Sunday, May 04, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

At the end of Joe Johnston’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’, the newly revivified Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself in the middle of a bustling, neon-soaked metropolis. The world has moved on by six decades. No dialogue is necessary; it’s there on his face: I fought for this? Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ gives him no time for navel-gazing: Loki and the Chitauri’s threat is immediate and perilous enough that the team are thrown together with little time for formalities.

As Anthony and Joe Russo’s ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ opens, Rogers’s integration into the twenty-first century has progressed somewhat, up to the point of male bonding with soldier-turned-counsellor Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Then, kicking the action off in fine style, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) turns up and SHIELD swing into action to rescue the hostage crew of a security vessel from a cut-throat group of terrorists. Said mission is accomplished, but Rogers discovers that Romanoff – acting on orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) not disseminated to the rest of the team – had entirely different mission perameters.

Rogers has it out with Fury, who bluntly appraises him of how much the world has changed since the war. Fury shows Rogers the next stage in SHIELD’s counter-terrorism mandate: three heavily armoured heli-carriers triangulated by a surveillance satellite, capable of identifying and neutralising a threat before it happens, a project Fury is urging SHIELD Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to push through. 

Rogers is aghast at the implications and begins to question his role in SHIELD. Nostalgia in the form of a Smithsonian tribute to his 1940s incarnation tugs at him. A hospital visit to nonagenarian Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), now revealed as one of the founders of SHIELD, leaves him feeling even more at odds with his new life. Then an attempt is made on Nick Fury’s life by a heavily armed team lead by a notorious Russian assassin known only as the Winter Soldier and long thought to be a myth. Realising he’s been set-up, and with a fair few secrets of his own, Fury turns up at Rogers’s apartment but before he can impart any pertinent information, the assassin strikes again.

Factions within SHIELD move against Rogers. He finds himself on the run, with only the Black Widow and Wilson on his side. (Wilson, just in case anyone doesn’t know, later becomes Falcon; Mackie embraces the role with relish.) The mid-section of ‘The Winter Soldier’, a good old-fashioned chase/conspiracy thriller, hits the highest note Marvel have yet sustained. Evans nails Rogers’s moral fibre and righteous indignation to a tee, while the race-against-time narrative as Rogers and Romanoff piece together the clues to uncover corruption in high places, makes for a genuinely urgent and engaging viewing experience, particularly compared to the CGI-heavy silliness of Marvel’s last outing, ‘Thor: The Dark World’.

Naturally, this being a Marvel film and having a budget clocking in at £170million, spectacular action sequences are obligatory, and while a couple of Winter Soldier assaults which erupt into citywide on-the-street mayhem deliver the goods, the film enters shakier territory with the extended finale, not least because Cap-battles-Hydra-villains-on-bloody-big-plane is basically a rehash of the finale to ‘The First Avenger’ but without the human element of his regretful farewell to Peggy in that film.

Such human element as there is in ‘The Winter Soldier’ derives from Rogers’s conflicted response when the identity of his titular antagonist is revealed, and from Romanoff’s ever-so-slight thawing from kick-ass action amoral heroine agent to kick-ass action heroine who might actually have something vaguely resembling a moral conscience.

Elsewhere, ‘The Winter Soldier’ seems to be marshalling its ducks into a row for Cap’s third instalment, unfinished business with the Winter Soldier being the main promise as the credits roll (and, hopefully, a more significant part for Emily Vancamp’s Agent 13, shoehorned into the this outing for seemingly no other reason than to introduce the character). Meanwhile, a mid-credits extra scene points towards the ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’.

Overall, ‘The Winter Soldier’ is the most intelligent product of the Marvel stable to date … which – granted – isn’t necessarily saying much, but it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie not made by Christopher Nolan that gets its hooks into the zeitgeist, doesn’t wuss out with easy answers, and treats its audience like adults. Most Marvel films want to throw things at you and yell “whiz bang!” in your ear very loudly and very frequently until you get tinnitus. ‘The Winter Soldier’ wants to sit down and have a conversation with you. It wants to talk about politics, corruption, the surveillance state and the price of both liberty and security. And then it wants to go “whiz bang!” and send you stumbling out of the cinema with a denouement that’s a real game-changer.

Oh, and its ‘Pulp Fiction’ homage is inspired.

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