You know you’re a Marvel film fan when you know to treat the end credits as but a short intermission, a chance to breathe in the wake of the franchise’s latest rollercoaster ride, before being sent on your way with a tantalizing taste of where the tracks are going next. Iron Man’s first silver-screen outing back in 2008 got the ball rolling, a post-credits cameo marking Samuel L. Jackson’s debut as the cyclopean spymaster Nick Fury (the ‘M’ to Tony Stark’s 007). You know what, I’m gonna link in the scene right here, take a look for yourselves:
One tiny little scene, not even a minute long, but with one name and one line, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had its big bang. A franchise truly unprecedented in moviemaking history, each release both a solid story in its own right and a contributory chapter to a vaster narrative, each with its own little post-credits add-on to cement everything together and lay the foundations for events to come. We’ve seen rage-monsters wreck New York, fake-terrorists, gods and brothers locked in an almost-Shakespearean enmity and an alien invasion finally bring together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Nine installments down the line, Marvel is still keeping things fresh, fun, fast and furious. Enter Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Super soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), known to the world as Captain America, continues to adjust to life in the present day after having been frozen beneath the Arctic since World War II. Working for S.H.I.E.L.D, the secret organization under the directorship of Nick Fury, Rogers struggles to reconcile his understanding of right and wrong with today’s morally complex world, a struggle that is compounded when an attack on Fury himself suggests a conspiracy is at work from inside S.H.I.E.L.D’s ranks. Aided by fellow-Avenger Natasha Romanoff, aka. Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and befriending veteran Sam ‘The Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Captain America finds himself fighting an enemy from his own past, returning to plague the present: The Winter Soldier.
Romanoff: “Doing anything fun Saturday night?”
Rogers: “Well all the other members of my barbershop quartet are dead, so, not really”
Phase 2 of the MCU has wisely kept its sequels largely refocused on the separate stories of its lead characters, exploring the respective impacts on their lives of a post-Avengers timeline, and a reasonably winning formula it has proved with 2013’s ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Thor: The Dark World’. Here, the film certainly sets itself up along similar lines, and is in many ways much more of a direct sequel to the Captain’s first outing in 2011 than you might expect. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, best known for their TV work on comedy series like ‘Community’ and ‘Arrested Development’, firmly expand their repertoire of genres by imbuing what could easily have been just another action-adventure blockbuster with a strong and enticing sense of intrigue, drama and thrill you’d more typically associate with the exploits of Jason Bourne than the Star-Spangled Man. No doubt a particular key to this effect is the way the filmmakers approach the underlying conflict of old vs. new, an accomplishment perhaps best illustrated by their subtlety when it comes to expressing Rogers’ feelings of displacement. A lesser director could have just hammered home the point that ‘he’s a man out of time’ through comedic character miscommunications or conflicting social expectations, all simply reemphasizing the same basic effect. The Russo brothers don’t make that point, they make you feel that point. The Captain visits the abandoned army facility that served as his training camp during the war, and you understand his sense of isolation and loss. He makes a list of cultural things he’s missed over the years, and you realize just how much he’s missed, and how earnestly he wants to feel he belongs again. There are elements of the ‘fish-out-of-water’ story, but watching that fish flail this time isn’t so funny as it is solemn, sincere, and surprisingly human.
“This isn’t freedom. This is fear”
Much has been said of the film as a surprisingly hardball piece of political commentary. Whilst not an altogether unprecedented element in the franchise (‘Iron Man 2’s light exploration of the potential for an arms race, and the Captain’s own wartime efforts a thinly veiled satire of propaganda), nothing in the MCU to date has addressed anything of such relevance quite so directly as is done here with the issue of America’s hold on the global balance of power. “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime”, Rogers quips when learning of S.H.I.E.L.D’s heavily proactive mandate as a global peacekeeper/enforcer, Fury retorting how “S.H.I.E.L.D takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”. In today’s world, where the ethics of drone strikes are hotly debated yet used no less prolifically, where surveillance has become so extensive and integral to daily life, law and order (especially in developed countries), and all of which we have assimilated as necessary evils into our consensus on what ‘freedom’ is, just what is there for Captain America to champion? How greatly has the world compromised on the very beliefs he once fought for? Has it all been worth it, and do we even fully realize the cost? All these questions and more come to bear on the narrative throughout, from the smaller moments fleshing out the conspiratorial atmosphere to the no-holds-barred open conflict. Indeed, the fact that Rogers utilizes his trademark vibranium shield as a weapon just as much as a protective tool can be taken as a fitting symbol of the political questions explored under the surface; defensive action vs. offensive action, where is the line drawn? It’s a vastly more complex and morally grey world Rogers is coming to terms with, and always the presence of the Winter Soldier provides a disconcerting reflection of the Captain’s devotion to duty, the specter of the fate that awaits him should he ever surrender his idealistic convictions.
