There was a time when Steve Rogers was the average Avenger: less funny than Tony Stark, less conflicted than Bruce Banner, less weird than Thor. He was, as his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut put it, The First Avenger: a staunchly old-fashioned do-gooder whose monochrome morality rendered him slightly dull, despite Chris Evans’ easy-going charisma in the role. When Evans proposed retiring from acting once his Marvel commitments were done, it seemed even the star himself agreed.
Evans has since backtracked, perhaps because The Winter Soldier has finally made his signature character cool. Rogers’ third outing drops him into a post-Avengers world where – without the help/hindrance of fellow superheroes – he’s a man under siege: from his struggle to adapt to 21st-Century values; from the pressure exerted by S.H.I.E.L.D. to become more morally flexible; and from the arrival of the titular Winter Soldier, a mysterious assassin with abilities to match Cap’s own.
Essentially, Rogers finds himself amid the kind of ethically murky thrills that Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy perfected, but which the sunnier Marvel has hitherto avoided. Consider the visible debt to Michael Mann’s Heat – a noted touchstone for The Dark Knight – in the film’s best action sequence: a pitched street battle. Observe how Rogers’ all-American values are interrogated à la Harvey Dent. Note a plot development involving a trusted ally, copied wholesale from Nolan’s modern classic. And just as Al-Qaeda inspired Heath Ledger’s Joker, so The Winter Soldier’s ripped-from-the-headlines plotline about surveillance satellites chimes with contemporary paranoia about privacy.
All that’s missing is Bruce Wayne moping around on skyscrapers. Frankly, there’s no time, as Rogers turns fugitive to protect the film’s memory-stick MacGuffin. Evans is in his element, a force of boundless optimism as Rogers demonstrates his values on the run, unveiling corruption and betrayal to reveal the gap between 1940s heroism and its distorted modern-day neocon version.
Cap’s battle is mirrored off-screen by an even more interesting challenge: a change to the fabric of blockbuster filmmaking that essentially transforms this matinee idol into a super-sized TV star. Think Marvel is only making movies? Think again: The Winter Soldier provides ultimate proof that boxset logic is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s driving force. Studio boss Kevin Feige is very much a showrunner. Each movie ends with a tease towards future ‘episodes’. Directors are increasingly drawn from a small-screen wellspring: Joss Whedon, Alan Taylor and now Anthony and Joe Russo, alumni of Arrested Development and Community. Then there’s the small matter of the actual Marvel TV series, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., whose plot intersects with events here thanks to the film’s franchise-wide narrative shock.
With Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell under a ton of old-age slap) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) all returning, and Toby Jones’ First Avenger baddie cameoing from beyond the grave, this is exactly the kind of fanboy-friendly, continuity-heavy content that bogged down Iron Man 2. Except here it works – strangely enough, precisely because of how much is going on.
Between the various subplots, incorporating Rogers’ bromance with Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a mysterious neighbour (Emily VanCamp) and a tussle for power between Fury and Robert Redford’s S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Alexander Pierce, The Winter Soldier feels like an entire season of superhero shenanigans distilled into a breathless two-hour blast. Better still, whereas Iron Man 2’s stop-start structure effectively said, “pay attention, guys; this bit will be relevant in three films’ time,” plot developments here have an immediate impact.
Action and incident unite to give set-pieces a tangible stake, aided by the Russos’ tactile, grounded style. There’s a greater emphasis on stuntwork as S.H.I.E.L.D. launches an assault on a ship or Rogers takes on multiple assailants in a crowded lift. The ending, meanwhile, livens up the default ‘city gets smashed to smithereens’ third act by cross-cutting to the kind of Mexican stand-off not seen since Tarantino’s early days. If the material (and Redford’s casting) hark back to classic 1970s thrillers like Three Days Of The Condor or All The President’s Men, then the aesthetic is ‘1990s action movie’ with added biff-bang-pow from Rogers’ bone-crunching shieldry.
Such tonal variety impresses even more considering how different The Winter Soldier is from its MCU neighbours: the Shakespearean-cum-space opera pomp of Thor: The Dark World or the quippy larks of Iron Man 3. Despite the furore over Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man, Marvel is hardly playing it safe.
Sure, it’s not perfect. Considering the Russos’ comedic pedigree and Evans’ way with a one-liner,it’s surprisingly serious, partly because it lacks a stand-out character, a Trevor Slattery or a Loki, to steal scenes. Mackie’s Falcon is likeable enough and Redford is a class act, but neither plays for laughs; by default, Black Widow assumes ‘funny sidekick’ duties because Scarlett Johansson cannot deliver her lines without sarcastically raising an eyebrow.
Elsewhere, the Winter Soldier’s ridiculous habit of waiting for Rogers to defeat his nameless henchmen, before emerging like an end-of-level boss, means you might argue that the character is surplus to requirements. Fortunately, the Soldier’s true identity unites the film’s strands thematically and emotionally, offering a wallop of superhero soap opera that pretty much confirms MCU as the blockbuster boxset we can’t stop gorging on.
Disc-wise: disappointment is two-fold: a) there’s no Marvel One-Shot (maybe they figured it couldn’t get better than Thor: The Dark World’s hilarious All Hail The King); b) there aren’t many extras full stop. The Russo brothers lead off with an affable, Blu-only commentary, remaining on chat-track duties for a quartet of deleted scenes. We learn that it was Johansson herself who suggested chopping a quiet scene between her and Jackson (here titled ‘Nick Fury’s Circle’ - stop spluttering at the back) and that Hawkeye was originally set to join his S.H.I.E.L.D. colleagues in chasing Cap down when he turns fugitive.
Featurettes cover off the obligatory actors-tumbling-on-crashmats rehearsal footage (Scar-Jo in the dojo), Anthony Mackie’s catchphrase and the international variations on Cap’s bucket-list notebook (German auds saw ‘Oktoberfest’, Italians got ‘Roberto Benigni’).
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