By: Daniel Reynolds
Straight off the top, let’s get something out of the way: the first Captain America movie was the best of the post-Iron Man Marvel movies to be released in the lead up to The Avengers. I realize that is a lot of qualifiers. Cap’s first foray into film, The First Avenger, knew what it was: A fun WWII-era film, backed up by a classic underdog story, a chaste romance and more Nazis than an Indiana Jones movie. It zipped precisely along because it knew itself very well. The familiarity was comforting.
Marvel has the luxury of familiarity now. And, more so, it has the confidence, carried over from its sprawling comics continuity, to insist you either get with the program or get out. Do you know who Stark is? And Bruce Banner? Remember the fate of Bucky Barnes or what happened to Hydra? Much like Nicholas J. Fury (a returning and very familiar Samuel L. Jackson) extols to Cap: either start paying attention or get out of the way. And so The Winter Soldier does not waste a lot of time with origins. We get plot, writ large, right from the jump.
The first surprise of The Winter Soldier is that it was directed not by the returning, dependable Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III) but instead by the Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony. Known largely for their TV work (and, um, You, Me and Dupree), the Russo brothers’ take on Captain America is definitely their first swing into huge scale filmmaking. And while their grip on some of the requisite action scenes feels tentative, the Russos grasp that success at helicarrier-sized filmmaking requires an attention to detail. The script, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, introduces us to a story involving confused loyalties, shady deals, a S.H.I.E.L.D. organization in peril and high-level military government cabals deciding the future of human security. Captain America, paragon of virtue, is unsure of who to trust. It’s a far cry from the straight ahead Nazi smashing of the first film, but then again, to make a period reference, we’re not in Kansas any more.
Despite a camera that repeatedly lingers on his excessively tight t-shirts, Captain America has never been much of a sex object. The only lady in his life, typically, has been Liberty. Cap has his first on-screen kiss in The Winter Soldier and it’s played for laughs; his technique is lacking. Chris Evans, however, brings just the right mix of innocence, dependability and earnestness to Steve Rogers. He can kick your ass just as easily as hold the door open like a gentleman. Much like Marvel’s casting of Robert Downey Jr. for Tony Stark, they’ve got an actor in Evans who has gradually grown into the role. In The First Avenger, Evans was required to be hopeful and blue-eyed, and he nailed the type of 40s-era acting that has less room for shading. As Rogers has moved into the new century, first in Avengers and now this sequel, Evans has added more of a tint to his performance. The morality may be grey, but his work pumps in the requisite technicolour.
Rogers is no lone soldier in the field, however. As a welcome addition, Anthony Mackie leaps into the fray as Cap’s ally Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon. The always charming Mackie provides great gusts of humour to a heavy movie. His Falcon is a military stress councillor grappling with the effects of war. He also happens to have a clip-on wing suit and a flare for a great entrance. I hope the Falcon will be around for awhile. And, lest we think the film is a complete beefcake boy’s club, there is also the returning Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. Full stop. For the first time her Natasha Romanoff is allowed to have some wicked fun. The additional breathing room provides Johansson the opportunity to construct a character that is both a sexy super spy and a woman tangled, perhaps, in her own web of lies. As Fury (by now an effortless role for Jackson) consistently reminds us: there are other, bigger, spiders.
The weakest link, ironically, is the Winter Soldier himself. While his back story is not a particular secret, let’s just say Sebastian Shaw plays every-man quipster better than brooding warrior of mystery. The costume helps, the metal arm is intrinsically cool; but it is no surprise that actors like Robert Redford, as Secretary Alexander Pierce, and Toby Jones, providing a perfectly creepy Dr. Zola cameo, do most of the dramatic heavy lifting. It is certainly advisable, for maximum political thriller credibility, to cast Redford–star of a cottage industry of 60s and 70s classics–in your movie. His haircut alone makes for a classier experience.
As I run down the cast and their interplay it becomes clear that The Winter Soldier is a surprisingly dense film. However, it manages to avoid being overly lugubrious and, despite a healthy injection of pathos, is punchy enough to sustain a few chuckles. We are reminded repeatedly during the first act that Rogers just wasn’t made for these times. All of his old pals are dead (or tragically senile) and the world he left behind was one of black-and-white, rah-rah jingoism. The villains may not have worn actual black hats, but they had skulls of red and black leather fetishes. The Winter Soldier finds our Cap in something of the lurch, surrounded on all sides by a blurred coterie of friends and foes. That the film is still able to zero in on the heart and motivation of its characters amid a truly vast array of armaments is a testament to Marvel’s eye for world building, the brothers Russo and a script that balances explosions with characterization in equal measure. In battle, Captain America makes it look easy; as usual for films of this scale, its the emotive details that are hard.
As The Winter Soldier motors into its third act, the gunfire picks up, the audience is churned through some tremendous aerial dogfights, and all the requisite kicking and punching are tossed in. The right guys die and the good guys win, and there is a loose end or two left dangling to inspire the eventual Captain America 3 (soon to be in production). The Marvel universe expands ever so slightly, further solidifies its character base and looks to next summer’s conquest of the multiplexes (remember to stay for the post-credit scenes). I suppose I should make some snide comment about Marvel’s megalithic cinematic plans, its expanding empire. After watching The Winter Soldier, though, I keep thinking of that old chestnut, “They don’t make them like this any more”. The truth is, with its pastiche of 40s-era folksy charm, 70s paranoia and year 2000 ready action and spectacle, I’m not sure they’ve ever quite made them like this before.