Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review (Spoiler-Free)
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
One of the reasons Marvel is currently enjoying a winning streak of blockbuster proportions is their acceptance of the idea that ‘superhero movie’ is not a genre in and of itself: rather a superhero movie can exist within any genre, and the recent run of Marvel hits has proven that. Iron Man 3 was a techno-thriller, Thor: The Dark World an urban fantasy, and now Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a conspiracy thriller in the vein of Three Days of the Condor (a movie the directors refer to as a direct influence), and a damn good one at that.
We rejoin Steve Rogers at a much different point in his life to those we have seen him at before: the ‘man out of time’ angle is significantly played down, as he has spent his time since The Avengers going through the internet and catching up on the past 70 years of history and pop culture. Rather, his somewhat naïve nature is linked to his beliefs in how S.H.I.E.L.D., for which he is now a full-fledged agent, should operate in the world, and this forms the crux of the movie’s struggle. To go into too many details about the plot would violate the ‘spoiler-free’ part of this review, but needless to say we go deeper into S.H.I.E.L.D. than we ever have before, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. included: not only is the organisation’s iconic headquarters the Triskelion a major location, but we even delve into the history of the group and a few more sinister secrets hidden in the depths of their murky past.
Those secrets comprise the main threat of the film, thus rendering the subtitle somewhat of a red herring: the Winter Soldier himself shows up a few times and poses a significant physical threat to Cap, but the true villain is the larger conspiracy that Rogers and his cohorts need to uncover. Speaking of whom, the supporting cast is great throughout: from Scarlett Johansson’s sultry and surprisingly flirty super-spy Natasha Romanoff to welcome franchise newcomer Anthony Mackie bringing a sense of fun and camaraderie as Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson, a fellow soldier home from war and struggling to find his place in the world. Similarly, it should come as no surprise that Robert Redford proves once again why he is one of the most well-respected actors in the world by bringing some serious chops to a layered role as Alexander Pierce, a member of the World Security Council (remember, those guys who wanted to nuke Manhattan at the end of The Avengers?), and Samuel L. Jackson adds a nervy, secretive Nick Fury into the mix, all to great effect.
Elsewhere, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show that they are a welcome addition to the franchise, with an ability to make Paul Greengrass-like shaky cam a lot clearer than when Greengrass himself does it: the action sequences are well-shot and superbly choreographed, giving the impression that Chris Evans is now playing a man fully confident in his own abilities as he leaps, kicks and flings that iconic shield around while the world seemingly explodes around him. The film also gives the strong impression that the Russos are invested in practical effects, as up until the final act CG explode-athon the action is kept surprisingly grounded for a superhero blockbuster, with some great stunts that never seem cartoony or awkward.
However, the aforementioned final act somewhat lets the movie down: what was previously a subtle thriller swiftly devolves into standard blockbuster fare as explosions bloom across the screen and the mission becomes a formulaic ‘put the thing in the other thing and destroy the big thing’ slog. Such a drastic change in tone could have ruined the movie, but fortunately the action remains compelling and no character is left out, each one getting their moment in the sun as the big showdown ensues.
However, what really dominates the final act of The Winter Soldier is the ramifications it has on the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole: every tidbit you’ve heard over the past few months of press about how this movie ‘changes everything’ is accurate, and the status quo in this world is irrevocably changed by what Cap and his comrades do here. How this affects the other characters involved (Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are name-checked, as is a certain ‘doctor’ whose actions and motivations might be considered by some as a little ‘strange’) likely won’t be seen until Avengers: Age of Ultron next year (August’s Guardians of the Galaxy seems likely to stand alone, for now at least), but needless to say the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not going to be the same place Earth’s Mightiest Heroes left it.
Although precluded from top marks by a grinding gear-shift in the last act, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still a fantastic addition to Marvel’s movie roster: where focus on Steve Rogers, in many ways the ‘squarest’ of the Avengers line-up, could have made for a preachy, over-patriotic movie, instead the Russos have given us an intense superhero spy thriller for the post-Snowden era.
Also, I assume this is standard protocol these days, but remember to stick around through the credits: a mid-credits sequence gives the tiniest of tasters for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a post-credits sequence hints towards the recently-announced Captain America 3, both of which are worthwhile moments for different reasons.