What are we now, nine films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Is there any other franchise where the ninth film can stake a pretty good claim to being the best one yet? While Warner Brothers and DC are fussing and fretting around their Batman focussed Superman ‘sequel’, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is Marvel Studios schooling them in what bold, confident storytelling and a long term vision can achieve. It’s actually quite a tricky movie to review because there are so many ‘Easter Eggs’ and surprises that I want to be very careful to avoid anything remotely spoiler-ish, even for people who are new to the Marvel universe and have never picked up a comic. So apologies if I let something slip but it’s really, really hard to silence my inner geek! One other quick point before we dive in: this is much more a direct sequel (to “Captain America: The First Avenger”) than anything Marvel have done before and you really need to have seen that before seeing “The Winter Soldier”.
Picking up with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) two years after the events of “Avengers Assemble”, we find our hero living quietly in Washington DC, slowly trying to adapt to modern day life and undertaking covert operations for S.H.I.E.L.D., working with Black Widow and for Nick Fury. A brazen attempt on Nick Fury’s life turns Rogers’ life upside down and he finds himself isolated and under suspicion, unsure of who to trust and on the run. As a global conspiracy, patiently executed over decades moves to its end game, Captain America must decide who he can trust to stand with him against the rising forces of evil. But he has reckoned without the conspirator’s secret weapon: The Winter Soldier, a cold war legend who has a connection to Captain America’s long lost past.
Captain America has always been the riskiest of Marvel’s big screen characters to date, with his boy scout outlook and patriotic stylings but once again, they’ve found a way to ground him in a realistic way and make him cool and, frankly, quite the badass. No longer so naïve, he’s coming to understand the world around him and the more he understands it, the less he likes what he sees. There’s a topical seam running through “The Winter Soldier” which taps right into the post-Snowden politics of freedom, security and surveillance. Possibly the most serious Marvel movie to date in tone, it takes its cue from the gritty political thrillers of the 1970’s and feels like Marvel’s least superhero-esque superhero film. The action scenes are brutal and breath-taking and it’s clear that Captain America (the character and the franchise) is pulling no punches this time out. Amongst the more fantastical Avengers, Cap has always been a front-line, on-the-ground fighter and this film places him right at the heart of the brawling, bone-crunching action.
Continuing their ballsy approach to their individual titles and shared universe, Marvel’s audacious and risk-taking approach to storytelling shows they are unafraid to leave the toys broken and scattered instead of neatly packed away for the next playtime. It’s clear now that there is a theme running through Marvel’s Phase II. If Phase I was all about assembling The Avengers, Phase II seems focussed on deconstructing the comfort zones around them with “Iron Man 3”, “Thor: The Dark World” and now “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” all making some daring and permanent changes to the worlds around their central characters. More than its predecessors, though, the events of “The Winter Soldier” will reverberate throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even to TV’s “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”.
Beyond the major plot lines and game-changing events, they also expertly layer on details and call-outs to other existing, forthcoming or barely-hinted at Marvel titles and characters, including some clever retconning of an “Iron Man 2” plot point and the all-but-definite confirmation of a certain character’s imminent debut in Phase III. They even managed, with a throwaway gag, to reassure me about something that’s troubled me since the end of “Iron Man 3”. There’s also a wonderful moment which will bring a smile of surreal delight to any fans of TV’s “Call The Midwife”.
While their rivals continue to struggle with bringing some of their A-listers to the screen, such is Marvel’s confidence and brio that they’re throwing C-list characters into the mix and still making them cool. The movie’s opening sequence where Cap and Black Widow lead a team to retake a hijacked ship from pirates introduces Batroc The Leaper, a faintly ridiculous rent-a-villain in the comics, to the MCU. Of course, he’s just referred to as Batroc but cunningly, his fighting style is distinctly acrobatic.
Chris Evans is note-perfect in the role, and clearly relishes taking Cap in a more serious, darker direction while Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L Jackson find more depth to their characters than is present in the script. Cobie Smulders reprises her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill in a small but pivotal cameo while Anthony Mackie slips seamlessly into the mix as Sam Wilson aka The Falcon and works so well with the established cast that it feels like he’s been around for a few Marvel movies already. It’s a shame he apparently won’t make the roster for “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”.
If one of the purposes of Phase II was to show that there was life in each of the solo franchises after the gargantuan success of “The Avengers”, then it’s mission accomplished. While there’s always a nagging question of why they don’t call in the rest of the Avengers for help, the film manages to barrel along with pace and intensity which just about covers up for the absence of Iron Man, Hulk or Thor and suggests there wasn’t enough time to get them involved. The only character who is completely absent (save for a subtle jewellery shout out) is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, of whom there is no mention or reference. So conspicuous is his absence that it can’t be accidental but by this point, I trust producer Kevin Feige and his team to know exactly what they are doing. I’d still wager on Hawkeye popping up somehow in a Marvel One-Shot (or possibly in a “Guardians Of The Galaxy” end credits scene) between now and “Age Of Ultron” though. Speaking of end credit scenes, the two bonus scenes of “The Winter Soldier” (one mid-credits, the other right at the end) will leave you pumped not only for “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” but also “Captain America 3”.
Aside from the unexplained absence of Hawkeye, my only other slight gripe is that this is another superhero film which I won’t be taking The Mertmas to see in the cinema. Slightly too dark and violent, it lacks a little of the joyousness and fun of previous Marvel entries and I want the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be something I can share with my boy rather than something to savour on my own until he is older (he’s currently nearly 8). He started the journey with me in the run-up to “Avengers Assemble” so it would be a shame if he needs to wait longer to see it because it skews darker. I did see it on an IMAX screen which notoriously intensifies the action so we’ll probably get to enjoy it together on the small screen, but this is the first Marvel film where I’d definitely say there’s very little latitude around the 12A certificate.
Intense, taut and expertly shot by co-directors the Russo brothers, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” continues Marvel’s winning streak and delivers both a satisfyingly explosive Superhero adventure and a muscular old school spy thriller. ‘Nuff said.