Captain America: The Winter Soldier (USA, 2014). Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson. 136 min
You can tell that the chills of winter are turning to the warmth of spring. No, not because of the weather (let’s face it, it could snow in the middle of August and no one would bat an eyelid anymore). You can tell by the fact that your local mainstream cinema will start filling up once again with all those ridiculously expensive Hollywood blockbusters in eye-popping 3D that will either fill you with joy or give you a headache. Yes, the award season is over and thus all those annoying “quality” films can be swept out of the way. It’s time for special effects!
The first shot fired across the summer blockbuster bough is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Based on the Marvel comic book character that first appeared in 1941, the film – much like its source material – comes with a back-story that may be unnecessarily complex to the uninitiated. Serving as a sequel both to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger and 2012’s The Avengers, the movie is chock-full of references to those films and comic book lore in general.
For those who want a brief background. Captain America is Steve Rogers, a US soldier from the 40s who was given a Super Serum to turn him into a perfect physical specimen. He goes to fight the Nazis under the guise of Captain America. He then gets frozen in ice and is thawed out in modern day USA where he keeps fighting bad guys. For those who want an even briefer background. Captain America is a man who wears an outrageous costume and hits bad guys until they stop being bad guys. Or die.
Once all that is clear, it’s easy to get on with the rest of the plot. Working for the secret organisation S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain America (Chris Evans) finds himself embroiled in events of intrigue and drama when he discovers that his employers may not be as heroic as first seemed. Already questioning the methods of his boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the shades of grey become even more blurred when an important figure is assassinated and it turns out that the enemy may really be within after all. With few people to trust, Captain America must find out the secret plot to steer the course of world history while also dealing with the mysterious and dangerous Winter Soldier.
Much of the film is drenched in the aesthetics of which audiences have become accustomed to in a modern Hollywood genre film. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo deliver the high-adrenaline and balletic fight sequences that have become a norm and which are visually impressive (such as our titular hero’s assault on an enemy ship in the opening scenes) if nothing that hasn’t ever been seen before. They also throw in a couple of shaky, handheld camera shots which are also starting to become somewhat the norm, as if this momentarily nod towards realism will somehow make the men running around in costumes all the more “real”.
The acting is also fine with Evans not required to do much apart from looking muscly and stoic, and the rest of the cast such as Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Redford doing the most important thing you can in movies such as this – have fun and never act as if you are somehow “above” the material.
On all these levels, The Winter Soldier is your average modern blockbuster – throwaway fun that will entertain you if you like that sort of thing (and, admittedly, as a comic book fan I sort of do….). However, the script tries to veer the film into somewhat more gripping territory.
It’s interesting to see Hollywood in the wake of post-Snowden and NSA revelations. Recent CIA thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit took the tack of reassuring us that surveillance was good and used by all the right people (one telling scene sees evil terrorists tracked down by their use of social media). The Winter Soldier takes a more cynical view.
****WARNING – THE FOLLOWING MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!****
Here, the organisation for good turns out to be infiltrated by numerous evil people who intend to destroy all potential threats by analysing all the data that makes up their lives. The film makes a plea for individuality and the right for personal privacy in a world which would make that hope seemingly impossible.
**** SPOILERS OVER. YOU CAN COME BACK NOW****
While the very nature of the film means that there isn’t really very much intellectual rigour here, it still provides some small morsels of intriguing and thought-provoking meat on the bones of an actioner. And in a cinema that usually drifts towards the right wing (witness the “We’re America, the greatest people in the world, isn’t the military and killing and weapons all great so fck you if you don’t agree you commie bastards” series of films, also known by some as Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise) there’s a certain amount of fascination to see a film that has somewhat liberal tendencies (albeit liberal tendencies that allow for beating the hell out of anyone who annoys you.)
An interesting start to the blockbuster season then that has vigour, wit and energy and just enough to make it stand out from the crowd. And, while it never gets close to being genuinely subversive, it manages to play with audience expectations to make this a sometimes genuinely surprising affair.
Laurence Boyce is a British film critic who lives in Tallinn. Did you know there was Captain Britain as well? They should make a film about that. He’d only save the world after he’s had a cup of tea….