Captain America’s detractors often seem to struggle to get past the name. But Marvel’s current iteration of its traditionally flag-waving character isn’t really that at all, but actually the most ‘realistic’ of its major heroes. The antiquated name rather suits the character in this context – he’s a man out of time, after all. The Winter Soldier, Cap’s second solo (ish) outing, is probably the most ‘down to Earth’ of Marvel’s superhero blockbusters, and in a lot of ways it benefits from that.
Whereas Thor: The Dark World, fun as it was, opted to go fantastical – albeit still with London tube gags – Winter Soldier plays it straighter, it’s paranoiac storyline shedding new light on the inner workings of the ubiquitous SHIELD organisation. Regular Marvel players Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) return here as Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) continues to adjust to his new post-ice coma existence.
We begin with a terrific assault on an ocean liner, in which new directorial siblings Anthony and Joe Russo get to immediately show off the way they’ve adapted to and improved upon the action style established in Joe Johnston’s The First Avenger. They’ve stuck to the wide framing methods of that film, keeping fast editing to a minimum, and the result is some genuinely exciting and refreshing hand-to-hand action sequences – some of which have enough clout to push the 12A rating to the limit. They obviously had a great deal of fun showing off how ‘super’ Cap is, and there’s a running visual gag about how quickly the guy can run which works really well.
That intro segues into a quieter section in which Cap begins to question SHIELD’s methods, and who he can trust, while confronting some ghosts from his past. I’ve always thought Chris Evans was great casting for this role and, particularly in the first half of the film, he gets to show off why. The Russo brothers thankfully allow us to spend enough time with Cap, and Evans portrays enough innocence and heart beneath his buffed-up exterior, that the character has the weight he needs. It’s true that the plot dictates that most of the good character stuff comes in the first half – we need room for the now traditional special effects showdown, after all – but there’s enough of Cap’s personality lingering around to keep us on side.
The ramped up action also whittles away some of the good will the story has built up – even if most of the plot points are pretty telegraphed – but it does at least give the relationship between Cap and Natasha a bit of space to breathe. She is more of a character here than she has been before, and it’s nice to finally see a significant female role in a Marvel film, even if Cap is still very much top of the bill. Anthony Mackie brings charisma and likability to a supporting role as Cap’s new buddy Sam Wilson, and manages to carry off the character’s transition into an only mildly interesting jetpack-wearing hero called Falcon.
The addition of Robert Redford to the cast, as shadowy SHIELD exec Alexander Pierce, is also a smart move. The mysterious villain of the film’s title, meanwhile, makes a decent impact with very limited screen time, but he’s too tangential to the story to linger too long in the mind. It’s a shame the film’s plot isn’t able to give more significance to him as a character, but that is evidently being planned for the sequel. It means his impact in this film is lessened, but this is the way Marvel has chosen to play things. After all, it was willing to leave all that incongruous scene-setting guff in Iron Man 2, which was to that film’s detriment too.
For a massive-budget superhero spectacle, The Winter Soldier indulges in some interesting, albeit hardly subtle, musings on defence policy and the use of drones. It’s not highbrow stuff, but nice to see in this context, and gives the film more weight than the fluffier entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are missteps in terms of plotting, and a couple of sillier moments (on two occasions characters escape from deadly situations via the same lu dicrous method), but with Chris Evans charismatic as ever in the lead, and a good supporting cast, The Winter Soldier is a welcome addition to Marvel’s ever-expanding canon.