The rise of Marvel Studios has been positively superheroic, going from strength to strength with only the most mild of missteps along the way. While this Captain America sequel might lower the volume on spectacle in comparison with the recent run, in terms of fundamental cinema craft it represents an unexpected upswing.
We last saw Captain America (Chris Evans) throwing down with the rest of his spectacular pals as they fended off a full-scale alien invasion in The Avengers. Before that we witnessed his origin in a nimble and appreciably campy WWII action piece. Enjoyable as they both were, you couldn’t exactly say there was a clear tone or direction for ‘the first avenger’ on the big screen. And, when left in the right hands, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – in this case it’s meant directors Anthony and Joe Russo have been freed to take the film down a somewhat surprising, but very satisfying, conspiracy-thriller track.
Displaced in time and with the interstellar/mythical shenanigans behind him, Steve Rogers is at something of a loss. Now attached to the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., the good captain finds himself running black-op errands he’s not entirely sure he approves of. His nagging conscious soon proves to be more right than anyone could have expected, as the clandestine organisation begins to turn on its own and a deep-seated conspiracy unfurls.
Having Captain America become the target of the red, white and blue military complex his namesake symbolises is a shrewd way to keep a character steeped in eye-rolling patriotism relevant, exciting and fun. No flag-waving lapdog, Cap rebels against what he sees as the broken promises of the ‘Greatest Generation’, and the festering erosion of rights and basic decency that arose in its wake. Philosophically, it means he can brush up against versions of political concerns facing the real world today – visually, it means car chases, spy gadgets, explosions, double-crosses, assassinations, cover-ups and all that other good ’70s spy flick stuff.
Evans is still a little too on-the-nose with his square-jawed American blandness, but the story puts him through enough emotional toil that he is slowly becoming a more sympathetic Cap. His droll sense of humour – a trait shared by all the film’s good guys – keeps all the, ‘Golly, hasn’t the world gone to shit since the ’40s’ moments light and digestible, and the script even sneaks in a few genuinely touching moments for our super solider.
The supporting cast takes on a more diverse roster than is (disappointingly) standard super hero practice, and is all the stronger for it. Scarlett Johansen returns as the Black Widow, and finally gets the screen time she’s been begging for since showing up in Iron Man’s boxing ring. The film stops short of telling her backstory, but we get plenty of allusions to regrettable violence and betrayals as a baddie spy in her younger days. There’s lots of flipping, shooting and stabbing from her, of course, but she also gets the chance to show a more sympathetic side in the quiet moments, which plays out well.
Samuel L Jackson also gets to do a bit more than skulk about yelling at people as spy-daddy Nick Fury, which is a treat. One of the best (and least bloated with CGI) action scenes in the film kicks off when Fury is viciously attacked in public and careens off on a thrilling bit of high-tech car chase carnage.
New characters on the block include Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and the titular Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). The former is a welcome new non-super addition to the team. Sam Wilson is an unconventional pilot who, until enlisted in Cap’s skirmish, counsels fellow veterans with PTSD. He’s tactically clever, if always completely outgunned, sharp, and funny – plus he has a jetpack, what’s not to like?
Winter Solider is something of a disappointment. A mysterious uber-assassin sent by the espionage agency to bring down the renegade heroes, he’s got a super-strong mechanical arm, spooky faceguard and deep ties to Cap’s past. Fans of the comic books will have been rightly excited to hear this character landing a spot in the film’s title, but in the end it’s a bit misleading. He might be the biggest personal investment Steve Rogers has in the drama (and he brings exuberance to the fight scenes, to be sure), but in the machinations of the overall conspiracy, he’s really not that vital.
In fact, his presence just adds to the over-stuffed feeling of the film’s final act. Up until then things had been well-paced, quietly impressive and immaculately crafted. But when it comes time to unmask the real baddies, bring down the establishment, unravel the lies and save the day, everything starts to get jumbled. From a convergence of too many parallel action scenes to a reliance on big popcorn visuals, the rowdy denouement is a bit of a letdown.
On the whole a coolly subdued tone, admirable spectacle restraint and a bold commitment to being tangentially concerned with real world issues takes Captain America: The Winter Soldier much further than expected. It’s got all the trappings the genre demands – whirlwind action, cliff-hanger suspense, last-minute saves – but with the very welcome additions of quiet compassion, political engagement and a reverence for old-school thrills.