Defiance is a trait commonly associated with superheroes, and one of the many reasons why the masses admire them. It’s also an attribute of a great movie – by freeing itself of the conventions associated with a genre or franchise, a film can truly be captivating. Even so, a picture shouldn’t do away with those conventions entirely.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a man still adjusting to the modern world. Only a couple of years ago, the World War II soldier was found frozen in the Arctic Circle, having crashed his aircraft during the conflict decades earlier; not long after, he and a team of superheroes defended New York City from an army of intergalactic invaders. Now, the war veteran has become an operative of the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. under the leadership of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
In the coming days, S.H.I.E.L.D. will be launching a new initiative called Project Insight, which intends to eliminate threats before they can do harm to the public; Rogers is critical of the proposal, viewing it as immoral and fearing what will happen if it falls into the wrong hands. Those fears are justified after a surprise attack on Fury by unknown forces, an encounter that leaves the organisation vulnerable and Rogers not knowing who, if anybody, can be trusted.
Despite being an official sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, the differences between it and The Winter Soldier couldn’t be starker. To begin with, Joe Johnston has relinquished the role of director and bequeathed it to brothers Anthony and Joe Russo who, prior to joining Marvel Studios, were best known for their work on TV’s Arrested Development. With that in mind, one might be inclined to believe this movie is a laugh-filled romp; in reality, it’s anything but.
What the Russos have boldly done with The Winter Soldier is remove the serial-like tone of its predecessor – and the camp – in favour of a more serious atmosphere; consequently, this means that the colour, cartoonish villains and general cheerfulness has also vanished from the franchise. It’s a method that doesn’t always bode well for superhero movies, which are best enjoyed without the gloominess, yet in this instance, the gritty ambience works wonders, making the film more thrilling than it deserves to be.
With the theatrics removed and the stakes high, The Winter Soldier is a surprisingly tense experience. The most exciting moments of the picture come not via flashy special effects, but from intense close-quarters fight sequences between the characters. Said sequences include a reconnaissance mission on a cargo ship in the first act, a mass brawl within the confines of an elevator, and fisticuffs between Rogers and the “Winter Soldier” alluded to in the film’s subtitle – his old friend, “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan).
Yet another element that sets The Winter Soldier apart from its precursor is the modern setting in which the main protagonist finds himself. Aside from The Avengers, and an ill-guided attempt to reintroduce the superhero in the early Nineties, there hasn’t been a feature-length film that has dared to place Captain America in a contemporary context, for fear that he would look out-of-place. As this movie proves though, Steve Rogers is a character who fits quite comfortably into the present-day.
While references are made to his past, there is nothing in Captain America’s personality, nor his actions, to suggest that he is a figurative relic, which is partly due to the efforts of the man who plays him. In his third appearance as the star-spangled hero, Chris Evans remains as sincere and confident as ever, thus ensuring that his character adapts effortlessly to the 21st Century. Indeed, Evans’ actions are just as pivotal in asserting the grounded tone of the movie.
Supporting Evans in his role are the abovementioned Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and fellow Avenger Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, both of whom are excellent in their roles and make sizeable contributions to the story. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of characters like Bucky, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who aren’t given enough screen-time to develop their characters, or showcase their acting skills.
One further problem to be noted about The Winter Soldier is how disparate it feels from the other films produced by Marvel Studios. This fact is most evident in the visuals – witness the drab photography being captured by a shaking, handheld camera – yet there are many other elements that aren’t in-keeping with the tone of Marvel movies released before and since, like the bland, unheroic score by Henry Jackman, or the overly aggressive nature of some characters, or the distinct lack of humour.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a decidedly different affair that dares to ignore the efforts of its prequel, with the material taken seriously and the titular superhero placed in a modern context. It’s an approach that makes for an exhilarating action movie, but may not please those who have become accustomed to the familiar Marvel formula.