The first Captain America film set itself apart from the rest of the Marvel franchise by being essentially a period piece, with most of the action taking place in the 1940s.
The second instalment finds itself firmly rooted in the modern day and the real world, perhaps more so than any other Marvel film to date. At times, The Winter Soldier feels more like a high-tech spy thriller than it does a super-hero film.
The plot is sparked when an assassination attempt on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) puts him out of action, and Cap finds that SHIELD has been compromised. Unable to trust anyone, Cap is forced to go rogue and figure out who’s behind it all.
Along for the ride are Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanov – the Black Widow – and Cap’s new friend, ex-paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who has a few tricks – and a rather nifty be-winged jet-pack – up his sleeve.
In their attempts to purify SHIELD of its corruption, our heroes come up against the enigmatic Winter Soldier, an assassin with a bionic arm who seems every bit the match for Captain America…
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is undoubtedly entertaining, but it has its share of faults. One of the big issues is that it’s just too busy.
There’s too much plot, and too many characters, and the film is too long – one action sequence actually occurs entirely off-screen! The shifting sands of spy shenanigans are fun at times, but overly convoluted.
The script does find time to give Nick Fury some much needed characterisation – he’s been in nearly every Marvel film, and we know nothing about him besides a gruff attitude and a snazzy duster jacket – while we also begin to scrape away at the many layers of Natasha Romanov and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill also gets a look in.
This excess of characters doesn’t make for a particularly streamlined film, and crucially it leaves Captain America without much material of substance for himself.
Steve Rogers is arguably Marvel’s richest character – he’s still a regular, weedy kid at heart and he’s basically living in the future – and yet the film doesn’t do enough to explore that. When asked at one point, “What makes you happy, Steve?” he can only poignantly reply “I don’t know”. The film forgets to find him an answer.
The action sequences, too, are a mixed bunch. A night-time boat raid at the start is choppy and muddled, but a claustrophobic punch-up in an elevator is innovative and exciting. And any scene featuring the titular Winter Soldier is an instant winner. The Winter Soldier is a fantastic presence: bad-ass and enigmatic, he adds extra weight to the film whenever he appears. Sadly, he’s under-utilized and under-explored.
Anthony Mackie makes a great addition as Sam Wilson/Falcon, both as a human crutch for Cap to lean on, and as a hero in his own right. The sequences of him zipping through the skies on his mechanical wings are as dynamic and exciting as any of Iron Man’s flights. There’s also the magnificent moment when Cap emulates John McClane in Die Hard 4, and kills a fighter-jet with his bare hands. So yeah, there’s definitely fun to be had here.
The plot hinges on the corrupted SHIELD launching new technology that would allow them to become all-seeing and all-powerful. Using a complex algorithm, they would be able to instantly terminate people who they predict will commit crimes. Punishment before crime. Think Minority Report, but taken to the extreme.
The notion is a chilling one: the over-bearing intrusion of privacy and the act of security forces stripping our freedoms in the name of protection is prescient and relevant to the state of the world today. Sadly, the script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, doesn’t play to these aspects enough, and the idea and the threat it poses are never really developed.
And that’s ultimately the biggest issue with The Winter Solider – it simply doesn’t play to its strengths. A chillingly nefarious, real-world relevant plot, an enigmatic and powerful villain, a rich and relatable main-character; these are the things that should be at the fore, and yet they’re the aspects that get lost in the mix.
The climax leaves a lot of things different, both for the characters in the Captain America branch, and also for the wider Marvel Universe. While it’s no Iron Man 2, this leaves Captain America: The Winter Soldier feeling like something a place-holder within the canon.
There’s fun to be had – this is a Marvel film after all – and the script provides enough nods to the fans, and snappy dialogue for the casual viewer to enjoy. And that’s without mentioning the reliably stunning CGI.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier will surely entertain, but one suspects there may be better, more interesting things to come in part three.
Released in UK cinemas on Wednesday 26 March 2014.