Principal Cast : Chris Evans, Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Toby Jones, Maximillano Hernandez, Garry Shandling, Jenny Agutter, Alan Dale, Bernard White.
Synopsis: When SHIELD is infiltrated by members of long-thought-defeated Hydra, Captain America, Black Widow, and new recruit Falcon must take to the skies to destroy a massive threat to human civilisation.
The Cap Is Back.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe train just keeps chugging along, churning out solid action-y comic-book films that seem to continue the line of success since Iron Man’s debut back in 2008. The Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, continues not only the adventures of once-frozen Steve Rogers, the iconic Captain of the title, but SHIELD compatriots The Black Widow – Natasha Romanov, played again by Scarlett Johansson – and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson again, in his umpteenth Marvel film appearance!). The film also introduces a new recruit to the “team”, in Sam Wilson’s Falcon (Anthony Mackie doing his best “token black dude” part) and allows screen legend Robert Redford to chew up the movie as key architect of the plot, SHIELD leader Alexander Pierce. While the first Captain America movie had plenty of good stuff going for it, as an introductory film for the character and the birth of the “modern” Marvel universe, here The Winter Soldier has more scope now to develop Rogers’ wider world and how SHIELD isn’t quite the impenetrable justice league it purports to be. Grander in scope and tighter in development than its predecessor, The Winter Soldier is both a thoroughly entertaining adventure and a tense, semi-apocalyptic political thriller delivering some nice character development and awesome visual effects along the way.
Two years after events depicted in The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – aka Captain America – works for SHIELD defending America against terrorist threats, both foreign and domestic. After recapturing a hijacked SHIELD vessel Rogers learns of the existence of a man known only as “the Winter Soldier” (Sebastian Stan), a ghost assassin who has shaped history for the last 80 years. Also working for SHIELD is highly trained super-spy Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) – aka The Black Widow – and together, they form a formidable team. SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is attacked by the Winter Soldier and seemingly killed, leading Rogers and Romanov to begin the task of tracking down who is really in control of SHIELD. The organization is being led by one of Fury’s former comrades, Sebastian Pierce (Robert Redford), who commands SHIELD via the World Security Council, although he has a plan involving SHIELD that many people would find abhorrent – a plan uncovered by Rogers and Romanov and one which must be stopped at any cost. A plan, by the way, formed and achieved via the influence and tentacled reach of Hydra, the organization dedicated to conquering and enslaving the world through corruption and political power. Along the way, Rogers meets former soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who engages in the battle against Hydra wearing a technological flight-suit giving him the codename Falcon. As Hydra’s plan for world domination begins to manifest itself, and SHIELD is compromised, Rogers must take the battle to the very heart of the organization he thought was there to protect the peace.
Where Captain America differs greatly within the context of the MCU is in its patriotic “America is awesome” themes, and particularly the subtext of the fact that America is still largely broken and run by those with money or power, or both. Captain America himself is an icon of the American dream, much like Superman is over in the DC Universe, albeit Cap lacks powers other then enhanced strength and durability and a snazzy indestructible shield. So he can’t punch people through the moon, his leadership and unbending dedication to the preservation of freedom and liberty (not to mention life) is extraordinarily similar to Superman’s, in as much as Cap would lay down his own life to save another. The Winter Soldier effectively pits Cap against his opposite number, the equally powerful and uncompromising deadliness of the Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan.
Anybody scrolling through the cast roster for The Winter Soldier will instantly recognize Stan’s name within it, a name that links The Winter Soldier to The First Avenger, and also provide some understanding as to the identity of the titular villain of the piece, the Winter Soldier. The fact that the Soldier is intrinsically linked to Steve Rogers’ story isn’t the core point of this film, and in hindsight it probably should have been, but it adds a layer of personal menace to the concluding battle-brawl that transpires above the streets of Washington DC here. The cut-n-thrust of Robert Redford’s conniving SHIELD commander’s plans don’t quite have the impact they should, but Redford elevates the material from generic gnashing-villain lameness into fairly provocative shades-of-grey enemy, and although I didn’t totally buy into Hydra’s involvement and infiltration of SHIELD the way it was portrayed, this never lessened the impact of the scope of the story’s ability to cohesively envelop its audience. In the moment, The Winter Soldier delivers.
The film is more a political thriller than an outright action flick, although naturally the concluding act coincides with a while bunch of stuff blowing up as you’d expect for a comic book movie: if The First Avenger is Cap’s Batman Begins, then The Winter Soldier is his The Dark Knight, a film that is something other than a comic book movie with a superhero in it anyway. Redford’s Pierce dominates a lot of the film’s overarching plot, in that he has his own endgame in play that runs counter to SHIELD’s, although the motives and arguments tended by Pierce in doing what he does initially seem convincing – they’re not, in the end, it’s just a power grab. Where the film lacks is in the plot-twist mystery, with Nick Fury’s murder, SHIELD’s complicity in that event, and Cap’s inevitable excommunication from SHIELD for refusing to tow the party line, all coming as fairly unsurprising beats in the script. The screenplay, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, resonates well in the post-9/11 world, not with terrorism as the prime motivator, but governmental complicity in the removal of freedom in the name of security. This story thread is given fairly bland thrift throughout the movie, however, lacking the killer punch to make The Winter Soldier really risky, but it’s enough to generate some tension as Cap and The Black Widow unravel the plans of Hydra.
