Of all the superheroes Marvel studios have given solo films to so far, Captain America seems like the hardest sell, despite having a publication history much longer than his fellow Avengers. It’s telling that Marvel offered two titles to non-US territories for his first film, worrying that the super-Patriotic title ‘Captain America’ might be more off-putting than enticing. In some ways they needn’t have worried, the first film was a big success, and now thanks to the enormous success of The Avengers any subsequent Marvel films are all but guaranteed to be huge hits, However, Captain America was the character least well served by The Avengers, hardly any of the highlights of that film involved him, and he unfortunately is, on paper anyway, the blandest and least interesting of the superhero team (I’ve always found him quite a dull character in comic-book form too).
Captain America: The First Avenger managed to effectively distinguish itself from the multitude of other superhero films out there by being almost entirely a period piece. It was nearly all origin story but its World War II setting gave it a real chance to stand out, it even had a musical number. There were a few touches of humour about Cap’s new found ‘out-of-time’ status in The Avengers but now, entering his first solo adventure in a contemporary setting, Marvel still have a lot to prove with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Original director Joe Johnston hasn’t returned for this follow-up and Marvel have made perhaps there most unexpected directorial hire yet to replace him, Anthony and Joe Russo, mainly known for their contributions to quality TV comedy shows like Arrested Development and Community. Given their background, The Winter Soldier is a surprisingly humourless film; nearly every other Marvel film is funnier than this, and there was still ample opportunity to mine jokes from Cap’s situation. Instead he seems completely up-to-speed on the modern world now, crediting ‘the internet’ for assisting him.
Like its predecessor, The Winter Soldier immediately sets out to be different from most superhero fare, this time opting for a Washington D.C. setting, and employing a plot more akin to spy movies. Cap’s now working for S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), but the straight-laced Steve Rogers isn’t entirely happy with the more elusive aspects of his new employers. The central plot contains a lot of familiar spy movie elements thrown into the Marvel universe’s well-established setting, a government conspiracy, corruption, infiltration and the like. It’s not particularly original but works reasonably well for the most part, even the unsubtle real-world ‘security’ parallels. There are a couple of great touches, such as a sentient Nazi scientist computer network, but a lot of it looks to come out of one of the more ludicrous James Bond films.
There are a number of twists in the story, and none of them are remotely surprising. The titular Winter Soldier’s identity will already be known to anyone familiar with the comics but it’s not a satisfactory reveal when it happens.
There are beefier roles for Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, in his biggest Marvel role yet, and Johansson, who’s practically the co-lead. This is sadly probably the closest Marvel will get to a female-led superhero film for the time being. The film also introduces the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie, a fellow war veteran who’s really good when he’s just interacting with Steve earlier on but when he straps on his costume it’s a little too unrealistic, even for a Marvel movie. There no explanation given as to how it’s supposed to work. The most surprising appearance is from Robert Redford as a senior SHIELD official, whose presence deliberately intends to link the film to seventies spy/conspiracy movies. Redford very rarely acts in films nowadays, especially ones he doesn’t direct, and his performance is perfectly good here, but unlike All is Lost, I really can’t see what about the fairly 1-dimensional role attracted him.
If they’ve brushed over the comedy, the Russo brothers have fully embraced the opportunity to direct action scenes. A lot of the earlier scenes focusing on Cap’s grounded combat are very well handled, there’s a chase sequence centring on Nick Fury that’s especially good. Unfortunately come the final act, we get yet another absolutely huge battle sequence involving massive aerial crafts, tons of CGI and explosions. It’s so big it just becomes numbing, and disappointingly takes the film in an overly familiar direction when it started out trying to do something a bit different. We get it Marvel, you’ve got tons of money now, but really, there are other ways you can end a superhero film.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is another solid superhero effort, like most of Marvel studios’ fare, but it could be better. They’re still a way off from a film reaching Dark Knight levels of quality. There’s one thing the film undoubtedly succeeds in though, and that’s making Captain America a constantly likeable and compelling character, credit to the writers and Chris Evans’ performance, he never once seems bland or dull, and I’d be happy to see him again, just in a somewhat more restrained film.