Offering some of the finest destruction of hardware since the Death Star
No one has ever done what Marvel Studios are doing. Merely consider how wildly ambitious their plan: to construct a vast universe in which various superheroes, each with their own line of movies, come together in overlapping ways, split up in multiple phases spanning years and years of planning and releases. There have now been no less than nine films since the release of what was ostensibly the first shot fired in their scheme; Iron Man in 2008.
This, in itself, is impressive. What elevates it to stupefying levels is that they haven't dropped the ball a single time. The worst films in the list (a toss-up between Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk) have been thoroughly entertaining and quite simply fun. The best ones? They've been no less than superlative action films. The original Iron Man, The Avengers, and now another is added to that exclusive list: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Of all the Avengers superheroes (which had always been in the eyes of most comic laymen B-rank heroes, far less known and loved than A-listers such as Batman and Spider-Man), Captain America seemed from the get-go the least interesting. Perhaps that's a European sentiment, since Cap came across as an unthinkably all-American do-gooder, with neither the juvenile wit of Peter Parker, nor the damaged goods psyche of Bruce Wayne. Surely a film with a character such as this would turn into a theater of US patriotism? It turned out to be charming. Cap is, make no mistake, the most up-right, morally sound Hero of all Heroes. He's all Team Work and Do The Right Thing and doesn't believe in the no man's land between good and evil. And yet, instead of becoming saccharine and nationalistic, Captain America: The First Avenger managed to walk the tight-rope with skill. It felt wholesome without the condescension.
What perhaps also worked in its favor was the WW2 setting, a pre-ironic time where you could sincerely be Captain America and not be ridiculed for the name or outfit. Fighting against the Nazi splinter group HYDRA, Cap rose from 98-pound weakling to Charles Atlas-certified fighting machine. Now comes the interesting bit. Our hero sacrificed himself in the battle against Red Skull, was frozen for many decades and awoke at the end of the film in our present time. This is where The Winter Soldier takes a shine. No other superhero film line in Marvel's megalomaniacal plan has switched tone so greatly as this one.
The wars and enemies of today are no longer the plain aggressors of then. Has Cap become a relic in a time when the Nazis are long gone? Where his first feature played like a war propaganda newsreel full of valorous missions and giving Jerry what-for, The Winter Soldier is equal parts Bourne Identity and, deliciously, Skyfall. It's become a political action thriller, filled with covert operations, assassination attempts by unknown assailants and plunging into murky waters where no one can be trusted and actions have morally dubious underpinnings. Even S.H.I.E.L.D., the grand organization corralling all these disparate heroes, becomes a suspect party and the source of persecution. How utterly lovely. And it isn't just how different and novel this feels compared to the earlier film, but also its superb execution. Though the plot and story beats might seem deceptively simple in retrospect, it takes a great deal of skill to structure it just so that it creates the right amount of suspense while not confusing, and offering an exact drip-feed of information.
This is why the Skyfall comparison is justified: it, too, had the audacity to leave the viewer in the dark for the first half of the film. The Winter Soldier (which is, by the way, the name of the villain who doesn't even play that big a role, to be honest, but they needed something to hang their coat on) dials back the superhero aspect entirely for that half. The action sequences (which are fun and chunky, don't feel gratuitous, don't outstay their welcome and are actually clearly composed) involve mostly the sort of run-and-gun physicality you could see in any Bond movie. Just with a vibranium shield tossed hither and tither. In the second half there is more traditional Marvel action, especially once Falcon finds his wings and starts swooping around Helicarriers. At this point the film has earned it, and it's a big exhilaration when it finally happens. It's just good build-up – what a treat to see a blockbuster like this have the guts to slow down its plot to get the biggest impact. Marvel have more nerves than most studios.
Of course, films like these cost money, a lot of money. Money that comes from ticket sales and Blu-Ray sales and putting Chevrolet cars on the screen. Boy, there are a lot of Chevrolets in this picture. Everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. drives Chevrolet. Nick Fury has a Chevrolet that gets beat up badly, but also features a hilarious mini-turret, so that equals out. Then there are Chevrolets chasing Chevrolets, and the ChevroletTM logo eats up a quarter of the frame multiple times. When I stepped out of the cinema I rushed right to the ChevroletTM dealer and bought a brand new ChevroletTM and crashed it in the nearest thoroughfare.
Here's why I liked The Winter Soldier even better than the first Captain America, which I went to see twice because it was good. The thing that always put me off about it, though, was how gosh-darned goofy HYDRA was. Their leader, Red Skull, literally has a red skull for a head and talks with a German comedy accent. Worse are his flunkies, these cartoon Nazi stormtroopers who, instead of greeting with the expected Roman out-stretched hand, bounce up both arms at the same time with fists. It's an unfortunate hold-over from the source material. You might be able to get away with this on a comic page, but on film this stuff becomes laughable. Yet Nazis are welcome subjects for caricature! Many films, from Inglourious Basterds to Indiana Jones, have used their image to chilling effect. Captain America just didn't get it right.
The only thing that really worked about the villains back then was mad scientist Arnim Zola, who was captured by the Allies and pressured into defecting. Without saying too much, he plays a small part again here that brought back warm memories of Portal 2. Suffice it to say the level of goofiness in this feature is far more acceptable than before. It's better balanced on all accounts.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), The Winter Soldier takes a top ranking. It's a superhero film that pretends it's a little smarter than it really is, but has such heart and is done with such style that it's easily forgiven. Its spy thriller ambitions may not live up to the level of John LeCarré, this is nevertheless a thoroughly compelling, riveting action film.