Round Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been one of experimentation and change. The recurrent theme of what has become known as ‘phase two’ of the Avengers Initiative is genre shifting; a placing of the characters into situations more outside of their comfort zone. Iron Man 1 and 2 were fairly straight forward action dramas with some comedy, whilst Iron Man 3 was silly and comic in its portrayal of Iron Man and his enemies. Thor was a light hearted fish out of water romp with nothing too challenging in its plot, whereas Thor: The Dark World chose to show a rather conflicted god of thunder dealing with issues much more grounded in magic and myth. Captain America: The First Avenger was a historical war drama very much committed to telling a back story but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political action film about betrayal and the compromising of one’s ideals.
While it would be nice to say that this has led to a deepening of character and story, that hasn’t always been the case. Iron Man 2 showed that having a battery for a heart had consequences and that Tony Stark, the flawed being that he wasn’t, didn’t necessarily deal with it the right way. Iron Man 3 instead gave Stark post traumatic stress which fails to have any lasting impact other than ‘I built a lot of Iron Man suits’. The Dark World, unwilling to completely shed the comedy of Thor, awkwardly interrupts action scenes with witty remarks, such as Darcy mispronouncing Mjolnor as it flies past. Thankfully, Captain America: The Winter Soldier manages to pull this off almost flawlessly, delving into the character motivations and circumstances of Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff as well as the titular character.
Captain America was always going to be a hard sell in the modern world. The values of freedom and patriotism in America are heavily criticised these days with many seeing freedom being America’s own brand which it forces upon people. Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, is aware of this and it unsettles him. How S.H.I.E.L.D. operates makes him uncomfortable. The fact that his own director and partner lie to him make him question what he fought for in the first film. This is good writing. The actions of the first film define the character and have consequences. The Winter Soldier doesn’t just reference The First Avenger, it is informed by it and grows out of it.
In the end, Captain America is pitted against S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, drawing battle lines and forcing characters to take sides. One such character is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. This is the first film where I have actually enjoyed the Black Widow. Yes, she kicked ass in Iron Man 2 and she was cool in The Avengers but there wasn’t much depth to her performances in those films. In both of those movies she was little more than a hot girl in a tight body suit spinning around as she kicked and shot people. Nice to look at but without substance. I don’t blame those movies. Iron Man 2 was her introduction and The Avengers had no time for this kind of thing.
Black Widow and Captain America are two sides of the same coin. Romanoff is willing to do anything that is asked of her simply because she believes herself to be on the side of good. She gets shaken to the core and begins to rethink her personal beliefs when S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true motivations are revealed. Rather than taking orders, she becomes willing to do what is right for what she knows is good, not what someone tells her is good. Black Widow needed this movie, probably more than even Captain America did. After this film, A Black Widow stand alone project is believable.
Not to be outdone, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury undergoes his own character development. Even more so than Black Widow, Fury has not only done some questionable things but as also ordered others to do some dubious tasks, all in the name of freedom. He accepts the sentiment of wielding fear as a weapon to maintain peace. However, there are events transpiring at S.H.I.E.L.D. of which even he has no knowledge of. Of course, this being Nick Fury, he quickly forms a gambit of his own but he still must confront the fact that this world where freedom and integrity are so readily exchanged for peace and happiness is one which he helped to create. Nicky Fury has been very much a side line player for the Marvel Cinematic Universe so it is nice to see him move to the fore front for once. And as ever, Samuel L. Jackson oozes charisma.
As if those three weren’t enough, Cobie Smulders makes a return as Agent Maria Hill, Revenge star Emily VanCamp stars as Sharon Carter and Antony Mackie makes his debut as Sam Wilson, aka Falcon. Wilson’s work here really was superb, working in line with Chris Evans but never stealing the spot light. He was a gentle source of comedy, one that never broke the tension. Falcon joining The Avengers full time would be great as I would really like to see more of this character. A reappearance by the Winter Soldier himself wouldn’t go amiss either.
The Winter Soldier almost gets away with a perfect run but there are a few cracks. The ensemble cast feels like it is there to cover up Evan’s inadequacies as a leading actor. He is decent but he doesn’t command the screen in the same way Hemsworth or Downey do. The character almost feels too good as well. Sure he is forced to face a world far removed from the ideals he knew but he never needs to compromise and is basically proven right in every argument. It would be nice if he failed at something. Structurally, the build up could have been lessened to devote more time to the final battle which suffers because it tries to divide the time it does have between five separate locations.
On the whole, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great film and a solid inclusion into the second phase build up to The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It actually got me excited for the next Avengers film in a way that I wasn’t before. Personally, I enjoyed Thor: The Dark World slightly more but that is largely down to personal preference. For anyone, whether a Marvel fanatic or a casual viewer, looking for a fun and interesting film I would certainly suggest giving Captain America: The Winter Soldier a look.