When the war is over, what does a soldier do? In all the years since the first Great War, the complaint of soldiers returning to civilian life has been that readjusting and settling in a world of black and white choices no longer seems so clear, and in a modern world where to do good too often requires compromise, the pollution of white to grey causes problems for even super-soldiers. When the world is no longer black and white, how can anyone find their place in it?
This is the central theme of the second headline outing for Captain America and his comrades, focusing on the operations of SHIELD in the aftermath of the New York events seen in The Avengers, and their concern at what lengths the world needs to take to ensure its safety from threats. Though the Espionage aspect of the SHIELD acronym may have been replaced by Enforcement, The Winter Soldier has a much more of a political feel with a darker tone, promised but not delivered by the international terrorist bluff of Iron Man 3.
Directed by the Russo Brothers, Anthony and Joe, newcomers to the Marvel fold, they are assisted by a script from veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, a huge leap forward in pacing, sophistication and maturity from the overweight and ponderous introductory obligations of The First Avenger and the overlong and joyless trip to The Dark World which Thor recently too, though the success of this film can be attributed in no small part to the casting.
With the inner workings of SHIELD shown more than in the previous films or even Agents of SHIELD, focused as it is on a team of field operatives, it is clear that modern war is fought more with spies than by soldiers, and as such Captain Steve Rogers, his goals so clear in his earlier missions against the Nazis and Hydra, finds himself questioning the tactics and methods used in the ongoing struggle to maintain peace and order in the world.
That problem is not Rogers’ alone however, as Black Widow returns, played once more by Scarlet Johansson, now more of a team mate than a Handler, as does Nick Fury in his sixth big screen appearance played by the almost unstoppable Samuel L Jackson, here taking a front seat in the action for the first time. Assigned to an apparently simple hostage rescue mission which turns out to be not at all as it had originally appeared, suspicions are raised with the organisation and a senior agent is targeted, and Captain America finds himself out in the cold and on the run where he must choose his allies wisely to uncover the truth about what is happening within SHIELD and why.
Of course every hero needs a nemesis, and adding the action to this tale of murky politics and duplicity is the Winter Soldier. A supposed myth, this assassin who has reportedly helped shape history in his murders over seventy years shows up to target Steve Rogers, but what is his ultimate goal, and is their more to the relationship than it first appears?
With the odds stacked against him, the Captain can be thankful for his knack of making new friends, specifically ex-paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who gives him some perspective on what path to take. Seeing former military personnel open up to Sam about their struggles in a Veterans Anonymous meeting helps the two men to bond, and when Steve needs Sam’s help, he becomes an invaluable new ally, the Falcon.
At 136 minutes long, some may find the movie a little long, however the constant stream of action, plot and character ensure the flow of the movie never flags. The hand to hand combat, or which there is a great deal, is more accomplished than any previous Marvel film, showcasing the physical preparation of Chris Evans and his co-stars, though some scenes feel reminiscent of other movies, particularly the end sequence resembling a cross between a James Bond movie and the original Star Wars, though the constant use of hand held camera shots becomes irritating over time, and the music is functional as opposed to inspired.
A stylistic advantage of Captain America is that an enhanced human as a lead character reduces the need for the digital effects typical of the genre, so the film doesn’t feel too cluttered and in many ways is more realistic than the camp fun of the Iron Man, films raised by the overgrown ego of Tony Stark, although some suspension of disbelief is still needed. While some developments are obvious, others are less evident, and the directors don’t show all their cards until late in the game, allowing audiences to guess and second guess true allegiances, something all too often lacking in comic adaptations.
A more mature role than the flash, brash Human Torch who brought him to fame, in his third outing as Captain America, his second as lead, Chris Evans is finally given the chance to demonstrate what the character is capable of, more assertive, more physical, intelligent, shrewd, and refusing to allow events to compromise the principals he holds himself and those around him to, even when the weather turns against them.
Raising the bar in the film is a genuine film star whose talent has developed far beyond the promise of his matinee idol looks, as an actor, director, producer and founder of the Sundance Film Festival his encouragement of new talent is second only to his willingness to challenge authority, most notably in the groundbreaking political thriller All The Presidents Men, Robert Redford provides an understated but powerful performance as senior SHIELD Director Alexander Pierce, personal friend of Nick Fury and member of the World Security Council, acting as a buffer between the demands of that organisation and SHIELD’s field agents.
Sebastian Stan does well with the little development given him as the Winter Soldier, though Frank Grillo and Mackie provide robust performances in roles of counter-terrorism agent Brock Rumelow and Falcon respectively. Johansson is fine in her
role, though her character still seems insufficient to carry her own movie, though sharing the screen with Jackson’s angry almost anti-hero self gives her little opportunity to shine.
Also crossing over from The Avengers is Cobie Smolders’ agent Maya Hill, and Revenge star Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13 not only fleshes out the film nicely and seems set to reappear in the Captain America’s third solo cinematic adventure, confirmed for 2016 with the Russo Brothers returning behind the camera, but it is Redford who steals the show and helps raise this film far above what could have been another mediocre film in a Hollywood world of sequels and reboots.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX