There’s a delicious irony in seeing Captain America triumph over adversity to become a big screen superstar; after all, nobody overcomes the odds better than Steve Rodgers. Often derided as the most uninteresting hero in Marvel’s stellar roster, Captain America: The First Avenger went someway to establishing Steve as a bona fide action superstar; can follow-up The Winter Soldier propel the character even further?
In a word, yes. Pretty much from the get go, The Winter Soldier throws Cap into a morally ambiguous world where his 1940’s views are unwelcome. Following the attack on New York, Shield has collectively decided to create a pre-emptive attack on those who would do the Earth harm, creating three helicarriers which can pinpoint targets and eliminate them before they’ve even lifted a finger against the world. “I thought the punishment came after the crime” remarks Cap, placing himself as the firm moral compass for the film. Immediately, The Winter Soldier deals in real-life issues such as national security, making its mark as a political critique to begin with.
Juxtaposed to that is Steve Rodgers himself, still not completely over his seventy year spell in the ice. He still bleeds red, white and blue but he finds himself at odds with his new world – he’s great at cleaning up the various messes that Shield gets itself into but he’s struggling to find a reason to do so; “this isn’t what I signed up for” is a line that no doubt rings true with many people. It’s this sort of character depth that makes Steve Rodgers a far more engaging character; Tony Stark may have the ego and Thor the hair but neither are as human as Captain America.
Still, one brooding Captain probably wouldn’t provide enough entertainment for a two hour long blockbuster, so it’s lucky he has a great supporting cast to back him up. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow finally gets the screen time necessary to become a proper character and she’s the main source of wit and humour within the film; constantly ribbing Steve for his old-fashioned ways while trying to set him up with the various women of the Shield office. The romantic elements of this new relationship seem a little forced though and it will be interesting to see how it carries over (or if it even will) into the other Marvel films.
Nick Fury gets more of a grab at the limelight too, throwing up some intriguing questions about his personal past and his future in the Cinematic Universe. Fury’s investigation into a datastick filled with Shield information launches a plot which deals with deception and corruption within Shield itself, revealing that even Fury himself can miss what’s right in front of his one good eye. The titular Winter Soldier is added to the mix at this point, providing a shadowy adversary for Cap to hurl his shield at. Cap’s various fights with the Winter Soldier actually turn out to be quite refreshing, mainly keeping to personal hand-to-hand combat scenes; Marvel films have a slight tendency to turn into massively scaled battles where lazers and rockets decimate everything in sight. Keeping it grounded actually benefits the skillset of Captain America and the film feels all the better for it.
There are still plenty of over-the-top moments though, thanks mainly to the introduction of Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. His mechanical wings allow him to soar and swoop to dodge anti-air turrets during the finale, providing The Winter Soldier with the blockbuster moments to fill trailers with. There’s also a ridiculously silly scene where Cap destroys a Shield chopper with only his shield and his agility; it honestly feels unnecessary when compared to the rest of the film, especially the tense final brawl with the Winter Soldier.
Happily though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t disappoint; the film’s greatest achievement is feeling short at 136 minutes long. It successfully establishes Cap as the moral hero of the Marvel Universe and shows that you don’t need excessive CGI to make an exhilarating film. Excitingly, it does all this while offering some interesting looks at the future of the Marvel Universe, introducing two well-known characters in a mid-credit scene and setting our heroes on differing paths and stories that we’re desperate to see explored. If you aren’t on board with Captain America yet, this film will set you straight.