Captain America: The Winter Soldier has ‘ambitions as a homage to 1970s political thrillers, which is perhaps overselling things a bit’ says MacDara Conroy
Poor Captain America’s had a tough aul’ go of it since his first proper silver screen outing, what with suffering the Whedonite love-in that was 2012’s Avengers Assemble, a mess of a film that completely misread Cap’s whole raison d’être is being awesome without recourse to shooting people dead.
The job of repairing that damage was left to Anthony and Joe Russo, a directorial duo with a reputation for comedy (they share an Emmy for their work on Arrested Development) but no experience of action-packed blockbusters. Hardly a good omen. But neither was Joe Johnston’s prior before he helmed The First Avenger, which turned out to be an entertaining period romp that did Captain America proud. And as it happens the Russos make a fair stab of it with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though not without a few missteps.
Two years on from Joss Whedon’s omnishambles, WWII super-soldier Steve Rogers (an effortlessly charming Chris Evans) has had some time to adjust to his status as a human time capsule, though as SHIELD’s top operative in the field he’s got plenty to take his mind of the distractions of the modern world, whether his topical concerns over growing mass surveillance, his forced witty banter with catsuited fellow Avenger Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, who seems to be devolving as an actor) or a burgeoning connection with ex-soldier Sam Wilson (a very personable Anthony Mackie, not unlike a young Will Smith).
Thankfully the Russos don’t waste much time before dropping our all-American hero into a kick-ass situation, a raid on a pirated cargo ship that sets off a chain of intrigue going right to the heart of SHIELD itself. And at the centre of it is the titular Winter Soldier, a mysterious assassin who appears to be Cap’s match in size, strength and skill, and who bears a shocking resemblance to a ghost from his past.
Yet despite the movie’s title, their conflict and philosophical differences – one man with a gun tellingly where the other wears his shield – play second fiddle to the grander theme of America’s new secret war against the world at large. It covers similar territory to this year’s flawed RoboCop reboot in illustrating a not-so-fantastical future where America can only preserve its own liberty by infringing on everyone else’s.
As black and white as the message is conveyed here (it’s an action movie, you can’t expect much) at least The Winter Soldier sticks to its political guns. Sure, Cap’s conviction that things were done ‘the right way’ back in his day is naive, but it doesn’t invalidate his discomfort with the idea – pushed by Samuel L Jackson’s SHIELD agent Nick Fury in a similar fashion to his conservative pundit in RoboCop – that world peace can only be secured by using tech to intimidate the world into submission. It’s only when Fury realises that he’s not as high up the food chain as he thought that he begins to see Cap’s side of things: that it’s easy to feel safe and secure when you’re the watchman, but life isn’t so comfortable under the watchman’s gaze.
Such lofty ideas – and knowing casting choices like Robert Redford as a SHIELD superior – betray The Winter Soldier‘s ambitions as a homage to 1970s political thrillers, which is perhaps overselling things a bit. But those notions do add some flavour to balance out the increasingly underwhelming action, as gritty hand-to-hand combat and some excitingly ludicrous weapon play give way to large-scale but bland CGI spectacle, not to mention the awkward tonal shifts as certain characters let loose with the zingers (funnily enough for directors so versed in humour, it’s those lighter moments that trip up the flow).
While there’s a fair bit The Winter Soldier could do without – Does Cap really need to remove his mask? Can Black Widow get through a scene without cracking wise? And what’s so special about a helicarrier, anyway? – there’s enough that works to make the bad seem forgettable, if not forgivable. Honestly, that’s a relief.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens nationwide in 2D and IMAX 3D on 26th March