(SFX, Future Publishing)
At the start of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the First Avenger has been left behind by the world. (“I’m here to pick up a fossil,” quips Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.) By the film’s end, that same world has been overturned by the Captain’s actions. It’s one of many neat ironies, more obvious when you watch Winter Soldier a second time.
Although we saw the Captain in the present in Avengers Assemble, he was too busy fighting gods and monsters to let his feet really touch the ground. The Winter Soldier focuses on what it’s like for him to have missed seventy years of history. When the Cap’s not embarking on Black Ops-style sea missions he doesn’t understand, he lurks in museum tributes to his own lost life, or bonds with the only people he still feels close to – traumatised soldiers. In Captain America: The First Avenger, he had a surrogate dad in Stanley Tucci. Now two rival patriarchs – Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury and Robert Redford’s SHIELD honcho Alexander Pierce – both try moulding him, and the verbal confrontations are gripping and intelligent.
Let’s lose the idea that the Cap is boring. Even if that was true (which it’s not – watch the lift battle again and tell us he’s a boring hero), the drama comes from the ways different characters respond to him, trying and failing to rein him in. Of course, the film’s best idea is to pair the Cap (platonically) with Black Widow, like a warped Clarke and Lois. Black Widow is fascinated by him, not because he looks beautiful (so does she), or because he’s a super-fighter (so is she), but because she can’t believe someone with the Cap’s outlook exists, more alien to her than Loki was.
Robert Redford as Pierce is fabulous casting, the better because Redford is kept away from silly costumes or obvious CGI. In jacket and tie, he brings weathered composure to lovingly retro moments, framed against windows (the film’s colour scheme makes even blue skies feel bleak) or finding an uninvited guest in his house. The latter is a breathtaking scene, almost taking us out of Marvel entirely. “Oh Renata, I wish you would have knocked…”
But the scene draws attention to the constraints of a franchise. Even expertly packaged, cold-blooded murder and street assassinations sit oddly with staple comic book elements. Perhaps you can buy the evil supercomputer that turns up in the middle of the film, but it’s hard to swallow when it reveals everything to the heroes. (Yes, it means to kill them, but surely it might consider what happens if it slips up?) Ditto the introduction of a flying man, who’s established in as grounded and Nolan-esque a way as possible, but who still helps take the climax into cartoon territory.
But don’t fret too much about the tonal shifts. Enjoy the duelling of wills among the marvellous cast, and thrill to the terrific fights with the Predator-esque Winter Soldier, shredding soldiers and vehicles with steely purpose. The weight of the franchise stops Winter Soldier being the adult thriller you can see in it; but as an entertainment package, it’s one of the most enjoyable Marvel entries so far.