Where Captain America: The First Avenger was an efficient if slightly underwhelming piece of superhero entertainment, the star-spangled hero’s second solo outing helmed by Community’s Anthony and Joe Russo is an altogether different beast; multi-layered and action-packed, it’s Marvel’s best standalone film yet and easily the best representation of the character on screen thus far.
While Thor returned to Asgard and Tony Stark retreated to his armoury, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) has been working for S.H.I.E.L.D since the events of New York whilst trying to acclimate to the modern world. When a colleague comes under attack and conspiracy is suspected, Steve goes rogue and teams up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in a bid to expose the corruption, a mission made more difficult when an old friend from his past re-emerges as a formidable adversary – the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
The term ‘political thriller’ has been bandied about since before the Russo’s even signed on as directors, and for much of the hefty 140 minute run time The Winter Soldier doesn’t feel like a comic book movie. Putting the S.H.I.E.L.D organisation under the microscope allows the film to explore relevant themes of security, control, and ultimately how far to go in the pursuit of freedom, with Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce often used as the delivery method. By embracing those political overtones, Marvel has delivered something fresher and a little darker without completely sacrificing its comic book tone. Indeed, in skirting the balance between humour and weightiness, The Winter Soldier succeeds where Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World occasionally faltered.
Penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the script gets a lot of mileage out of Captain America’s inner conflict. Steve can always be counted on to do the right thing, and in both Captain America: The First Avenger and Avengers Assemble, right and wrong was a simple matter of black and white. There is much more grey this time around, and watching Steve still try and hold on to his ideals in a world which has evolved makes him an infinitely more fascinating character. Whilst Natasha’s arc isn’t as pronounced, there’s no question that she too has a different mind-set at the end of the film to the one she does at the beginning. Johansson gets a lot of room to develop her character here, and though it would be nice to see a Black Widow solo feature somewhere down the line, it doesn’t feel as necessitous now. As for the second title character, the Winter Soldier, the details of who is behind the mask and how it affects our hero are best left unsaid (though this won’t be news for comic book aficionados). He is a force to be reckoned with throughout, and Stan’s performance – which is largely reliant on body language – is suitably chilling.
While we’ve seen Captain America battle Nazis and alien armies, you only get a semblance of what the super soldier serum allows our star-spangled hero to do. That’s not the case here; Cap has never looked or felt more powerful, and the impressively choreographed hand-to-hand combat – not to mention some wonderful usage of his iconic shield – contribute to some of the most thrilling action sequences in this, or any Marvel movie. The passionate showcasing of characters’ skill sets doesn’t end with Cap either; Black Widow and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) both get to show why they’re regarded as two of the world’s greatest spies, and anytime Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie) takes flight is a joy.
Film-to-film, Evans seems to be getting better at embodying our titular hero, and The Winter Soldier is no exception. There are a few bits of important dialogue that might have been construed as, for want of a better word, ‘cheesy’, but the spot-on writing combined with Evans’ earnest delivery make it anything but. The always reliable Mackie also delivers some strong work as Wilson; Falcon’s ‘origin story’ is much less fantastical than his comic book counterpart and it serves the narrative well, making it easy to buy into his fast friendship with Cap.
With Steve and the rest of the Avengers having each taken sizeable steps on their own personal journeys, it makes it even more exciting to see how these characters interact with one another once they reassemble next year. To that end, make sure you stay watching through the credits. Captain’s orders.