Following on from the success of Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and The Avengers in 2012, Chris Evans picks up the shield and a welcome change of pace in the much grittier Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Since his inception in the early 1940s, Captain America has been an intriguing, albeit straightforward kind of hero. The story of the scrawny guy transformed into a muscle-bound Nazi-basher functioned as part male-fantasy-fulfilment and part patriotic propaganda. The lack of any interplanetary lineage or a billionaire’s budget meant Captain America stood apart from his comic book peers, with a dearth of the usual flamboyance resulting in an unrivalled level of everyman relatability, a kind of Springsteen of the Superhero world.
This latest instalment, set two years on from The Avengers film, builds on that level of realism. As the man behind the mask, Steve Rogers continues to struggle to adapt to modern life; and as Captain America he grapples for a sense of identity. Long gone are the star-spangled halcyon days of delineated good and evil, this is 21st century America: a corporate, homogenous world in which the moral compass Captain America traditionally relied upon gives little bearing. After a routine spot of pirate clobbering gets spiced up by a mysterious assassin, Captain America finds all his attempts to identify the man cut short by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D.
Working alongside Captain America by order of Fury, Scarlett Johansson’s returning Black Widow acts as a brilliant counterpoint to the Captain. As a cunning mercenary who gets things done by hook or crook, she stands in contrast to Captain America’s stalwart sensibilities. The paired-opposites relationship between Captain America and Black Widow serves to introduce some of the underlying existential questions you might expect a 95 superhero to have, and also provides comic relief. The constant closed doors that Rogers encounters lead to thoughts of a conspiracy, and rapidly losing faith in Nick Fury and unsure of who to trust, we see the evolution of a leaner, meaner Captain America.
To divulge more of the plot would spoil the fun, but fans of the more cut and dry style of the first film need not dismay, though it is wrapped in a more cerebral package The Winter Soldier is still an action film at heart. The set-pieces that tie the film together are solid and effective – a welcome surprise given that directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s background is in mild-mannered comedy. The inclusion of MMA star George St. Pierre as an entry-level bad guy is an early signal as to the direction the Russo’s are steering this new rendition of the Captain. The action is rapid and aggressive, with bone-crunching thumps from well-aimed flying shields replacing much of the explosions and ricocheting bullets of the earlier instalments.
While the writing is never as entertaining as Whedon’s The Avengers, the combination of visceral action and ongoing mystery, with a timid toe-dipping into deeper themes carries the film a long way. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a refreshing take on the superhero scene, and a valuable addition to a Marvel universe that was teetering on the verge of vapidity. As per usual Marvel rules, sit through the end credits for a teaser of the next chapter.