Wednesday, 23 April 2014

There are a lot of superhero films these days, and I've dismissed some previous entrants into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as by-the-numbers, ticking-all-boxes, not-actually-that-clever jobs. I was worried that the sequel to 2011's enjoyable period adventure The First Avenger, starring Chris Evans as the genetically-enhanced GI, would end up like this, struggling to fit its lead into a twenty-first century setting and with the fact that my lefty British mind really shouldn't like a character with such a patriotic and gung-ho name as Captain America. Based on the name alone, the Captain is the kind of hero I'd expect to be advertising McDonalds from his 4x4 while on his way to bash some communists. And OK, there are some big-ass cars in this film, but I should never have doubted - Captain America: The Winter Soldier is more than just another superhero movie.

In fact, it's also a bold political thriller - proving we're far from the days of this character being a pro-America propaganda tool, The Winter Soldier is very relevant in its criticism of government surveillance. Yep, just as we're all starting to feel uneasy about the NSA and hide our web history, Captain America's suspicions turn to SHIELD - a twist coming just at the right time in the series, after Nick Fury's gang had saved the world enough times for us to start to trust them. And who better to play the scheming politician at the head of it all than Robert Redford, who may be Hollywood's greatest liberal but comes with connotations of classic conspiracy thrillers, from Three Days of the Condor to All The President's Men?

Yet as well as these '70s gems, The Winter Soldier also brings to mind Paul Greengrass' much more recent Bourne films in its handheld action sequences. An opening confrontation in which Cap is tasked with rescuing hostages from a tanker sets the tone - a visceral, kinetic, brutal style of action which is a brave departure from than the typical comic book stylings expected of Marvel and really works to create something quite unique. This continues through a number of chases and punch-ups around Washington DC, culminating in one massive battle which, while lengthy, packs in enough strong character moments  to prevent it from becoming tiresome.

The Winter Soldier develops its existing characters well, allowing Black Widow and Nick Fury to hold their own parts of the storyline rather than being overshadowed by the eponymous lead. Well, if you had Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson in your film, you wouldn't be too bothered about someone else having to be the main character, would you?

The sequel also bridges the World War Two antics of its predecessor with the current world nicely and adds some great new characters - let's not overlook Anthony Mackie as Falcon, a war veteran who touchingly shares his experiences of PTSD with the Cap (and also can fly).

As to the Winter Soldier himself - well, he's not quite as major a character as the title suggests, but, without spoiling too much, sets up a big story arc to come - one of several intriguing stories this film puts in motion.

A surprisingly strong addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe which really shakes up what we've come to expect from this series, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that rare thing - a superior sequel. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have taken us on an enthralling, twisty ride with genuine character depth, thematic craftsmanship and political resonance on top. I'm sold on the next one...


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