This review is SPOILER-FREE – I’m going to writing a more spoiler-ridden review once the film has been released internationally; this review will be as spoiler-free as I can make it. Beyond that, if you’re wanting to go in to movie this completely clean, stop reading now!
If this film was cut to make it a 12A rating, I’m incredibly curious to see what footage they have in the editing room. There were a number of ‘smaller members of the congregation’ in my audience of this latest Marvel Studios effort – and the parents quickly discovered that bringing them along for this action-packed, intelligent and dramatic movie was possibly a massive mistake.
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is the sequel to 2011’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ and tells the story of Steve Rogers, a genetically engineered super-soldier, created in the shadow of the Second World War, frozen in Arctic wastes and revived in the 21st Century. After the events of ‘The Avengers’, Rogers picks up where he left off, fighting for his country – however, he finds himself not just disconnected from his own time, a period in history where the ‘bad guys’ were clearly defined and black-and-white. He is also a man that is struggling to find a place in a world where everybody deals in shades of grey, from the people giving him his orders to the comrades he fights beside and thinks he can trust.
Chris Evans gives the performance of his life, totally believable as the earnest and steadfast Rogers, it’s almost difficult to reconcile this alongside his other Marvel superhero effort as Johnny Storm in the ill-received Fantastic Four franchise. And it’s not just the beefed-up physique, either. Evans fills this role with such an effortless presence – he really is the natural successor to Christopher Reeve when it comes to being ‘America’s Big Boy Scout’.
Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (‘Falcon’) is a bit more of a tougher piece of the puzzle to wrap your head around: a combat fly-boy that has walked away from the playing field to help his fellow combat veterans, proud that he is now not taking orders from anybody, but ready to snap cleanly to Cap’s side with barely a hesitation – still, it’s always easier to take down the bad guys in mid-air when you’ve got a guy with jet-powered wings in your arsenal. Scarlett Johansson is pure silk, as always, as Natasha Romanoff (‘The Black Widow’) sliding around the screen with an breathless guile and grace that leaves you in no doubt she’s in complete control of herself and her surroundings. It helps to sell the threat The Winter Soldier poses, when it’s her turn to take on the eponymous baddie, as she struggles to hold her own – but she’s never the damsel in distress, never screeching for Cap to come and rescue her.
Indeed, for all the internet howls for a female lead superhero movie, it says a lot that this is one of the most evenly balanced movies of the sexes for some time: Cobie Smulders stands her ground once again as Agent Maria Hill and Emily VanCamp as Agent Sharon Carter easily holds her own in a fight. The directors of this movie – Anthony and Joe Russo – have been studying the Whedon playbook, it seems.
So, these are the pawns, then; when it comes to chess, however, it’s down to who is moving the pieces around the board. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as master-spy Nick Fury, playing with the motivations of his team to his own shady ends. Hey, it’s Sam Jackson, so you should know what you’re getting by now, but it’s always fun to watch him strut his stuff. Robert Redford apparently took on the role of intelligence player Alexander Pierce to ‘experience this new, modern style of film-making’ which is bizarre as his scenes take place purely in the offices of The Triskelion, homebase of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention… look, you don’t actually need to know what S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for. And, to be honest, if you don’t know what does actually stand for, it’s very possible you’re reading the wrong website.) Redford has still has the charm and chops of a man half his age; the wrinkles around those piercing blue eyes – get it, ‘Pierce’ing? Ahh, fuggedaboutit – may be a little more pronounced in 2014 but that just reinforces the history of the manoeuvres being played. Everyone in this film, it seems, is in it for the long game.
And if you’re playing chess, this naturally leads to assessing the opposition. While I’m not going to reveal the identity of the opponents on the other side of the board, the identity of their most dangerous piece is pretty evident – it’s in the title of the movie, for heaven’s sake. And oh boy, is he dangerous: The Winter Soldier is the antithesis of Captain America’s questioning of his commanders, he simply doesn’t care who’s giving him the orders, all wound up and launched at whatever, or whoever, his mission objective may be.
While his ultimate identity has been already revealed by the marketing leading up to the release of this movie – Steve’s fallen war buddy, ‘Bucky’ Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan) – the conceit of the movie keeps that little nugget under wraps for a lot longer than expected, leaving the audience to wonder what turned that stand-up G.I. into quite the relentless assassin. It also allows time on screen for some stunning set-pieces to let The Winter Soldier do his rampaging thing.
Physically enhanced with a metal, robotic arm, and speed and strength comparable to Steve’s, it could have easily come down to the cinematic equivalent of watching two tanks roll into each other – instead, the fights between the pair (and indeed, a lot of the fights in this movie) are up close and intimate affairs, with every punch and kick The Winter Soldier dishes out all the more personal. This is one guy you’d actually prefer to be given some distance from (not that that would help, of course) – but face-to-face, he’s remorseless, however smouldering those eyes may be.
The action scenes are fast, frenetic and incredibly brutal – the raid on a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean is choreographed within an inch of its life and an ambush on Fury in downtown Washington D.C. is as adrenalin-fuelled as anything delivered in the Bourne movies. Something which may surprise an audience is just how brutal it actually is – this film is easily the most violent and grim-faced of the Marvel movies to date. ‘Thor: The Dark World’ may have had the operatic overtones but this is a little more closer to home and the hits land harder.
Fight scenes, explosions: so far, so comic book movie… But there’s something else underneath all the bombast and bluster. While the story may be of a hero born in the 40’s and finding his place in the 10’s, the skeleton of the film is honed from the espionage thrillers of the 70’s, such as Parallex View and Redford’s own ‘Three Days Of The Condor’. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have crafted a spy thriller – certainly throughout the first two acts.
There’s a roadtrip for Evans and Johansson halfway through the film where you suddenly realise, you know what, there’s been an impressive amount of talking in this film for a comic-book movie. There’s been substance, purpose and integrity in the dialogue – up to a point, a pretty obvious one involving a returning antagonist and a sharp turning point towards the remainder of the film.
While the film threatens to undo all that hard work of establishing intrigue and espionage in the final act with a huge balls-out action sequence, it’s justified in its title character – for Captain America, the shades of grey have been wiped away and there’s a single goal, a target, a baddie he can bring down. Literally, in this case, from quite a height.
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is a film that exists in the very heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – executive producer Kevin Feige has often said that, at the core of Marvel Studio’s efforts, is Captain America. Without him, their efforts would be for naught. Indeed, this film has massive consequences which are going to be felt across the entire Universe – I can safely say, there are going to be a number of plot additions that aren’t going to sit well with invested fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The announcement of James Gunn’s ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’, an interstellar romp with colourful characters and spaceships and wisecracks, suddenly makes a whole heap of sense: that fantastical movie will fill a hole for the audience looking for the four-colour, clear-cut adventure and spectacle which this doesn’t even aim to accommodate – it’s pitched for a more mature audience. Better or for worse ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is a superhero movie for grown-ups and is the highlight, so far, of Marvel’s Phase 2. As always, hang on to the credits – there’s a taste of more to come…
This review comes off a regional screening on the day of the World Premiere of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, held at the IMAX screen of the Cineworld Cinema, Sheffield, 20th March 2014. Many thanks to Neil & Sharon Williamson for securing the tickets without which this review couldn’t be possible.
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is a Marvel Studios production, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, and stars Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. It is due for a UK release on 26th March, 2014 and the U.S. from 4th April. Yah boo, sucks to be you, Yanks.