FILM REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Phase Two of Marvel's Cinematic Universe has been progressing well since The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (delete according to country) took the box office and the audience by storm. With Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World now safely successful and out the way, it is the turn of the first avenger himself, Captain America, to take the spotlight.



The Winter Soldier finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) still struggling to adjust to life in the 21st century when morals are murky and bad guys even more so. When an attack is launched on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and SHIELD from within, Steve goes on the run with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in tow to track down who is behind it. They face a considerable foe, however, pursued at all times by a mysterious masked assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (to reveal who is playing him constitutes a spoiler, but I will say that they are very good).

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo take over from Joe Johnston on this solo outing, having cut their teeth on the action-packed episodes of Community and with them comes a new shift in direction. It has been long mooted that after the rollicking adventure tone of The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier would be much more in the political thriller vein and though the politics is lacking, the thrills are plenty and frequent. The action sequences are inventively staged, featuring some of the most impressive scenes of the Marvel universe so far. A hostage rescue mission set piece to open the film throws you into the action immediately and the stakes steadily build throughout the film. The hand-to-hand combat in particular is brutal, bringing with it shades of Jason Bourne (there is even an explicit nod to that franchise in one shot), and any scene in which Captain America faces off with the titular Winter Soldier is suitably intense.

As with the Bourne references, there are plenty of other influences to spot throughout the film. The vehicle chases call Ronin to mind whilst a daylight exchange of bullets has Michael Mann's Heat stamped all over it. This is both to the film's success and its detriment. On the positive side, it offers plenty of homages to spot for the discerning film/TV geek and comes across as a genuine love of the genre on the part of the Russos. Whilst reproducing the tense, shifty atmosphere of films such as The Fugitive and Three Days of the Condor ensures that the audience is swept up into the conspiracy aspect, it also ensures that any film fan versed in the language of the thriller can see the plot coming a mile off. Twists aren't so much hinted at as signposted and, though there were a couple of surprises along the way, it was largely predictable.

However, the real strength of the film is in the performances and character work, ensuring that those twists are still keenly felt when they occur. Chris Evans delivers a wonderfully measured performance, capturing Rogers' charm but also his turmoil of dealing with a world that bears no resemblance to the one he saved back in the 1940s. He is aided well by Scarlett Johansson, given much more of a character arc this time around and managing it brilliantly; Natascha Romanoff has long been one of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in the MCU and Johansson starts to peel back the layers well whilst still maintaining an opaqueness to the character. Kevin Feige may argue that after this, a Black Widow film isn't needed, but I can't think of a better reason than Johansson's performance here. She needs her own adventure.

In the more minor roles, Anthony Mackie brings some welcome comic relief and enough of a back story to ensure that once the bullets start flying, you care as much about what is happening to him as you do the main characters. Robert Redford brings a certain amount of class, along with Jenny Agutter who gets a fantastic moment all to herself. Although I won't mention the actor explicitly in case you've managed to avoid the identity of the Winter Soldier, they do a wonderful job of conveying the character with little more than facial expressions, often half-obscured by a mask. Indeed, even if you are aware of who the Winter Soldier is, it adds another layer of tension to the proceedings as you wait to see when the discovery will be made by the other characters.

This emphasis on character work ensures that The Winter Soldier is perhaps the most emotional film of the Marvel universe to date. Each character feels vulnerable and exposed, the stakes feel high and there are moments when you genuinely aren't sure whether a character is going to make it out alive (even with foreknowledge of actors' multi-picture contracts). Outside of the action sequences, there are plenty of quieter moments that carry an emotional heft, particularly those in which Rogers is dealing with the loss of the life he should have had or Romanoff dealing with the consequences of hers. The relationship between them is built well and the obvious chemistry between Evans and Johansson helps, exchanging quips with ease and hitting the more emotional beats of their scenes.

Personally speaking, this is easily the best of Marvel's solo outings, managing the balance between character development and action brilliantly, much like Iron Man 3 before it. It certainly whets the appetite going ahead for the rest of Phase Two with the insane-looking Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. There are also interesting ramifications for the wider Marvel universe and it bodes well for the future.

****

- Becky

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