How do you take an anachronistic character like Captain America – at face value, a jingoistic, ultra-militarised creation – and turn him into a hero fit for the 21st Century? It’s a problem that both Joe Johnston (director of The First Avenger) and Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers) have struggled with, not least because we now live in a post-Soviet (present crisis excluded…) World in which Captain America feels, at best, like a somewhat embarrassing stain on Marvel’s progressive history.
How then do you make such a problematic character appeal – at least on more than an aesthetic level – to a modern liberal audience? Easy; you pit him against the rulers of the very nation he was born to protect and you pose the difficult question “what does a patriot do when he feels betrayed by his own country?” See, for where Joe Johnston’s unenviable task was to (re)introduce this peculiar character to a modern audience, the Russo brothers’ even greater challenge was to grant purpose and justification to his existence in the 21st Century, which is no small ask.
Well, here’s the great news; their efforts were an unequivocal success because The Winter Soldier is a vast improvement over its somewhat anodyne predecessor. Just when the Marvel project was beginning to feel a little bit stale in the wake of two mediocre films – Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World – on the trot, here comes one of the organisation’s most problematic characters to breathe new life into things. It combines the sensibilities of a seventies espionage thriller with a brilliantly contemporary approach to the conflict between liberty and security, resulting in a film that ticks almost every box on the “how to make a great action thriller” checklist.
It is in this intense conflict of ideas that The Winter Soldier makes it mark. It is perhaps Marvel’s most political film to date and, in the wake of the recent NSA scandal, it feels both relevant and modern, unlike Cap himself, who is still a bit dated – though even this part of his character is explored humorously. The Winter Soldier deals primarily with vast conspiracies, widespread corruption and an American military complex gone rogue, none of which seem all that implausible in the modern World. Unlike The First Avenger, in which the lines of battle were much too neatly drawn, the conflict here is far sketchier; no-one can claim to be on the right side of the debate because it’s much too complex for that. As such, the more problematic aspects of Captain America’s character… well, aren’t problematic at all.
Of course The Winter Soldier is still a comic book movie and, as such, this means that there is a heck of a lot of action to wade through. Now, after a while I usually find such scenes a bit repetitive – not least when the main character is about 50 times as powerful as most of his enemies – yet thanks to some sterling choreography and an emotional conflict that permeates through each sequence, the fight scenes in The Winter Soldier are all absolutely thrilling. For the most part CGI is discarded in favour of a series of raw, gritty, hand-to-hand (or minigun-to-shield…) action sequences that will thrill and stun you in equal measure, while a real effort is made to ensure that the film never becomes too busy or bloated, as The Avengers had a tendency to.
Where The Winter Soldier does suffer a little is in the performances of its central players. Don’t get me wrong, Evans and Johansson are great at what they do, no doubt about it, but both of them – in particular, Evans – lack the talent to grant much credibility to the film’s more fraught, emotional moments. It perhaps doesn’t help their cause that Robert Redford acts the entire cast off the screen with a blink of his eye, nor that Samuel L. Jackson puts in his strongest turn as Nick Fury to date, but both Evans and Johansson seem, at times, a bit out of their depth. Then again, when it comes to the humour and the action, rather than the more complex emotional / moral stuff, they’re both at the top of their game, so it’s a minor criticism really.
Besides, on a purely – and unashamedly – shallow note, the on-screen combination of Evans and “ScarJo” is delightful to watch. I don’t mean to judge them on their aesthetic qualities alone but dayum! They’re not the only ones either; even though he’s an amnesiac, slightly (slash highly) unhinged psychopath, The Winter Soldier is sort of hot too… not as hot as Cap of course but, y’know, let’s not be picky; I mean, the man is technically in his nineties but still looking pretty damn good! Not that this affects my rating in any way… much.
Ahem, anyway, moving on; The Winter Soldier is a brilliant addition to Marvel’s Avengers canon. It of course lacks the epic qualities of Whedon’s film, though it offers the most thoughtful, intimate on-screen interpretation of this difficult character to date which, in turn, results in a film that feels surprisingly contemporary. It suffers from some of the same issues as most comic-book movies – the heavy-handed moralism, the clunky exposition and an overreliance on ridiculous levels of action in the final act – but thanks to a deep focus on character development, moral conflicts and – most importantly – story, The Winter Soldier stakes its claim as one of Marvel’s greatest offerings thus far. It’s a well-paced, exquisitely choreographed and intricately plotted film that does what, until now, I always thought impossible; it justifies the existence of Captain America, and does so brilliantly.
So – in conclusion – whether you’re a Marvel fan or not, this is a modern political action-thriller that is well worth the price of admission; it’s a real treat, and one that was much better than I was expecting.
Also, because all great things deserve to be seen at least three times…
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out now, except in North America where it will be released on April 4th.