Sunday, 20 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford

Rating: 4/5

There’s no point in denying that the new Captain America movie is anything less than another instalment in the superhero saturation of the last ten years, but although the Captain himself has been considered the blandest of the bunch, at least as far as The Avengers (2012) is concerned. It’s still a fantastic world of unbelievable stunts and perfectly timed one-liners, but the new film offers a lot more depth than some of the weaker superhero fare on offer.

In addition to the ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universe, the rich tapestry of interwoven stories that Disney’s Marvel Studios has been crafting at the rate of about two blockbusters a year since 2008’s Iron Man, we have seen everything from the unrelated narratives of Marvel’s Spiderman and X-men series, to the gritty reboots of rival DC classics like Superman and Batman. The Marvel Universe alone is an unprecedented shared universe multimedia franchise, extending from the silver screen to various short films, television series and tie-in comic books.

Wanton American patriotism is far from internationally popular, and the challenge with Captain America as a character is to give this bastion of United States glory modern appeal. The first film took the character back to his roots, giving us a brilliant pulp action adventure, set during the character’s 1940s heyday.

This was an easy place to be Captain America, but after being dragged into the twenty first century in time for The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must work out what America stands for today, and decide what he represents. The temporal displacement is a rich vein to be mined for soul searching and character interpretation.

As a pawn of SHIELD, the superhero intelligence organisation: our Nazi-punching hero has been reduced to a shady covert operative who is unsure if the missions he is sent on are aiding or abetting the forces of evil. This insecurity comes to a head when he learns of SHIELD’s Project Insight, a sinister initiative which operates under the twin axes of surveillance and pre-emptive strikes, undeniably referencing drone controversy and the concerns over US internal surveillance. Thus The Winter Soldier is an espionage thriller, firmly rooted in modern day concerns, but with a style heavily influenced, according to the directors, by cold war conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s.

Events are still very much rooted in the events of the first film, mysterious forces have been working in the background since the end of the war, and the Captain finds himself battling enemies both old and new. Symbolically, he trades his brand new twenty first century black and navy blue uniform for his bright red, white and blue wartime clobber before the film is out.

As is the case with many comic book movies, I am impressed to learn that much which transpires on screen, no matter how incredible or brief, is in fact distilled from the original comics over their seventy year history. I’m certainly not the one to personally notice all this detail, but it’s apparently crammed full of nods to various eras, arcs and character backgrounds.

To someone unfamiliar with the source material, the Icarus-like wingsuit/jetpack used by The Falcon struck me as a trifle ridiculous at first glance, at odds with the more serious tone of the film. I was quick to dismiss his presence as a poor substitute for the absent Iron Man, but The Falcon is a legitimate Marvel superhero.

Despite my misgivings, the characterisation of Falcon, real name Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), was strong. An Air Force veteran, he shares Rogers’ military background and helps him adjust to the modern world. Later, he demonstrates his loyalty when he is called upon once the Captain becomes a fugitive.

Of course, the question having over every post-Avengers solo movie is why characters neglect to call in their superpowered chums to save the day in a fraction of the time. In whipping out his veritable army of automated armour suits at the end of Iron Man 3 (2013) Tony Stark proved that he didn’t need to assemble the Avengers even to save the President.

There is a slight aversion in that Captain America does spend the whole film working closely with fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who has been largely sidelined in her previous appearances. The truth is that having fewer lead characters mean more attention can be given to others, and Johansson is finally given some significant screen time. Black Widow’s alluring presence is welcome throughout, her moral ambiguity and chequered past providing a stark contrast to the Captain’s clear cut integrity.

Similarly, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is much more important to the story than the cameo status he has held until now. By contrast, the eponymous Winter Soldier, a bionic badass bearing Soviet livery has little screen time, initially filling the role of unbeatable enforcer to the villains, and the only individual strong enough to challenge the Captain, but his tragic presence is vital to the overarching saga. Also noteworthy is Robert Redford’s appearance as a sinister SHIELD executive.

Freedom, the most American of values, nevertheless carries a global relevance, and remains a major theme, but any overt patriotism is relatively, and wisely downplayed, despite the character’s name and apparent raison d’ĂȘtre. What’s left is a solid conspiracy blockbuster, with the superhero status incidental aside from enabling higher octane action sequences than a subtler spy movie.

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