Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo; Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley; Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo; Running time: 136 minutes; Certification: 12A
Another year, another superhero. One wonders if audiences will ever tire of them, having been on this heavy spandex run for the better part of the last decade – Hollywood certainly doesn’t think (or hope) so, with further instalments of caped and non-caped crusaders slated in for as far away as 2018. While it’s true that when we get a bad one it’s easy to start feeling waned and overwhelmed by their generic punchy/kicky/explodey nature with the big, even more explodey third act showdown, all it takes is one of the good ones to remind us that, actually, there’s still a rich vein in the genre to be tapped. As the last individual solo outing before the next Avengers and the best since the last Avengers, The Winter Soldier is that film.
The biggest improvement over its predecessor is its balance with tone. As opposed to The First Avenger, which was completely unwilling to take itself lightly even for a second and instead pitch the tone entirely with Cap’s own austere personality, The Winter Soldier finely judges where the humour belongs and doesn’t. The inherent mirth of the Marvel films only works when the writers understand where to draw the line. If The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World land on opposite ends of the spectrum – not enough and too much whimsy respectively – The Winter Soldier lands slap-bang in the middle, along side Joss Whedon’s mash-up. It’s an interesting and clever script offset by humour, rather than a comedy trying to play with serious undertones.
Weaved around that tonal template is a plot much deeper and intriguing than we might have expected. Taking shape as a sort of 70s political thriller – a comparison already made several times and embellished by the appearance of the great Robert Redford – we soon find ourselves embroiled in governmental corruption and espionage where the good guy’s on the run after being framed. There’s nothing we haven’t seen before in those kind of movies, and of course there are traditional action set-pieces and that third act blow up, but it feels rather unique to the superhero genre. It gives us a story really interesting to invest ourselves in while paying us off with the blistering action we expect.
Action of which is pretty well handled, for the most part, in as much as we can generally see what’s happening and is nicely rationed out. It never drags on either, even during the climactic three-tiered battle which lasts a while, and it’s surprising how unintrusive it is when there’s so much interesting stuff going on with the characters. The relationship between Steve and Natasha is fleshed out and compelling, helped no doubt by the sparky screen chemistry between Evans and Johansson. Robert Redford is magnetic as Alexander Pierce, a senior figure in S.H.I.E.L.D, Anthony Mackie provides delightful comedic relief as Cap’s sort-of-sidekick, and Samuel L. Jackson is as welcome as ever doing his usual Nick Fury shtick.
In every way this is a better film than The Fist Avenger – funnier, more interesting, a lot more exciting, better characters, better dialogue, better action. In the Marvel canon it shoots far and provides something of the perfect precursor to the next reunion of the Avengers. To go one further, The Winter Soldier may well be the best of the solo bunch. Who saw that coming?