana Jones movies, which were clearly a source of inspiration. In stark contrast, for The Winter Soldier the writers have not shied away from tackling topics that we are confronted with on the evening news, such as cyber-terrorism, wire-tapping and information leakage, making this sequel the most socially relevant Marvel movie to date.
Directorial duo the Russo Bros. (whose previous high-profile gigs are restricted to, surprisingly, Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me & Dupree) have also made the impressive choice to limit the CGI set-pieces to a minimum and instead opt for well-choreographed action sequences more akin to what we’ve seen in 90’s classics Speed, Heat and Ronin, or the more recent Bourne trilogy.
The claustrophobic scene in which Cap takes out an elevator full of assailants (“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”) is the stand-out of an impressive assortment, while Nick Fury’s messy car chase on the streets of Washington DC comes a close second. By keeping proceedings grounded, the action feels more brutal and believable. In comparison, the gargantuan final set-piece above three airborne helicarriers may get the adrenaline pumping, but admittedly feels slightly out of place with what came before.
TWS may officially be a solo outing, but Steve Rogers has nonetheless surrounded himself with another team of heroes, each one helping to bring the film to vibrant life. Scarlet Johansson gets to add more layers to the Black Widow, now officially the most rounded female character in the superhero genre (shame the same can’t be said about Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill, who barely features this time round), while Samuel L. Jackson turns in a more vulnerable performance as the enigmatic Nick Fury.
However, it is Anthony Mackie who steals the show as Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon, a forgettable C-list character in the comics that’s been brilliantly adapted for the big-screen – it’ll be hard for you not to cheer him on as he straps on those mechanical wings and takes to the skies. As for the titular Winter Soldier, he feels admittedly a little underdeveloped, but remains nevertheless a threatening presence and a visually striking villain.
Factor in the filmmakers’ decision to avoid the OTT comedy that ran a little too rampant in Thor: The Dark World and you have a confident superhero flick that also functions as an astute political thriller. For that reason, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most mature and quite possibly the best in Marvel’s Phase Two set of movies.
And while we’re at it, make sure you stick around for the obligatory mid-credits sequence at the end of the movie which, considering certain character rights difficulties going on between 20th Century Fox and Marvel, may well be the ballsiest PR stunt the latter studio has pulled off to date.