As a superhero, Captain America has always been considered a bit of a bore within the Marvel canon. He doesn’t come with any of the magical/high-tech accompaniments of Thor and Iron Man and his righteous flag-waving makes him appear like a 95 year-old fuddy-duddy, especially when it’s compared with Tony Stark’s fast-talking arrogance and the beefy charms of everyone’s favourite Norse god.
It’s an image co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo clearly try hard to dispel in The Winter Soldier, evoking an old-school spy thriller to establish Steve Rogers as the biggest badass this side of the Bifrost.
Post-Avengers, Rogers (Evans) is quickly growing tired of being Nick Fury’s “caretaker” for the morally ambiguous spy network SHIELD. A taut opening set-piece, in which Rogers and a team of SHIELD agents tackle a crew of Algerian pirates, kicks off a 70s conspiracy thriller vibe as Rogers discovers the mission was in fact a clandestine attempt to recover encrypted data.
Writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus bravely evoke shades of the NSA’s privacy invasion and America’s contentious drones programme by pitting Rogers’s 1940s morality against a post-9/11 America where “Trust No One” is SHIELD’s unofficial mantra.
This more mature, overtly political tone acts as a refreshing change of pace for Marvel and is given credence by the casting of Robert Redford as shady big-wig Alexander Pierce – suggesting Three Days of the Condor as an inspiration.
Even though this is Marvel’s most heavily-plotted, talkative movie yet, there’s still no shortage of action as 70s paranoia gradually shifts into a more modern spy thriller – the most obvious touching point being the Bourne series. After being targeted by a super-powered assassin (the underused Winter Soldier), Rogers and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow are forced to go off grid until they can figure out whom they really trust.
The action here takes an old-school, stripped-down approach with Rogers utilizing his fists and vibranium-shield as weapons to take down the bad guys in a way that’s much more visceral and thrilling without the whizz-bang sci-fi spectacle of Marvel’s previous outings.
Thanks to the 70-year time jump between this and First Avenger, Rogers has no regular co-stars to call upon, so drafts in some of his The Avengers cohorts to fill out the cast.
Scarlett Johansson’s irreverent Black Widow is given more screen time than in any previous movie, and her modern cynicism and willingness to lie nicely tempers Rogers’s unfailing patriotism in a sparky double act.
And amid airing his gripes about Nick Fury’s constant obfuscations, Rogers still finds time to buddy-up with ex special operations veteran Sam Wilson, who, if little else, provides mild comic relief.
It’s only when Wilson dons the gear of The Falcon and the wings pop-out that things start to turn a bit silly; Wilson’s steam-punk-angel look feels completely incongruous to the rough-and-ready action on show.
At this point the plot starts to slip into the inevitable blockbuster catastrophe as SHIELD’s fleet of helicarriers come in for yet more ruinous treatment. The clever use of SHIELD as a morally ambiguous organization is tarnished by easy to figure plot twists – the Winter Soldiers’ true identity is nowhere near as surprising as it’s played to be – and overly nostalgic flashbacks to the first film that pointlessly add to a potentially over-wrought runtime.
Not that any of this is fatal, and the writers save it by posing a fascinating end-note, which must surely have wider ramifications for the wider Marvel universe – the Agents of SHIELD television series in particular.
Captain America may not be the flashiest of Marvel’s heroes, but The Winter Soldier’s old-school spy thriller sets him out as the most morally complex and thematically interesting character in the canon. One that doesn’t need a billionaire’s suit or a hammer gifted from the gods to run rings around his enemies.
Runtime: 136 Minutes Genre: Action/Thriller Released: 26 March 2014
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo Writers: Stephen McFeely, Christopher Markus
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson
Click here to watch the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier