Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders
Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo
Runtime: 136 minutes
Release Date: 26th March 2014 (UK), 4th April 2014 (US)
Matt C: Now in its sixth year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has reached enough momentum that it’s become a near unstoppable juggernaut, breaking new ground in the way that blockbuster franchises can operate. Captain America: The Winter Soldier stands as a sequel to both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, picking up plot threads from each, but also carves its own identity, a film that can be taken as a standalone entity even if you’d be in an undeniably better position if you’ve seen everything that's preceded it. It’s a movie that references the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s (right down to the ingenious casting of Robert Redford) but still remains on the cutting edge of contemporary action cinema, one that takes its inspiration from arguably the most celebrated storyline in the character’s recent comic book history, shaping it to fit the live action canvas that we first glimpsed in Iron Man in 2008, and does so in a way that exudes absolute reverence. To employ the vernacular often utilized by the fanboy community for this type of thing, it’s a veritable extravaganza of kickass superhero thrills.
It starts off with Cap, post Battle of New York, working for superspy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and being sent out on covert missions where his skills are put to great use. He’s becoming increasingly frustrated by Nick Fury’s misdirection, secrecy and “compartmentalization” though, and has great difficulty with the morality behind the organization’s latest endeavour, Project Insight. When an assassination attempt is made on Fury’s life, and a mysterious, deadly individual known as the Winter Soldier enters the playing field, Cap finds himself on the run with the Black Widow, a fugitive in the country he’s sworn to protect, as his wartime past battling Hydra comes back to haunt him.
The Winter Soldier - although not explicitly - places Cap in a world of drone strikes, Edward Snowdens, and unlawful wars, as the red, white and blue attempts to wade through the morally grey morass of the modern day political world. It helps ground things in such a way that even flashes of mad science can’t rock the suspension of disbelief, and it really is the perfect environment for this character to operate in, the American Dream clashing with the American Reality. It’s pretty potent stuff to inject into a megabudget blockbuster, but Marvel Studios continue to show that they clearly understand their characters, their long lasting appeal, and how to translate them across to a large audience without coming across as too corny.
One of the key factors that has made the MCU so successful is the talent producer Kevin Feige and co have corralled together to bring this crazy world of superpowerd beings to life. The people they've selected are - by and large – not always the most obvious choices but once you bear witness to what they can do you can’t imagine anyone doing a better job. Chris Evans was perhaps more familiar for his wisecracking persona, and had already played a superhero (the Torch in the Fantastic Four movies), but he’s brought pathos and gravitas to the role of Steve Rogers, still essentially the same scrawny kid we first met in The First Avenger who always knew he had to do the right thing. Scarlett Johansson had built a career sticking with mostly more leftfield or prestige fare, and never appeared to be someone who could convince us she could manifest a chameleonesque personality capable of taking foes out with extreme prediudice until she fairly swiftly proved the doubters wrong in Iron Man 2 and (mostly) The Avengers. The main exception to this rule is probably Samuel L. Jackson (getting his first proper – utterly riveting – action scene here), because those who read The Ultimates series over a decade ago, where artist Bryan Hitch modelled the revamped Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. after the Pulp Fiction actor, had already figured it out. Who else were they going to get to play this guy?
That ethos of picking the right but not necessarily obvious talent stretches behind the camera too. Based on their episodes of Arrested Development and Community, or indeed You, Me And Dupree, not many people would have pegged the Russo brothers to be quite so magnificently proficient at crafting some of the most expertly staged action set pieces seen in the last decade. Opting for physical rather than CGI carnage wherever possible really pays off, whether it’s two opponents engaging in brutal fisticuffs or street level gun battles that bring to mind the most memorable scenes in Michael Mann’s Heat. It’s adrenalizing stuff, and even when the CGI elements do take over the tension remains ratcheted up to a stratospheric level.
The Winter Soldier is an incredibly engrossing affair where all the emotional beats really hit home and the stakes are genuinely as high as they can be. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is forever altered in this film which just shows how the studio isn’t prepared to rest on its laurels and is perfectly willing to shake up the status quo rather than repeat itself endlessly. A fantastic cast (Stan and Mackie are also both excellent), a script that contains more than a few surprises (even to those familiar with the comics) and some extremely confident direction results in a package that is probably the best solo outing for any cinematic Avenger so far. The unstoppable juggernaut continues to leave its competitors in its wake while at the same time keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. 9/10