An extreme case of Seasonal Affective Disorder…
Another year, another chapter of Marvel’s masterplan.
In the wake of the Battle of New York, the billion dollar Iron-Man threequel and near immortal Asgardians, it’s not unfair to call Captain America the runt of the superhero litter, labouring away doggedly in the shadow of his hulking playmates. It’s not just that the Cap’n is a bit of a goody two shoes, he also seems, well, a little out of his league amongst the genius playboy billionaire philanthropists of the Marvel universe.
So it’s to Marvel’s credit that Captain America: The Winter Soldier has shrugged off the lukewarm reception to the WW2 boys’ own charm of The First Avenger (which I appear to have been alone in liking) and planted his patriotic boots firmly up the ass of the 21st century. Chris Evans’ Captain now leaps off tall buildings (frequently), takes out elite hit squads (unarmed) and even brings down a stealth jet (single handed). This unexpected metamorphosis allows for some staggering set pieces (if you thought the Avengers’ plummeting heli-carrier was a sight to behold, wait till you see what happens when Marvel tries to outdo itself) and bone crunching close combat (albeit occasionally obscured by the apparently obligatory shaky cam).
Yet despite cranking up the noble freedom fighter angle, Steve Rogers is now a bona fide BadAss, a man morally rather than chronologically out of time as he questions SHIELD’s increasingly overzealous approach to security. Despite the futuristic tech and ambivalent wikileaks references, The Winter Soldier often has more in common with 70s conspiracy thrillers than millennial cyber actioners as Captain Rogers is hunted down by an omnipotent establishment and a seemingly unstoppable foe in the form of an old acquaintance sporting a new arm and some superior firepower.
Steeped in a creeping paranoia (matched by the richly utilitarian cinematography), The Winter Soldier manages to do a pretty decent job of pulling the rug out from under its audience on several occasions, using Captain America’s relative obscurity to its advantage. It also does a superior job of developing its characters compared to most comic book movies - the bittersweet conversation between Steve Rogers and his longtime love wouldn’t be out of place in a serious drama.
And yet, while there are no motor-mouthed Tony Starkisms on show, there’s a decent thread of bone dry wit, not to mention enough wry in-jokes (check out the inscription on the gravestone at the end of the movie) to stop the whole thing becoming DC dark.
Talent spotted off the back of their brilliantly anarchic Paintball episodes for Community (easily the most action movie homage ever to grace the small screen), brothers Anthony and Joe Russo deserve much of the credit for this smooth transition. They even manage to address the Captain’s biggest flaw, namely the terribly poe-faced lack of humour. Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t Evans’ fault - he’s proved his comic chops on multiple occasions, not least as his own Marvel doppelganger the Human Torch, so he arguably deserves more kudos for not having turned in a very vanilla dud (see: Superman Returns, for how this could have gone).
Instead he plays the ramrod straight man with aplomb, allowing his more bombastic co-stars to crack wise. This works particularly well for new entrant Anthony Mackie, whose flyboy Falcon gets a much better crack at sidekick than Don Cheadle’s terminally outdone Lieutenant Rhodes, his easy, everyman charm a welcome addition to the wider Avengers franchise.
It’s perhaps 5 minutes too long and, despite some added smoulder from Scarlett Johansson’s sultry superspy, the women are as marginalised as ever, particularly those eschewing skin tight leather, (although I will concede that this may have had something to do with Cobie Smulders’ pregnancy). In other words, it’s not flawless - but I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog, so I’ll be rooting for the 100 year old soldier when he takes on Batman and Supes in 2016.