So far the second wave of this whole Marvel Studios thing is more miss than hit for me. Thor: The Dark World was by far the most middle-of-the-road, unremarkable film the young studio has produced to date, and Iron Man 3 tripped on a rock, hit its head and critically injured its tone. So understandably I had high hopes for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and while I admit placing the burden of redeeming this second round of movies was a lot to put on one film, I’m happy to report it was well up to the task.
Picking up a year or so after The Avengers, Winter Soldier finds Cap, now a full S.H.I.E.L.D agent, running covert ops alongside Black Widow, or as covert as you can get when everyone on the damn planet knows who you are and you wear half of your initials on your forehead like you totally misunderstood how monogramming works. But when Nick Fury is attacked by a mysterious assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Cap learns of a sinister conspiracy lurking within S.H.I.E.L.D, he and the Widow go on the run to uncover the truth, joined along the way by The Falcon, a random dude Cap happened to meet jogging, who by happy chance happens to know how to work a set of high-tech mechanical wings.
By admission of the film makers, Winter Soldier is going for a very Robert Ludlum political conspiracy thriller vibe, less brightly colored superhero action and more shadowy backroom deals and secret government shenanigans. But what I think works about it is how it never totally forgets that it is still ultimately a comic book movie, and once in a while something completely and utterly ridiculous will happen to offset all the serious talky talky drama and Bourne-esque triller fair. One minute Robert Redford is giving some spiel about government oversight and the cost of freedom, the next someone’s pulling off a perfectly realistic face-changing mask like it’s an episode of Scooby Doo, and it turns out it was Old Man Backhoff all along. It strikes a really nice balance between the kind of “nothing we’re doing is even remotely realistic so let’s just run with it” Marvel Studios ethos and the political thriller vibe the Russo brothers were clearly going for.
The big problem though is that the script is a bit of a mess. It’s got that Christopher Nolan problem of being too full of story and characters, to the point that at any minute it seems ready to burst like one of those fat Left 4 Dead zombies. The real casualty of this is that the film’s title character, the mysterious Winter Soldier, is barely a presence in his own movie. For the first two acts he just appears out of nowhere to shoot someone and look enough like James Franco in Spiderman 3 to give everyone in the audience uncomfortable flashbacks. And after his true identity is finally revealed, the film dashes through his origin story at breakneck speed. In the course of one act we’re supposed to learn who he is and what he means to Cap, and even start sympathizing with him, and if that seems like a tall order, you ain’t wrong.
What they should have done, really, is just rename the damn film and save the reveal of Winter Soldier’s true identity, both to the audience and Cap, until the very end, and leave the fallout from the reveal for the already announce third movie so that it can be given the pacing and weight it deserves. As it is, it feels uncomfortably akin to Aaron Ekhart’s Two-Face transformation in The Dark Knight: truncated and unsatisfying, though without spoiling anything there will be room to flesh out his origin and character more later.
The exposition also comes fast and hard, often woven into the narrative with all the care and skill of someone playing Surgeon Simulator 2013 with their feet. Other supporting characters, like Emily Van Camp’s Agent 13, might as well not be in the movie at all for how marginalized they are.
Aside from that, the only real problem I can bring up is that the fight scene photography wavers between barely “acceptable” and “complete and utter arse”. Look, you’re trying to go for a Bourne thing, I get that, but that doesn’t mean you have to film it with a GoPro strapped to the head of a convulsing ostrich. Granted, this was probably made worse by the fact that I was exiled to the front two rows, but more often than not the hand to hand fight scenes were completely incomprehensible. The best fight in the whole movie is a brawl in the first few minutes between Cap and walk-on villain Batroc ze Lepair, played by local boy George St. Pierres. But Cap’s first proper fight with Winter Soldier was a bloody mess. The larger, effects laden stunt sequences and CGI set pieces fared much better, though, with Falcon’s scenes being a highlight.
But these problems aside, enough about the film worked for me to keep me thoroughly entertained through the entire run time. The chemistry between Chris Evans and his co-stars, particularly Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, is great, and the film is full of fantastic character moments and sharp back-and-forth dialogue. The fanboy-pleasing namedrops are plentiful and there’s tons of world-building crammed in, ranging from small references to major revelations and status-quo shifts. It’s also undoubtedly the best filmed wave two film by far, largely avoiding the occasional “TV-ish” look that hurt Iron Man 3 and Thor 2.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t without a few major problems, but for my money is still the most satisfying wave two Marvel movie so far, and may even end up as one of my favorites of the lot. For all its lofty aspirations of political intrigue, it never take itself too seriously, and isn’t afraid to throw something completely nuts in just for the fun of it once in a while.