“If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad”
High-octane thriller though it might be, this is a superhero flick, and the promise of large-scale mayhem that goes with that fully delivers by far the biggest action sequences of Phase 2 to date. “It’s like Avengers 1.5”, Mackie remarks pretty astutely of the film’s combat and carnage production values. The return of flying aircraft carrier technology makes for some colossal climactic visuals, and battles in the streets offer up fast-paced, frenzied face-offs with bazookas, bombs, guns and knives coming at characters from all angles. George St. Pierre, in real life an actual mixed martial artist and three-time Welterweight Champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, makes for some outstanding physical verisimilitude as French-Algerian mercenary Batroc, and the filmmakers really show off what he can do in a wonderfully choreographed hand-to-hand fight scene with the Captain himself. Johansson’s Black Widow and Mackie’s Falcon further provide their own stunning and delightfully inventive displays of combative prowess, but come the inevitable-yet-nonetheless anticipated brawls between Rogers and the Winter Soldier, it’s an electrifying duel of completely equal skillsets. It’s surprising to think that despite eight films preceding this, we’ve actually had relatively little in the way of a thoroughly satisfying one-on-one punch-up (the best prior example to my mind being Hulk vs. Abomination back in 2008), but here it’s not much of an exaggeration to compare their confrontations to the likes of The Matrix’s Neo vs. Agent Smith or Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow vs. Barbossa, the nearest thing the MCU has given us yet to a Jedi lightsaber battle. In addition, for anyone and everyone in the know as to the Winter Soldier’s true identity, it just makes their second-act tussle all the more tense as that very revelation becomes set to be revealed to the Captain.
“The price of freedom is high, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay”
Ever since Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ in 2005, a game-changing reboot that led to a pantheon of dark and gritty reinventions of well-known characters in cinema, ‘troubled’ and ‘flawed’ have been the go-to characterizations for big blockbuster lead characters. The trend has by no means gone away today, and so it’s all the more refreshing that in Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers we get a guy who is quite simply good. Rogers isn’t a man ‘haunted’ by past tragedy or misdeed. Any conflict and turmoil he may experience within cannot be said to actually come from within, but is simply the effect of his external environment. As superheroes in recent years go, this is a guy who’s actually pretty sincerely happy with who he is, someone you feel like you would actually look up to as a person. Evans has received some mild and scattered criticism for his portrayal of the character as being uninteresting, that the ‘goody-two-shoes’ act is less relatable, outdated even. Yes, Rogers is a consistently good guy, that’s who he is, that’s what he made of himself in his own time and that’s what he’s going to continue making of himself in the present. What does that really say though, that he really is an unbearably ‘perfect angel’, or just that his plain decency is all the more pronounced by his distinctly murkier new-millennium environment? However you answer that may well say more about your character than his. Evans was a perfect choice for the role from the outset, and he continues to bring the Captain to live with all the strength of character and virtue he deserves and needs when faced with the problems of today’s world.
“Are you ready? For the world to see you as you really are?”
One of the many unexpected bonuses in ‘The Avengers’ was the brief insight into the history of Natasha Romanoff, the highly trained spy/assassin codenamed The Black Widow. Here, not so much ‘sidekick’ as a fully-fledged comrade, Romanoff’s character continues to be fleshed out amidst the chaos and conspiracy, and every step of the way Scarlet Johansson excels in every department. If ‘Casino Royale’ had featured the first female James Bond, Johansson’s Romanoff would have been it. Cool, calm and collected in even the hottest of situations, it hits home all the more just how serious and sinister things are getting when even the Black Widow needs to take a few minutes to process it all. Every bit the partner Rogers needs to get him to grips with how things are and ground him from his forlorn nostalgia, an experienced killer faintly opening her mind to the possibility that her future isn’t and shouldn’t necessarily be dictated by her past, Johansson is inarguably one of the film’s greatest strengths. With ‘Avengers 2’ supposedly planning to expand further on her character specifically, is it really so outrageous to hope for a film of her own come Phase 3?
