After Iron Man 3’s buddy movie capering and Thor: The Dark World’s entertaining plotless shenanigans, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like something new. With a strong script, a timely message, bruising fight sequences and a clear sense of direction, this feels like Marvel demonstrating that they can grow up with their audience.
Drawing on Ed Brubaker’s beloved comics run, The Winter Soldier has a distinct air of Seventies conspiracy thrillers about it (which is fitting, given the presence of Robert Redford as the sinister authority figure) and a healthy dash of Tom Clancy. The film keeps coming back to the idea of freedom and the duty that comes with it. There’s no extraterrestrial menace here; the threat is from within.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has settled in Washington, where he divides his time between SHIELD operations and running laps around joggers. After he discovers that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gave him and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) separate orders for the same mission, Steve begins to question SHIELD’s motives. He’s proved right when someone close to him is attacked, but how high does this conspiracy go and who can he trust?
Cap’s always been the Avenger who knows about the burden of responsibility, so it makes sense that this is the film to not only to further develop Rogers and SHIELD, but bring the franchise back down to Earth and lay the groundwork for Phase 3. It certainly has one of the strongest scripts. With a coherent plot nailed down, without distracting fan service or wandering focus, there’s plenty of room for some overdue character development.
More than any other Avenger, it’s Cap who will instinctively sacrifice himself for the greater good, and this latest offering proves that he’s not just the conscience of the superhero super-group; he’s the heart. He’s told throughout that he’s a terrible liar, that he needs to update his attitude, that he’s in the wrong business. The fact that his good nature has been manipulated and betrayed is beautifully played by Evans, and makes the mission personal.
One of the film’s most successful elements is the partnership between Cap and Black Widow (until she gets her own movie). Johansson and Evans have great chemistry, and watching the two sides of the same coin poke holes in each others’ notions of loyalty and duty gives the film a vital depth. The duo are joined by Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon, an example of modern day patriotic heroism, who is mostly kept on the sidelines until the final third, but makes a good impression.
Always on their tail is the Winter Soldier himself (Sebastian Stan). The decision to use the superpowered assassin sparingly pays off, as he appears for short bursts of intense violence, and his fight sequences with Cap are thrilling. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo prove more than capable of handling huge spectacle, but the film is at its strongest when it keeps things down to earth, either on the streets of the capital or the fantastic early assault on a terrorist-held boat.
There are flaws to be found. The middle section is flabby, while the gritty political thriller elements don’t always sit too comfortably with the more outlandish comic-book villainy, particularly as the film moves into its second half and we’re given the big reveal. However, by keeping Cap and his journey the focal point, The Winter Soldier remains a gripping, exciting and surprisingly tough film that uses current concerns to remind us of the character’s strengths and teases an exciting new direction for the franchise.
We expect fun spectacle from Marvel, but Cap gives us brains and heart too.