REVIEW: CAPTAIN AMERICA – THE WINTER SOLDIER / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: ANTHONY RUSSO, JOE RUSSO / SCREENPLAY: CHRISTOPHER MARKUS, STEPHEN MCFEELY / STARRING: CHRIS EVANS, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, SEBASTIAN STAN, ANTHONY MACKIE, COBIE SMULDERS, FRANK GRILLO, EMILY VANCAMP, HAYLEY ATWELL, ROBERT REDFORD, SAMUEL L. JACKSON / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 26TH
Marvel must have a hell of a lot of confidence in The Winter Soldier. Before it’s even out in the theatres, they’ve announced that the Captain’s third solo adventure will be released the same day as Warner’s forthcoming Batman/Superman face-off. Fortunately their confidence is well placed because, for the most part, The Winter Soldier is a bigger, better movie than its predecessor, and one of the strongest entries in the MCU to date.
From the opening setpiece, which sees the Cap, accompanied by Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, lead a S.H.I.E.L.D. strike team to free hostages on a terrorist-commandeered ship, this feels like a very different movie than the studio has attempted before; closer to Bourne or Bond than previous Marvel entries. It’s also, and somewhat strangely considering its directors Anthony and Joe Russo are best known for comedies like Arrested Development, the most serious of the studio’s movies to date.
Setting the action, barring a few flashbacks, in the present day, it’d be very easy for the film to play the fish out of water card again, especially given the rather abrupt end to Rogers' previous solo outing. Wisely it largely avoids going down this route (although kudos for mentioning Nirvana and Sean Connery on the Cap’s list of things he needs to catch up on), and instead focuses on another aspect of Captain America that’s out of date in the 21st Century – his moral compass.
One of the biggest cinematic drawbacks of the character is how strait-laced he is. Like Superman, he’s largely fighting for truth, justice and the American way. But what happens in a world where the American way is no longer straightforward? In the case of Superman, the result was to darken the character, with mixed results, in last year’s Man of Steel. The Winter Soldier goes down a different route. In a world where S.H.I.E.L.D. is advocating hi-tech, pre-emptive strikes against its enemies, Rogers' 1940s sense of right and wrong comes into sharp conflict with the realities of 21st century politics.
This is the most political, complicated Marvel movie to date. Yes, Tony Stark has fought terrorists, but here the line between right and wrong is more ambiguous. When we live in a time where suspected terrorists are routinely targeted by drone strikes, this is the closest Marvel Studios has come to dealing with real world issues.
The other main drawback of the character is, frankly, he’s not the most exciting superhero in Marvel’s armoury. Lacking Tony Stark’s humour and cool gadgets, or Bruce Banner’s ability to hulk out, or even Thor’s absurdity, he can, despite Chris Evans' admirable efforts, come across as a little bland. Fortunately the film counteracts this by making full use of its impressive ensemble cast. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury gets by far his most screen time to date, including a superb, mid-movie action setpiece, and more importantly, we finally get a Pulp Fiction reference. Similarly, the superb Scarlett Johansson gets almost as big a role as Evans (seriously Marvel, stop messing about and make a Black Widow movie. She’s more than earned it). It’s almost as big an ensemble piece as The Avengers, with only Anthony Mackie’s Falcon really failing to make much of an impression. We’re also treated to an impressive array of supporting characters, both familiar (Garry Shandling’s slimy senator, Maria Hill, and an all too brief return for Peggy Carter), new (Alan Dale manages to cross off another name from his ever dwindling list of major franchises he hasn’t appeared in), as well as the now obligatory surprise cameo during one of two end credit scenes.
After already battling Hydra and alien invaders, Captain America’s third cinematic outing sees something rotten inside S.H.I.E.L.D. After voicing concerns about the organisation’s new, darker direction to Fury’s boss Alexander Pierce (a superbly slimy Robert Redford. Good to have you back, sir) all hell breaks loose, with Rogers and Fury targeted by hit squads and super assassin the Winter Soldier.
The titular character is effectively sinister, a seemingly unstoppable, Terminator-style force. Giving us bits and pieces of his backstory, he remains largely an enigma. Yes, we find out his origin (largely consistent with his comic appearances) but little beyond that. The film makes the wise decision not to overuse him, having him appear in short, effective bursts before unleashing him fully in the finale.
And it’s in the finale that things finally start to stutter. There’s nothing bad about it, it’s just that up until that point, it’s easy to forget you’re watching another superhero movie. It’s only when we reach the climax, and things revert to one of Marvel’s now obligatory epic battles, that things start to feel like we’ve been here before.
For the most part though, it’s a bold movie, and one that has actual implications for the MCU. It’ll be interesting to see how the faltering Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in particular deals with the fallout. It’s an entertaining, different addition to Marvel’s canon, and all the better for it. Whether the Captain is a strong enough solo character to take on Batman and Superman though is another matter entirely. May 2016 is going to be very interesting indeed.
Expect Rating: 7 out of 10