You’ve got to hand it to Marvel, they haven’t played it safe for a while. For me though, the risky elements of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER don’t quite pay off as they should.
Following the events of THE AVENGERS, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is living in Washington, D.C. and gradually getting used to life in the 21st Century. He still works for espionage agency SHIELD with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and follows Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) orders, but is becoming uneasy with being “the world’s janitor”. Following a morally questionable mission to reacquire a ship taken over by pirates, Cap, Fury and Black Widow are betrayed by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who wields the full might and resources of SHIELD, in addition to the services of a mysterious asset, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Cap is on the run, his past is coming back to haunt him, and he wants answers.
The quality of the action is astounding. The massively-scaled stuff sometimes just becomes a blur of CGI, but there’s a lot of bone-crunching, visceral fisticuffs in the film too. If you thought Cap was limited to just throwing, catching and rebounding his iconic shield, you were wrong. He uses it as a tool, a finely tuned weapon, and it’s blended seamlessly into the exciting fight choreography, all captured in crisp cinematography and striking, BOURNE-style fast-cuts. Black widow still elegantly spins and flips round her opponents before delivering the lethal final blow (at one point with a bit of metal piping). Even Nick Fury gets in on the action this time round, in what must be one of the most destructive and hilariously over-the-top car chases outside a FAST & FURIOUS movie.
Most of the cast bring their A-game. Evans is still charming, and sells Cap’s earnest, natural born goodness and his need to fight for the little man. The plot also allows for Evans to bring more complexity to his character, who in THE FIRST AVENGER often came across as a vanilla hero. Johansson again hints at much more going on below the surface of Natasha Romanoff’s sexy/deadly outer image, and is an appealing character pairing with Cap. The always excellent Anthony Mackie, playing Sam Wilson/Falcon, a veteran-turned-counsellor is definitely the most believable character in the film despite wearing a high-tech “wing suit” for much of the run-time. Samuel L. Jackson does what he does. Sebastian Stan does well as a pained, complex villain, though there is certainly more tragedy to the character that could have been capitalised on. Sadly, the addition of acting muscle in the form of Robert Redford doesn’t benefit the film. He coasts, doing the bare minimum, and it turns out that he plays a really dull character once it reveals what Pierce’s ultimate game is.
The film is funny. I liked a gag about how Cap is slowly coming to terms with his new time period (it involves a notepad of things to catch up on from his 60-year absence, including Marvin Gaye and STAR WARS). Black Widow at one point uploads some incriminating evidence to the internet before commenting seconds later that “it’s trending”. There’s also some nice back-and-forth banter between Cap and his two buddies Widow and Falcon, and another great Stan Lee cameo.
Let’s get on to what I didn’t like. Most films, especially something as mainstream as a superhero movie, would try and disguise its political message (if it had one) and certainly never explicitly advertise it. The Winter Soldier batters you around the head with its politics from the very first shot. It tackles the concept of the USA’s questionable role as a police force of the world in conflicts over the last couple of decades in a couple of catchy soundbites about pre-emptive military action (“I thought the punishment came after the crime”) but then falls back on the laziest possible paranoid justification for the evils of the world. It’s a left-wing argument on the one hand, and a more right-wing wish-fulfilment on the other. It just can’t make up its mind, so both sides of the argument are undermined.
There are some irritating breaks in logic throughout the film that pull you out. Being a superhero film is not an excuse to not make sense – the logic can be bizarre, but it has to be consistent within its own film universe. Why, with all their resources and near-sci-fi-level technology (there’s even a line that establishes they can tap into any security camera’s feed) can’t SHIELD track their targets with facial recognition software? Rogers wears dark glasses to go undercover, Romanoff puts on a hoodie – surely that shouldn’t fool an all-powerful intelligence agency? And why does Cap still defend Nick Fury’s integrity after discovering he approved crafting WMDs from alien technology behind his back in The Avengers?
The way the plot is constructed could also be tighter. I know there’s a lot going on, a lot of ground to cover, but scenes rarely feel like they’re following in sequence, and tend to feel too loose, and sometimes the cause-and-effect is incomprehensible. All too often I was asking “why?” even when the revelations started coming. Another sign of bad mystery screenwriting is not revealing anything right up until the final act when you dump every reveal in a big, unappetising pile in front of the audience. You need to drip-feed, give the viewer something to mull over on their journey. It’s lucky the central characters are so much fun to be around, or the connecting tissue between set pieces might seem pretty pointless, only there to delay us finding out anything concrete.
The film doesn’t have the living comic book pleasures of The Avengers or the perfectly judged twists of IRON MAN 3 (there are twists, but they’re either overblown or too easy to guess). I know it’s an increasingly common thing to compare Marvel’s output to what has come before, and The Winter Soldier perhaps hints at the studio moving on to pastures new, but I’m not sold yet.
It’s much better than Cap’s debut, which was a good satire of wartime jingoism but a dull superhero movie, and there’s certainly a lot going on, but The Winter Soldier, for me, has as many drawbacks as things to recommend. It’s thrilling, it’s funny, it’s ambitious, but it’s overly-simplistic in what it has to say about the world, unsubtle (being a superhero movie isn’t a ready-made excuse for that) and despite lengthy dialogue scenes discussing what is happening, the plotting feels disconnected and hurried. I can understand why a lot of people have taken to it – it is unlike any film Marvel have released before – but personally I can’t get past the inconsistency. SSP