The Winter Soldier is directed with tenacity and a sense of impending social horror by the Russo Brothers, Anthony and Joe, best known as the guys behind the awful Owen Wilson comedy You Me And Dupree (ugh, that was a shitty film), and their work on the television series Community. With a bigger budget comes bigger expectations (I expect Stan Lee to try and copyright that phrase at some point!) and although large portions of The Winter Soldier are low key, when the film needs to go large, it really goes large. The opening hijacked vessel sequence, involving Cap almost salvaging the boat all on his own, is a terrific opener to the film, setting the style and tone apart from what Joe Johnston achieved in The First Avenger. From there, with the increasingly more violent attacks by the Winter Soldier and the corrupt members of SHIELD (corrupted by Hydra), the stakes and scope of the film continue to grow, until a massive sky-borne three-way aircraft carrier battle concludes the film in raucous, floor-rattling extravagance that features some terrific CG and some nice action moments for all of our heroes.The Russo boys seem quite at home with spectacle as they do with the character moments, and the balance in tone between levity and dramatic seriousness is excellent, almost perfect.
The film explores some dark themes involving SHIELD and Cap’s role within it, and thankfully allows more development to all the major players (excepting newcomer Mackie’s Falcon, who is largely generic, which is a pity), especially Fury and the Widow. Sam Jackson’s involvement – or lack thereof – with SHIELD’s “take over the world plan” plan adds a level of powerlessness to his until-now commanding figure of SHEILD’s chief exponent, and this weakness humanizes him in a way no other MCU film has managed until now. The relationship between Cap and the Widow is certainly brought to the fore here, and both Evans and Johansson seem to enjoy each others’ character moments; naturally, both look awesome when kicking ass, a factor which plays a major role in their eventual friendship (they start the film almost as dispassionate partners). It’s nice to see the Widow feel a little more flawed than in previous films (particularly Iron Man 2), and it gives Johansson some meat to an otherwise 2-dimensional character.
The following paragraph of this review contains spoilers!
Invisi-text warning! Hilight the paragraph to read the text!: If The Winter Soldier has any weakness, it’s the fact that it tries to balance too much within its 2+ hour running time. The crucial relationship between Cap and the Soldier – or, as he’s more familiar to audiences, the thought-dead Bucky Barnes, as essayed by Sebastian Stan in the first Captain America movie – doesn’t seem as genuine as it did previously, or at least the film didn’t touch on their friendship like it ought to have considering one thought the other dead, and the other forgot they were even friends. The Bucky/Steve story was the one I was most interested in, although for some reason this arc felt like it was secondary to the main plot, or at least just content to bumble along in the background of whatever the hell it was Robert Redford was doing. The reappearance of Toby Jones as Arnim Zola (who played a pivotal role in The First Avenger, sportsfans!) felt horrendously shoehorned into the plot, in one of the film’s more unbelievable moments (considering how “real” this film plays things, the Nola subplot really jumped out as a “what the f@ck” moment!) and the revelation that Tony Stark’s political nemesis, Garry Shandling as Senator Storm, is actually a member of Hydra, came across as unnecessary, but on the whole, the film’s subtle nesting of Easter Eggs into the proceedings (the blink-and-miss-it mention of Steven Strange…. better known to comic fans as Doctor Strange, caught me by surprise) is relatively sweet here.
No more spoilers after this point!
The cast all perform admirably, with a few minor exceptions. The headline acts all do well – Evans, Jackson, Johansson and Redford provide the required gravitas and heft to deliver lines of dialogue that were they spoken in real life would have people stoned in the street, but the minor players do suffer by comparison. Anthony Mackie, as Falcon, the wisecracking sidekick to Cap who just happens to have all kinds of superhuman skills beneath his “aww shucks” exterior, feels the most genuine of all the players here, and the rapport between Evans and Mackie on the screen is tangible. Cobie Smulders reprises her role as SHIELD’s resident hottie in Agent Maria Hill, although her dialogue and character arc here is hardly a stretch or convincing. Smudlers often feels too wooden in the part, as if she’s only here because it’s contractual. And whatever point there was to having Revenge star Emily VanCamp in this film was lost on me; she seemed to be trying to become the next Major Player in the MCU franchise, but her bit-part role never went anywhere, and there was never the sense that she was destined for bigger things. Generally, though, The Winter Soldier skips a whole slew of potential character problems by ramping onto the next major action set-piece or explosion, and so for that I guess we’re spared a fair bit of awkward time waiting for things to happen.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers technically competent action, solid Captain development and some nice arguments about what we’re prepared to give up to maintain a certain level of security, but being a Marvel film you get the sense that no matter how high the stakes, no matter how big the scope, everything will turn out all right in the end. Nick Fury’s supposed murder isn’t as cataclysmic to the franchise as, say, Agent Coulson’s in The Avengers, and certainly doesn’t come as a surprise that he’s not really dead after all, so you know that The Winter Soldier isn’t as risky as you’d have hoped a major tentpole might be. Instead, the film ends in a manner that almost rips the rug out from under your feet in that the entire thing seemed to be setting us up for something else, either in the inevitable Captain America 3, or even sooner in an Avengers sequel. While I’d have liked the film to stand on its own a lot more than it did, the demands of franchise and world building the Marvel dudes have concocted really limit the actual changes the story will allow. The Winter Soldier is excellent Marvel entertainment, a terrific film (albeit slightly flawed) and thoroughly entertaining. Newbies will no doubt be lost in all the confusion, but those who’ve been on the journey since the start will find loads here to be happy with.