Captain America: The Winter Soldier
It’s fitting that this film has done away with the usual numbering that we see in sequel titles since calling this ‘Captain America 2’ would be an oversimplification of the complex route its characters have taken to get here; its the third, fourth and fifth appearance for most of them, recurring as they have throughout the Marvel universe. It would also have been a mistake to imply that this is a direct sequel to the film that first spawned Cap into the MU since their relationship is more that that of Alien and Aliens: there are some deep-cut references and ties to the formers lore, but the tone, tempo and arguably the genre has changed over the break.
Which makes perfect sense given how much the character has changed since his first cinematic foray. Johnston’s film was a WWII-set homage to the adventure movies of the era that embraced the cheese and machismo of such things, but as the Captain is now a contemporary his films had to have a more modern feel to them. What doesn’t make as much sense is the fact that the filmmakers went to the well of the Cold War and the cold conspiracy films of the seventies to achieve this, merging them with the staple comic action of Marvel studios. Much has been made of the movies inclusion of drones and other such contemporary commentaries, but to call this a modern movie ( or Marvel’s Dark Knight) would be short-sighted; in its own way it’s just as dated and daggy as the original but that’s exactly why it works as well as it does.
To harp on about the title a little further, that second section – “The Winter Soldier” – was maybe a misguided choice. The character is a good one and by virtue of his recent creation and clear ties to real-world Russian counterintelligence figures his inclusion seems a strong choice for the film I just described, but honestly he isn’t enough of a focus for the film to have such high placing and can only disappoint if seen as such. Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D or ‘Civil War’ would both have suited better as subtitles, since these are the topics on which the movie spends the majority of its runtime.
They are both much broader and mercurial terms and this is a much broader and mercurial film, with a little reworking it could easily have been a second ensemble piece rather than a Captain America movie; the B-team to the A-list Avengers. While the Winter Soldier suffers as a result the film spends more time fleshing out the second-tier Marvel characters than the entire rest of the franchise. Scarlett’s Black Widow and Jackson’s Nick Fury aren’t just here to deliver exposition and look good in front of explosions, like they have been in the past; they are given personalities, pasts and some actual humanity and of course those two actors are up to the task.
Newcomer Anthony Mackie makes a good impression as Falcon, providing all of the quips and vulnerability of a sidekick without any of the frustration that usually comes with having such a figure forced on you. While he seems a strange inclusion at first his ties to PTSD provide a human face for the films commentary on modern combat and his ‘powers’ nicely mirror the movies use of drones as he is essentially the antithesis of a UAV. The other new inclusion, Robert Redford, is rather less successful; his presence rarely adding more than a knowing wink to fans of the genre that this film apes.
This is less a diss on his talent as an actor – I am still a huge fan of his – and more an issue with the script; he simply isn’t given much to do besides spouting off vaguely socio-political philosophies and telling partially illuminating anecdotes. He is here to provide a bigger picture for the film to operate in, but its in these moments of scale that the film gets lost. Physically speaking the Russo brothers direct the film’s big moments fantastically – they have a great grasp on all their action sequences, crafting chaotic but coherent combat scenes, and the visuals are stunning, both the virtual sky ships and the simple but very effective use of sheer glass in many of the settings – but the script only shines when its small.
Whenever the characters have to make a point they stop seeming like people, all of a sudden they are delivering these prosaic monologues like something out of a stilted seventies/eighties action movie, which is a shame given how great all of the casual exchanges are. The movie is ultimately about a battle between chaos and control and it succeeds far more when depicting the former than the latter so I wish that it had stuck to that, that it had left more of the evil schemes unsaid, simply allowing us to exist inside the action with the characters instead of stopping to have it explained in more convoluted terms.
There is a contradiction then in the films core, it both wants to be a fun, schlocky actioner and a serious piece of political commentary and those two urges don’t mesh as cleanly as they should. Iron Man gets it right by focusing 70/30 on the former and The Dark Knight by doing the reverse but the near fifty-fifty split tried here ends up stretching the film to tear. There are more than enough moments within this flawed outer frame that make the movie worth seeing: the early action sequences are among the best in the franchise and the character work is often fantastic, to the point that I am now actively wanting a Black Widow solo picture. It doesn’t revolutionise the genre but it is one of the better examples of a blockbuster in quite some time.