Captain America: The Winter Soldier review

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Review James Hunt 20 Mar 2014 - 21:00

How can a superhero based on uncomplicated world politics operate in the modern world? James finds out...

Throughout its promo period, Marvel Studios has been describing Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a political thriller with added superheroes, and from the moment the film opens it certainly looks the part. Following the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has taken to hanging around Washington DC, running covert ops for SHIELD, staying out of the limelight and struggling to deal with the moral compromises his side seems to be making in the name of freedom. He's still a soldier, but more reluctantly than before.

This is, without apology, a story about Cap trying to operate in the modern world. Punching Nazis might've been enough in the 1940s, but things are rarely so straightforward in the 21st century. The message we're consistently given by those in power is that good people have to do bad things to keep us safe, and the world of Captain America now reflects and challenges those areas of moral uncertainty. It's definitely a thriller – the action is tense, character loyalties are uncertain and there are plot twists all over the place - but the political elements are less developed than has been suggested.

Still, it's probably for the best. You can only take political intrigue so far in a framework where the problems must ultimately be solved by a dude in a costume punching someone in the face, and this film is about as serious as it can get away with. Not to a fault - if anything, once the villain's eventual plot is uncovered, it's almost admirably ridiculous – but even though the film isn't entirely fluff, it's perhaps more fluff than it wishes it was.

That's not necessarily a problem. We wouldn't be here if we didn't love superhero fluff. The strangest thing is that despite a 136-minute running time and a plot that barely stands still, the movie somehow can't make time for everything it wants to. The biggest and most disappointing casualty of this is the titular antagonist, whose appearances are cryptic, one-note and slightly too rare. The Winter Soldier is relegated to a bit player in a story about something else, rather than being the narrative driver the film's name suggests.

Luckily, the strong ensemble makes up for the occasionally too-absent super-villain. Nick Fury gets more to do in this film than ever before, and Samuel L. Jackson delivers everything you'd expect of him. The Black Widow is upgraded almost as far as co-lead, and deservedly so. Scarlett Johansson's performance is impressively at ease: warm yet guarded, deeper than the material she's given, and proof if any were needed that she deserves a solo film. Franchise newcomer Anthony Mackie is instantly engaging as Sam Wilson, a Cap fanboy-turned-sidekick. And even though Robert Redford is arguably coasting on his previous performances, he's an entertaining presence nonetheless.

Furthermore, direction, from the Russo brothers, is strong, not least for giving us action sequences that we can follow. Marvel's left-field pick for directors of its films has paid dividends again.

Still, it's Chris Evans as Steve Rogers who remains the heart of the film, and if nothing else this film underscores how perfect he is for the role. A mixture of corn-fed patriotism and deadpan humour are underpinned by an unspoken sense of loss. Thankfully, one thing Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets unflinchingly correct about its lead is that in a world of moral compartmentalisation and compromise, Steve Rogers always does the right thing. He makes the kind of choices you hope you'd be brave enough to.

Given that there are so many action scenes, it helps as well that they're varied and interesting. Cap has always been a street-level hero, and though that worked against him alongside the larger-than-life members of The Avengers, it's in his favour here where he's the fastest, strongest person in most rooms. This is a film that makes Cap's ability to leap out of a window seem as cool as repulsor boots or a magic hammer. It's superheroes-as-Jason Bourne. With the possible exception of a CGI-riddled climax that'll ring a little too familiar to Avengers viewers, it all works brilliantly.

It might not be a perfectly-constructed film, but at least it's trying something different with the character, rather than returning to the backdrop and themes of the first. If you're a fan of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, you'll doubtless be happy enough with the results: new heroes and villains are debuted, at least one old villain returns unexpectedly, and there are major story developments that'll undoubtedly ripple into the Marvel films that follow. It's even tonally unique, with less romance and comedy than previous MCU instalments, but more tension and intrigue.

As with Thor: The Dark World, it doesn't need to be spectacular. It gets by because simply spending time with the characters is enough to make the ticket price worth it. Even so, it feels like a script that went a couple of drafts beyond perfect. The characters are there, but the emotion isn't. There's a focus on the plot over the story. It's occasionally meandering, and if it lost 20 minutes almost anywhere it'd come out vastly improved.

Perhaps most strangely, there's a good chance that it'll leave you more excited about the next Captain America film than the one you just watched. It probably won't hurt Marvel's reputation for solid, enjoyable action flicks - but after the likes of Avengers and Iron Man 3, it's hard not to hold the company to higher standards than Captain America: The Winter Soldier ultimately reaches.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out on 26 March.

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