[This review contains spoilers]
I have to admit, when I heard four years ago that Marvel were doing a Captain America movie, I immediately wrote it off like an expensive car merely due to the name (my Marvel knowledge at the time was just the Iron Man films and the Ed Norton Hulk movie), but my mate Jordan pretty much dragged me down to the pictures to see it and I was pleasantly surprised by the result. It was a fun, engaging movie with enough action and humour to keep you involved throughout and when the sequel was announced to be in the hands of two guys I’d never heard of I remained optimistic, especially after the delightful spectacle that was Thor 2.
The Winter Soldier was described in the press releases as Marvel’s attempt to mix seventies political thrillers a la All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor with modern superheroics, and the result is somewhat impressive to say the least. Cap gets caught up in a massive conspiracy when Nick Fury is killed by a mysterious seasonal commando and uncovers a web of scheming and treachery that threatens to lead back to SHIELD itself! It essentially sets itself up to be a political action movie for the age of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, with questions of privacy and freedom vs security and order, with the plot centred around a SHIELD program to launch helicarrier gunships with the ability to rain explosive death down on anyone they deem a potential threat. And then the Nazis show up.
This is my biggest gripe with the otherwise good conspiracy tale woven here as the film stops just shy of really interesting political commentary. A tale of flawed human beings deciding that mass murder is the path to happiness and kittens and the Cap’n having a problem with that would be far more interesting, but it just turns out that Robert Redford is a closet Nazi (or rather Marvel’s I-Can’t-Believe-They’re-Not-Nazis). He is given some chance to defend himself but the Nazi angle just kind of undermines it as by nature we start tuning people out the second they mention their dreams of invading Poland. This doesn’t prevent the political aspects of the film from working well enough though, and in the end I’d say that this is really the sort of film that Elysium and the Robocop remake wanted to be, and like those it is also executed with that special kind of subtlety reminiscent of being smacked around the head with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This desire to play it safe also manifests itself in my second biggest gripe with this film, which while I won’t spoil was rather disappointing as it kicked the legs out from under the stakes the movie had been working hard to lift up so far.
Character-wise, the film does pretty well. Captain Pugwash himself has always had the problem of being the Marvel hero with the least distinct personality (at least of those who have gotten their own films) and this movie doesn’t do a lot to buck that trend. He does get some good moments centred around his culture shock in the 21st century (including a few good jokes and an Oldboy reference in the Korean version) and some decent character development but he’s not exactly a standout personality in the Marvel universe and if it wasn’t for the supporting cast I think the 21st century setting could have stranded him in a film without a memorable identity of its own.
Thankfully everyone else is up to the challenge. Black Widow turns up again (this time with an actual personality!) and Johansson pulls off her role well as more of a secondary protagonist this time than a sidekick, getting a lot of good moments particularly in the action scenes. She also gets to actually act like a spy at some points (though more Mission Impossible than Tinker, Tailor) instead of a gymnast in an outfit whose function remains baffling to me. I am hoping she finally gets her own movie after Age of Ultron (which still sounds like a reject Transformer) and if this film was meant to call back to All the President’s Men then her’s should probably be more Mission Impossible or Bourne. I should also note that she is by no means the only action girl on the heroes side, as we have both Sharon Carter (possible future love interest for Picard) and Nick Fury’s right hand girl from the Avenger’s helicarrier scenes shooting people in the face so the whole exercise feels like a more egalitarian flick than Marvel’s other offerings to date.
As far as the other heroes go we have Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-paratrooper wearing a jet-powered wing suit (as in actual mechanical wings) who joins up with our protagonists when the world is out to get them. Admittedly when we met his character for the first time and his past came up I did start dreading a potential two hours of Michael Bay demanding that I start fellating American soldiers but it all plays into his character in a compelling way. The next time we see him he’s leading a support group for traumatised war veterans and while his character isn’t brilliantly developed it does give him enough depth and sympathy to make you want to follow him, despite the fact that, in the end, he doesn’t have that much of a role in the plot.
For Villains we have not only Watchmen’s future president as a compelling and charismatic enough bad guy who thankfully does seem as smart as the movie makes him out to be and of course the sub-titular character himself, and if I haven’t said anything about him yet it’s because he doesn’t actually have much of a role in the plot. He does do some things (mainly killing people) and proves himself more than a match for Ahab here, but his entire arc (while decent) is superfluous to the overall conspiracy. If anything it’s really a symptom of a film with a few too many good ideas it wants to include in its runtime (Falcon being another one) so that it can’t quite make them all coalesce as intricately as it would like, to the point where midway through the action climax it cut back to Falcon fighting a Nazi commando and I suddenly realised I’d completely forgotten about him in amongst the four other fights going on at the same time.
But of course, an action movie would not be much without the action and this movie more than delivers on that front. The action in this movie is honestly some of the best I’ve seen in a while. When people hit each other here you really feel the impact to the point where the fight scenes feel pretty brutal (at least for a 12A movie) and when Nemo kicked people into metal walls at the beginning I was starting to question whether they would get up again. While promoting the film the directors kept stressing that they were doing as many stunts practically as they could and it shows. Car chases and shoot-outs through the streets of New York have a weight and impact that the CGI climax of the Avengers never did and when it does get CG-heavy towards the end it never feels any less impressive. One thing that really struck me about the action scenes here was just how well they flowed in and out of the rest of the film. Watching most films, there is a conscious feeling of ‘we’re in an action scene now’ whenever people start to get hurt, but here it moves so naturally between the two that they just feel like extensions of each other.
If I had one other hesitation here, it’s that at times I didn’t find myself connecting with what was happening in front of me. Everything going on was still very well-made, acted and put together but at points I almost felt like I was observing the movie from a distance and more admiring it than being actively involved. We also of course get the credits scenes (mandated by the new Superhero Movie Act), which as expected exist purely to tease us with characters we will only be seeing once Joss Whedon finally gets off his arse (and I do hope they use the Ultimate versions here). Overall, though, this is a very good action film, and one I would heartily recommend for all families and anyone else wanting to see a good knife-fight.