“I never said I was a pilot”
If his demeanor on the red carpet at the film’s LA premiere is anything to go by, Mackie seems like a pretty cool guy who knows something pretty cool when it comes his way, and Sam Wilson’s military alias as ‘The Falcon’ is very cool. Aiding Captain America on a world-saving mission would be most likely to either utterly faze or over-enthuse anyone, but Wilson takes it all in his stride (indeed his casual acceptance of Rogers as a living anachronism makes for one of their earliest bonding moments), or ‘glide’ as the case may be. His getup, a pair of retractable wings built into a jet pack, with guns. Tell me that isn’t cool, and tell me Wilson doesn’t know exactly how cool it is. Mackie clearly revels in this role, providing Evans’ Rogers with a sense of ‘brothers-in-arms’ and trust he hasn’t felt fully and sincerely since the company of his renowned Howling Commandos. Wilson isn’t all quips, quick-wits and wings though, the film taking substantial time to establish his history as both a veteran and as a PTSD councilor, a smaller but no less effective illustration of the side-effects of US military proactivity nowadays. Here too, Mackie turns out a solid effort of bringing sincerity and solemnity to the role of a man who’s a soldier first, and an awesome flying superhero second. If Rogers should ever decide to hand over his shield, Wilson would be one hell of a candidate to carry it on.
“You need to keep both eyes open”
Samuel L. Jackson really can’t do wrong. He’s been in a few misfires, sure, and one or two very dirty bombs, but nothing can faze his talent and sheer being, so nothing can stop him. CA:TWS marks his sixth appearance as the ultimate espionage badass Director Nick Fury (not counting a brief cameo in the MCU’s spinoff television series ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’), and he’s in for a very different ride this time around. We’ve seen Fury as the mysterious spymaster, we’ve seen him as a faintly Machiavellian guide, as a mentor, a commander and a fellow soldier. When the man who was arguably the epicenter of Phase 1’s ‘Avengers Initiative’ is suddenly at tremendous risk, you know the MCU is really shaking things up. Whether or not they go so far as to ‘pull a Ned Stark’, you’ll have to find out for yourselves. Samuel L. Jackson is the Nick Fury, so much so that animated series featuring the character are now basing their portrayal on him. I need say nothing more, except keep your eyes peeled for perhaps the best Pulp Fiction reference ever made in a film.
“To build a better world, sometimes means tearing the old one down. And that makes enemies”
So much has been said of Robert Redford in this picture that I’m not gonna hammer it all in again. His casting in part a nod to his reputation in the 1970s for thrillers the likes of ‘Three Days of the Condor’, Redford’s senior S.H.I.E.L.D leader Alexander Pierce exudes political charm and charisma, as well as provides a greater insight into the actual structural composition of S.H.I.E.L.D that has formerly maintained a great level of ambiguity as to how it organizes itself. Steve Rogers thought Fury’s motives and actions were hard enough to understand, but Pierce is a whole other level, and therein lies the source of much of the film’s intrigue.
“Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He’s a ghost, you’ll never find him…”
“He’s fast… strong… and has a metal arm…”
There’s little to be said about the eponymous threat the film pits against Captain America without giving the game away, but in avoiding spoilers it’s oddly appropriate to be complicit in maintaining his mystery. For being a character whose name is in the title, the Winter Soldier has a surprisingly limited screen time, and is treated with surprisingly restrained flair. There is no grand entrance, no establishing of any particular ‘rivalry’ or ‘competitiveness’ with Rogers, no ‘monologuing’. The Winter Soldier simply appears into the story practically out of nowhere, and every entrance is handled just as suddenly and unexpectedly as an encounter with a ghost. Part of me actually started thinking about Javier Bardem’s acclaimed Chi-gurh in ‘No Country for Old Men’, that sense of the villain being but a force of nature simply being aimed at the protagonists by something greater. Despite the limitations though, Sebastian Stan makes a very fitting casting choice for the role, his eyes blazing with the Winter Soldier’s sheer drive for his mission, equal parts unsettling menace and sobering tragedy. The rest is classified.
Nine films down, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is showing absolutely no signs of entropy. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a breathtaking and thoroughly compelling thrill ride from the very start, and by the time credits roll the MCU has dealt itself a serious game-changing development that is sure to have far-reaching implications for its other contributory franchises, not to mention advancing things only considerably for next year’s grand reunion in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. Captain America is completely out of his comfort zone, and he’s more than welcome to stay.
Averaged Out: 4.5/5
(P.S. For fans of TV’s ‘Community’, you’re in for a serious treat)