Movie Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

captain america

Film: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford

Captain America tends to be considered one of the blander members of the Marvel stable. At least, that is, in terms of its cinematic universe – his oft-derided boy scout mentality and decent but underwhelming debut The First Avenger evoking mixed responses and a general air of apathy. In short, people like Cap, but they’re rarely so taken with him as to get riled up. It may come as something of a shock to such people then to find that his second solo outing, the third of Marvel’s phase two, is very possibly the finest film the studio have made to date. The jury’s still out on whether it’s better than The Avengers but mark my words, The Winter Soldier is by far the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and brilliantly made of the nine pictures released thus far. After the collaborative crescendo of Avengers and spectacle of both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, Winter Soldier‘s earthbound setting and narrative parallels with our own society afford it a distinct edge and – notably – an unusual sense of relevance for a comic book movie.

After the battle of New York, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is still struggling to adjust to life in a radically different modern world. Unlike his fellow heroes, who all had some form of base to return to, Steve had yet to find his feet and his place, still reeling from being revived and finding his old connections gone or dying. While dealing with all this, he’s been working alongside Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) at S.H.I.E.L.D., running stealth missions under the watchful eyes of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). However, with missions ever more dark and daring in a post-Avengers world, it’s not long before the moralistic Steve begins to suspect and question some of his mission objectives. This in turn provokes the suspicion of his employers, and he finds himself forced to effectively go on the run with Natasha. Meanwhile, a mysterious, lethal assassin known only as the Winter Soldier has emerged, threatening to further upend Steve’s nascent ties to the world.

If Iron Man 3 was the first MCU film to introduce a more domestic enemy, Winter Soldier is where this threat is properly borne out. The film is pitched as a thriller first and action movie second, establishing an incredibly insular, insidious, and jarringly recognisable world where the enemy is not so much warring aliens or rogue machinery but the human face of suspicion and treachery. That its storyline has rather striking real world parallels isn’t a surprise, but the manner in which this is used to create danger and tension is terrific. This is a comic book movie more in line with The Bourne Identity or Heat than any of its superhero cousins, eschewing formula and generics for exploration, analysis, and deduction. It feels more intelligent and cerebral than anything the studio have done thus far and this is, in many ways, what lends it its appeal – Cap isn’t superpowered, unlike his contemporaries, and in relying on his smarts and morals he makes for a more compelling and believable hero. The action scenes are frequent and thrilling but so much of Winter Soldier takes place on such a small scale that for once, the set pieces feel natural, a necessary escalation of the myriad of tiny discoveries powering the plotline.

Part and parcel of this small scale is the interactions between characters, and this may well be one of the film’s finest attributes. Steve’s sense of betrayal is contrasted with his growing bond with Natasha, who, for the first time in three appearances, has an opportunity to finally and truly shine. The pair are a likeable and engaging double act, their deepening friendship underlining the sense of horror and disbelief that accompanies Steve’s discovery of the Winter Soldier’s true identity. The latter is a brutal presence but also, unexpectedly, a very affecting one. One scene in particular is nothing short of heartrending, as we are shown the extent to which he is used and manipulated by his creators. That he’s a familiar face from Steve’s past shouldn’t be a spoiler to anyone (unless you have seriously poor facial recognition for actors), but this, combined with Steve’s recent turn in The Avengers, makes the discoveries about S.H.I.E.L.D. all the more sordid. The battle in New York represented unity and solidarity in the face of a greater threat but here Steve sees that being twisted to ruthlessly police a society fragmented by fear, one in which protectors become overseers more dangerous than any external enemy. This burdens him with an impossible choice, as while this may well be an unavoidable part of the modern world, he himself was once the little guy and refuses to believe they can’t fight for something better.

This is the most heightened storyline afforded any of the Marvel characters thus far, and the cast responds in kind. Evans, Johansson, and their fellow returning faces are uniformly terrific but special praise must be reserved for Anthony Mackie’s lively debut as the Falcon and Sebastian Stan’s nuanced portrayal of the Winter Soldier (he has precious little dialogue, but you can read everything in his eyes). The film is exceptionally well written and beautifully shot, with a dexterity and skill not often seen in two relatively inexperienced – at this scale – directors. News of Joe and Anthony Russo’s return for part 3 is supremely welcome. Their approach is both old school (real world locations, handheld cameras, Easter eggs aplenty) and refreshing, bringing a new element of realism and groundedness to a series hitherto founded on exalted otherworldly beings and impossibly high-concept scenarios. More than anything, they understand the inherent appeal of Cap as a character, and allow him all the space he needs to shine. A hero like this, in his good heart, pure intentions and sense of honour, could actually exist, and it’s more exhilarating than ever to see a man like that take on the abuses and scaremongering of an all-too-recognisable overlord. The tantalising ending further underlines the smarts and skills that make this the MCU’s finest film to date, raising not only the stakes for the wider universe but also the bar for all future films. It’ll be some feat for Age of Ultron to top this, and if it does, we’re in for something truly spectacular.

SCORE: A

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