MARVEL’S ‘Phase 2’ series of superhero films have a lot to live up to.
These are no longer simply just origin stories anymore. The characters have been established, the stakes always need to be raised higher; and at the same time delicately interweaving the existing Marvel film mythos in such a way that these films can both be enjoyed as standalone stories as well as part of the greater canon. More specifically, this is all leading up to the massive 2015 event that is The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Eschewing the pulpy serial feel and plucky bombast of the period-set first outing for Captain America, The Winter Soldier is an entirely different animal: a superhero movie crossed with a spy thriller – something that we haven’t really seen before. Although a few story twist and revelations can be smelt a mile off, there is a pervading sense of mystery, subterfuge and paranoia throughout – and even one or two genuine surprises along the way.
Cap himself appears much slicker and cooler this time around. It’s a real joy to see him in action – the opening sequence taking place on a hijacked ship being a terrific introduction to what the super soldier is now capable of. He’s still a boy scout and straight as an arrow, but with some much needed humour injected by way of the humorous back and forth exchanges with his allies (unlike the recent Thor: The Dark World’s somewhat shoehorned gags), this feels more like Whedon’s dialogue from The Avengers – certainly not a bad thing.
Whilst Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Hawkeye are understandably absent, it’s nice to see Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury receive significantly beefed up roles – more screen time here than in any of the previous films they have appeared in. Many other familiar faces turn up in small parts or cameos and future characters are also teased – making this a real treat for fans – although having a mid-credit AND a post-credit sting seems almost obligatory these days.
Also of note are new ally Falcon and the main antagonist: the Winter Soldier himself. The former is re-imagined via the Hawkeye school of design (precariously balanced between high-tech cool and being ever so slightly goofy looking); the latter a terrifyingly efficient killer that adds real tension and a sense of ominous threat in his earlier appearances. Whilst his true identity is hardly a surprise to anyone, the build up and reveal of the character is excellently handled.
Despite the abundance of Hollywood style shaky close-ups and fast editing, the action remains impressive, with inventive fight choreography (Cap gets to use his shield a bit more this time and in a variety of ways), tense set pieces (a fight in a crowded lift) and some great stunt work (Fury’s car chase). It’s often visceral and brutal, guaranteed to make you wince once or twice.
Captain America has always been the most straightforward character out of The Avengers ensemble and is often overshadowed by his more colourful compatriots, but The Winter Soldier allows him to shine. There are a few issues here and there (character motivations and allegiances being slave to the twisting plot developments, one or two overly convenient escapes and the villain’s rather predictable character arc), but these can easily be overlooked in what is a slick action thriller. One that just so happens to feature a couple of superheroes
(Score: 4 out of 5)