Film reviews

Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Nick Fury, Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff, walking home after a night out at the local pub.
Nick Fury, Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff, walking home after a night out at the local pub.

In continuity terms the Marvel Cinematic Universe is entirely ridiculous. Aside from the main Avengers movies, Marvel have had clear intentions to keep their characters apart, for obvious reasons – you want to build up to the main draw of the series, not to mention the fact that continually paying wages for Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth et all would soon have Marvel Studios struggling to make those hundreds of millions of dollars worth of profit on each project.

However, what this gives us is a situation like Ironman 3, for example, where the President is kidnapped and the entire United States is under threat from an international terrorist. Sounds like a covert job from SHIELD would do the trick, doesn’t it? But instead it’s left to Tony Stark and his Captain America rip-off of a partner to save the day against the kind of insurmountable odds that we have now become so used to seeing in Hollywood cinema.

The opening scene of the UK version of Captain America: The Winter Soldier answers the vital question of what Cap’n Rogers was so busy doing in the meantime – catching up on a curious list of things he missed while frozen, including the 1966 World Cup final. That SHIELD would allow him such a procrastinating hobby makes you wonder what’s going on within the organisation, and indeed, The Winter Soldier’s plot revolves around a threat considerably closer to home than the typical ‘super-villain threatening to destroy the world or universe’ storyline. For this it does deserve praise, although as the film goes on, more and more questions of ‘how is this even possible?’ seem to arise in relation to some of the plot’s more revealing points.

Steve arrives in the office to find that some SHIELD employees have been sleeping on the job.
Steve arrives in the office to find that some SHIELD employees have been sleeping on the job.

Despite making a great effort to move on from his own time and adjust to the modern world, Steve Rogers’ past still manages to catch up with him in this sequel to his refreshing 2011 debut. Think you’d seen the last of World War II imagery when we zapped forward 70 years at the end of the last film? Think again! Although The Winter Soldier does introduce more interesting (and dare I say original) themes than before, tackling issues of societal freedom and the lengths required to ‘protect’ it.

Rogers’ old fashioned sense of gentlemanly decency unsurprisingly makes him stand out like a sore thumb even among those he’s closest to, including Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow. The latter ends up working a lot more with Rogers in this movie, and her moral compass – which is markedly off-centre compared with her patriotic partner – is contrasted with Captain America as they pursue the same goal while questioning each other’s methods. It makes for an entertaining exchange or two between the characters that owes much to the chemistry shown by Chris Evans and Johansson in their work together.

Also making an appearance for the first time is Falcon, a character who initially appears as the relatively normal (as normal as one willingly employed by SHIELD can be) Sam Wilson, played by Anthony Mackie. Upon putting on a pair of specially-designed wings, Wilson becomes the same type of dispensable Hollywood sidekick as Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes/ War Machine in the Ironman series. In other words; an uninteresting and clichéd one.

Fans of the comics won’t be at all surprised by the storyline, the identity of the villainous ‘Winter Soldier’ of the film’s title, or in seeing characters you thought long dead turn up out of the blue with some obscure explanation as to how or why they’re still alive – this is, after all, simply within the workings of the Marvel Universe and the movie itself cannot be rightly criticised for it.

The movie can instead be praised for what it adds to the story, this being a political thriller genre that feels different to what we’ve seen before in the series and helps the film stay as grounded as its 1940s-era predecessor. The films directors, the Russo brothers, reportedly wanted to use as little CGI as possible, adding to this grounded realism. Let there be no illusion though; a fair amount of CGI is still present in The Winter Soldier. It’s worth bearing in mind as well that CGI isn’t typically what Hollywood does badly – in many cases it’s what it does best. To pull back from it is fine, so long as the rest of the movie improves creatively in other areas.

Unfortunately I don’t think it does. Watching this film, you will see things you could also see in many other big budget Hollywood productions. A lot of insignificant extras die without you being asked to give a care in the world about them. The script follows a pattern taught in every screenwriting class. Audience-pleasing one liners are thrown around like confetti. Scarlett Johansson uses any available opportunity to look seductively in the vague direction of every teenage boy through the camera lens.

Veteran Robert Redford makes what you feel is little more than a sentimental appearance as Alexander Pierce, one of the senior leaders within SHIELD. Redford himself claimed that one of the reasons he got involved with the film was to experience “this new form of filmmaking that’s taken over, where you kind of have cartoon characters brought to life through high technology” (a quote taken from an interview at this year’s Sundance film festival).

Acting legend Robert Redford brings a fresh, if not totally trustworthy, character to SHIELD headquarters.
Acting legend Robert Redford brings a fresh, if not totally trustworthy, character to SHIELD headquarters.

This quite possibly sums up why many of us continue to support the ‘new form of filmmaking’ that Marvel is experimenting with in their big Cinematic Universe. The Winter Soldier signals only the half-way point of their saga, if it is to go all the way to an eventual third Avengers film as planned. Anyone with a vague sense of geek in them loves keeping up with this continuity, staying until the end of the credits to catch where they’re going next, wanting to stay updated on the full story so that you don’t miss references in the newest film. The amount of money at Hollywood’s disposal makes this kind of long-term project possible only in their environment.

So it would be remiss of me to pretend I don’t enjoy it. Still, one can’t deny the annoyances and bad habits The Winter Soldier carries over. To avoid financial risk I expect Marvel will venture nothing more or less in upcoming entries. Stan Lee will continue to turn up for his cameo in each movie. In fact, it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if he turned up in a future instalment as the main villain whose speciality was cloning himself throughout history.

Actually on second thoughts that would be a pretty entertaining way to go, Marvel.

7 / 10.

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