Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes Marvel to new realms as Steve Rogers must face an unknown enemy force bent on bringing both him and Shield down

Of all the heroes already established in the Marvel universe, Captain America is considered by many to be the least capable of carrying his own franchise. Previous outings saw him play second, or third, fiddle to the likes of Tony Stark and Thor, whilst Captain America: The First Avenger is widely considered the weakest of Marvel’s Phase One. With that in mind, the Cap’s second solo outing offers something new and wholly unique to the Marvel canon.

A lot has been written prior to the film’s release of its intention to hark back to the classic thrillers of the 1970s. How this could be transferred to a modern day comic book blockbuster was a mystery, as a Marvel film, with all the obligations implied by the franchise, can only achieve so much beyond the usual. Having said that, Captain America: The Winter Soldier does a supreme job in bringing something new to the franchise’s universe. If any film of the group had to do this, it would be Captain America. Without the flashy pulses of Iron Man or the operatic drama of Thor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier must fall back on its lead’s enhanced, and visually unflashy, abilities. These are on full show in the film’s impressively staged opening, which sees Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and a rugged group of Shield agents take on a group of pirates who have hijacked a Shield ship. This opening marks a step up from the Captain’s previous appearances, displaying skilled direction and fight choreography.

Following the explosive resolution of the crisis, the Cap returns state side and must face up to the tactics of his employer Shield, who are set on effectively policing the world. With Steve’s traditional values now transferred to a modern world at odds, an early exchange between the Cap and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) outlines the key appeal of this film’s lead character. Rogers’ 1940s values may seem old fashioned, but using them to stand up to secrecy and a potential threat of Shield’s own creation is an effective tool in holding up a mirror to a dark, modern world, something that would not be possible with any other Marvel lead. References to Government observation of civilians, and blowing the whistle on those responsible, are peppered throughout, showing that it is possible to provide a timely reminder of real-world issues even within the confines of a comic book movie.

A conspiracy soon emerges that separates Steve from anyone he can trust, and the true difference of the film from its predecessors is clear. The Marvel brand of humour is still present, but accompanying it comes an intriguing and surprisingly gritty narrative previously unseen in Marvel films. In place of the usual bright flashes used to dispatch a villain, the limitations of the Cap’s powers are incorporated into the darker style of the film to shift confrontations into bursts of gunfire and fight scenes carried out at the edge of a knife. A new, grittier side of Marvel is on show, embodied by the mysterious Winter Soldier, a mechanically enhanced warrior that most in the intelligence community don’t believe exists. In his hands, the film opens up into car chases and knife fights never before seen in the franchise. There is no question of the death toll racked up in this film, marking an edgier and more unique style.

This combination of an old school thriller – certainly helped by the presence of Robert Redford as Shield’s Alexander Pierce – and gritty style works exceptionally well, at least to begin with. As is inevitably the case, The Winter Soldier is forced to move on from its intriguing opening and breaks down into a formulaic and flawed climax.

Sadly this is not the film’s only failing, as while the Captain is definitely better suited to the cloak and dagger approach this latest film takes, he is still limited. Lacking the hilarious narcissism of Tony Stark or the puffed up naivety of Thor, Captain America may be the first Avenger, but he is certainly not the most entertaining. His poster-boy style ideology is used well to contrast Shield’s worrying tactics, but he is still not able to carry a film alone. Where Robert Downey Jr. spends a lot of Iron Man 3 alone, Captain America is joined by the Black Widow to make a fun, will-they-won’t-they double act, and later by newcomer Anthony Mackie’s Falcon.

Despite these flaws, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still a worthy edition to the Marvel franchise, and is perhaps be the most mature film within it. Steve Roger’s honourable but limited ideology finds a good home is this uniquely sophisticated film, and with enough laughs and exciting action sequences to keep fans happy, The Winter Soldier could go down as one the best Marvel has so far had to offer.

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