Looking back, 2014 was a good year for films set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The two releases slotting into Phase 2 of Kevin Feige’s enormous project, Guardians Of The Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, made around $1.5 billion between them, and perhaps helped to increase anticipation – if it were even needed – for this month’s soon-to-be-all-conquering The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Leaving the obscene amounts of money aside, perhaps just as importantly the critical consensus held that those two films were high points with regard to Marvel’s recent output, and represented a turning point of sorts after the underwhelming Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Having finally caved in and watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier in preparation for Age Of Ultron, I feel inclined to generally agree with that consensus.
The Winter Soldier is the ninth film taking place in the MCU, and the second standalone Captain America title, after 2011’s The First Avenger. As such there are no concessions made for casual viewers or latecomers, and director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (previously best known for Community) waste no time when re-introducing already-familiar characters: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is Captain America, the enhanced Second World War ‘super-soldier’ who has woken up in the modern era after a 70-year slumber, Samuel L. Jackson is the oh-so-serious Nick Fury, Director of espionage/counter-terrorism agency S.H.I.E.L.D, and Scarlett Johansson is spy Natasha Romanoff, also known as The Black Widow. Some minor cast members return – Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell – while Sebastian Stan is given a slightly bigger part to play and Anthony Mackie joins as Sam Wilson / Falcon.
Given Marvel’s usual reliance on CGI, The Winter Soldier feels refreshingly old school, in the sense that it largely avoids the fancy stuff until its long, frenetic finale, during which a trio of giant, flying, death-dealing ships are launched by Hydra, Marvel’s fictional terrorist organisation. As many others have suggested before me, the film occasionally feels like a 1970s political thriller, and its early acts specifically bring to mind two films from Alan Pakula’s famous ‘paranoia trilogy’: The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. Indeed the link is further cemented by the presence here of Robert Redford, star of that latter film, as S.H.I.E.L.D bigwig Alexander Pierce, while the Washington, DC setting allows for numerous Pakula-esque establishing shots that focus on the familiar environs of the Potomac, the National Mall, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building.
Amidst all the ‘trust-no-one’ double crossing within government agencies and the laboured references to earlier MCU films, Captain America and co must do battle both with Hydra moles operating within S.H.I.E.L.D and the fearsome ‘Winter Soldier’ of the title, with whom our hero has a bit of history. The action set pieces here are fun, the fist fights bone-crunchingly entertaining, and I have to admit I enjoyed every single one: an early assault on a cargo ship by Cap and The Black Widow is a highlight, a claustrophobic scrap in a glass lift is simple but effective, and a sustained terrorist attack on Fury’s armoured car is equally gripping. It’s no surprise the film proved so popular with fans last year, or that the Russo brothers have since been confirmed as the directors for three more forthcoming Marvel movies.
Much of the appeal lies with Evans’ po-faced and noble patriot: some regard him as Marvel’s dullest superhero, but he stands out here by being the only main character who acts with honesty and decency while those around him on both sides make a number of duplicitous moves (the smirking and lethal Black Widow among them). I must admit I was sceptical about the character’s longevity after The First Avenger, which disappointed me, but I’m firmly on side now, and will be looking forward to further Captain America films more than any of the other Avengers solo efforts. Here screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely play on the fish-out-of-water side of Steve Rodgers’ character a little more, and entertainingly spoof Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery by giving Cap a list of 20th Century cultural touchstones to catch up on, such as Star Wars and Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man (although the opportunity to see Rogers exclaiming ‘…and I can’t believe Liberace was gay’ has sadly been missed). There’s also a nice moment where Rogers is shown the three state-of-the-art flying battleships that he will eventually have to take down at the end of the film, and subsequently takes himself off to the National Air and Space Museum to wallow in the company of more familiar, older aeroplanes. Times have indeed changed.
A minor problem with the film is that the Russos and their screenwriters seem over-eager to include a number of minor characters that have appeared in other MCU films, particularly near the end, as if to remind you events are happening elsewhere; it’s hard to imagine any die-hard fans celebrating the brief appearances by Jenny Agutter’s Councilwoman Hawley or Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern, last seen in The Avengers and Iron Man 2 respectively, but here they are anyway, making you scratch your head and wonder where you’ve seen them before. The end of the film is slightly clunky as a result, and a number of short scenes designed to set up future movies simply get in the way. Wasn’t that what the now-traditional end credits sequence, this time introducing Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, was designed for in the first place?
For all its inventive, well-choreographed action and 70s-influenced thrills, Captain America: The Winter Soldier does eventually revert to the tried-and-tested Marvel template by the end battle, but the writers and directors certainly manage to re-create the fantastical fights and derring-do that made the comics so popular in the first place, and despite the sense of déjà vu caused by the finale it doesn’t preclude this from being an enjoyable entry into the series. Captain America is given a decent adversary and it’s nice to see a hero tackling a credible, modern day threat rather than the otherworldly Asgardian business that made Thor: The Dark World so dreary. Overall a success, then, and it speaks volumes that Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, the figurative and literal golden boy of the earlier MCU phase, will be playing second fiddle to Evans’ soldier in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.
Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo.
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely. Based on Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo.
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch.
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt.
Music: Henry Jackman.
Running Time: 136 minutes.