Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (screenplay), Ed Brubaker (story)
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp
In a world where Warner Brothers still can’t figure out how to update Superman for the modern age, it’s impressive how Marvel has managed to take a Golden Age comic book character like Captain America and make him interesting and relevant. They succeeeded with the first Captain America movie by creating a period adventure film with the help of director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer). This time around, they have inserted Captain America into a contemporary setting and gone in a completely different direction: a ’70s-style paranoid thriller.
Although these Marvel movies are all starting to feel like they’re coming off of a production line to some degree, I have to give them credit for staying one step ahead of the audience. The movies remain similar enough to exist in the same universe, and yet different enough that they’re not completely repetitive. If connecting all of these movies has been the key to their initial success, the ability to tell decent standalone stories is what will help them maintain it. For the most part, Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds on that front and manages to feel somewhat fresh… at least until all of the comic book tropes start piling up and the mindless explosions take over.
When we last saw Steve Rogers, he was helping The Avengers save Manhattan from the Chitauri. Now that things have settled down a bit, he is carrying out smaller missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. despite being opposed to their newfound reliance on spy satellites and surveillance technology to fight terrorism. After a brush with a mystery assassin, Nick Fury shows up at his apartment and passes him some information, which puts him on the radar of senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Captain America is soon declared a fugitive and finds himself on the run. His only hope is to head down the rabbit hole to try and uncover the truth about the assassin and determine if S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised.
We’ve all had our doubts about whether Marvel solo films can still be compelling after seeing so many superstars together on screen in The Avengers, but what’s smart about these solo films is that they aren’t really solo films. Marvel continues to mix and match their marquee heroes with appropriate supporting characters, ensuring that they still have teammates to play off. The easy chemistry between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson is a big part of what makes this movie work, and as time goes on, we’re seeing all of these actors get more comfortable in their roles. Although Black Widow was a little overshadowed in The Avengers, this is the movie where she really comes into her own both in terms of personality and her ability to kick ass.
Being forced to drop the period setting and director of Captain America: The First Avenger is unfortunate, but the spirit of that movie survives with Chris Evans, who continues to be great in the lead role. He is likeable, stoic and honest without being too naive, and the fact that he is now a man out of time adds some complexity to the character. It also provides plenty of opportunities for comedy, which continues to be a winning part of Marvel’s formula. This is one area where it is arguably a benefit to hire TV directors like Anthony and Joe Russo, who have plenty of experience with funny shows like Community and Arrested Development. However, the jokes are not as rapid fire you might expect (Joss Whedon did not write the script) and not as pop culture-oriented either, although they do manage to squeeze in a Saw reference and a Danny Pudi cameo.
The action in the movie is solid as well, albeit considerably smaller in scope and scale compared to The Avengers or Iron Man movies. Most of the action sequences are fist fights, shootouts and car chases, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you ask me, this is the closest a Marvel movie has come to replicating Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in terms staying grounded in a reality (well, at least until The Winter Soldier and Falcon enter the picture anyway). The stealth attack on the pirate tanker especially feels like something out of a Batman movie, and yes, the score gets pretty Hans Zimmer-y at times.
There was a lot of talk leading up to the release of the film about how it was inspired by conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s like Three Days of the Condor and All the Presidents Men. The casting of Robert Redford was clearly intended as a nice little nod to this, even though his role probably could have been handled by anyone. I have to admit I was surprised by how well they manage to capture the tone of these movies within a modern comic book flick, at least for the first hour or so. It really feels like Captain America is on his own with no one he can trust and the mystery is compelling for a while even if the payoff is not great.
Sadly, once all of the twists and turns have been revealed, we are forced to endure another series of mind-numbing action sequences that give way to giant explosions and giant cliches. I know that this is simply expected for these kinds of blockbusters, but it really doesn’t feel appropriate to cold war spy movies, which often end in quiet and unsettling ways. Still, the conspiracy plot is strong and overall the movie manages to be entertaining while also being about something. To me, that’s a worthy achievement. Together, the two Captain America films remain my favourite Marvel movies to date… bring on Guardians of the Galaxy! — Sean