If The First Avenger was a solid World War II action film with a Hydrated twist, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has one foot in superhero territory but the other in Washington, D.C., Cold War spyland. The first series entry grossed $371 million worldwide and this one could well do more.
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You have to hand it to Kevin Feige and Marvel. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the eighth film in the Avengers universe the studio has released since 2008 – nine, if you include The Incredible Hulk – with at least four more in the pipeline. In any other franchise, the world would have grown tired and moved on, but somehow they keep it fresh. That success is in a large part due to Marvel’s canny positioning of its superheroes across different genres: Avengers Assemble is an ensemble movie; Thor is a Shakespearean drama in a fantasy universe; the upcoming Guardians Of The Galaxy is a space opera; the first Captain America was a rollicking WWII flick.
Now, for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they’ve moved into a new genre: the Seventies-style espionage thriller. They’ve even brought in the king of that genre, Robert Redford – star of Three Days Of The Condor and All The President’s Men. It is a master stroke: The Winter Soldier feels like a completely standalone film – swap out the shield-flinging Cap for Jason Bourne, for example, and it would still work – and yet more important for the wider Marvel Universe than any film yet.
The plot is as follows: with Iron Man recently (seemingly) retired and Thor off doing battle on Dark Worlds, Captain America has joined S.H.I.E.L.D and is handed with the rudimentary task of being the super-powered equivalent of a one-man SEAL Team Six. However, he’s suspicious of S.H.I.E.L.D, who, concerned by events of the Avengers, have doubled-down and invested in a concerningly dictatorial army of its crash-prone helicarriers and a method for predicting criminals before they’ve ever committed crimes, Minority Report-style. Throw in an assassination plot by the Soviet super villain (the titular Winter Soldier) and a few nefarious throwbacks to Captain America’s past, and we’re off.
Therein begins Winter Soldier’s second trick: not making the film just about the Cap. Steve Rogers is easily the blandest of the Avengers (except maybe Hawkeye), so directors Anthony and Joe Russo team him up with Black Widow (the excellent Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon, a ex-military pilot played by Gangster Squad’s Anthony Mackie. The supporting cast, including Redford and Samuel L Jackson (also in a bigger-than-usual role) are equally weighty. At the same time, it’s Evans that holds it together – he even, somehow, manages to make Captain America not only likeable, but human. The result is a layered group dynamic, filled with sharp lines and strong chemistry. It’s miles away from the shallow pyrotechnics of Iron Man 3.
And, while the film stands up on its own, it’s layered with references to the wider Marvel universe, from a brief glimpse of Stark tower to tantalizing hints at future characters. The climactic third act could have a lasting effect on the wider Marvel Universe come next year’s Avengers sequel, subtitled Age Of Ultron.
There’s one thing that sequel will have to attend to: the problem of stakes. Superhero films’ weakness, ironically, is invulnerability: the lack of any threat takes any dramatic tension out at the start. The Winter Soldier does this better than most, but you’re still rarely in doubt that the hero will save the day. With both Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. hinting that they’d be willing to hang up their masks in the near future, Age Of Ultron could finally be Marvel’s chance to spice up the franchise ahead of phase three. The only question is: eight blockbuster hits in, are they really ready to kill off a cash-cow?