Reborn in the USA – ★★★★½
Let’s call a spade a spade and say it – the first Captain America was really boring. It felt like a two hour origin story greenlit by marketing teams as a massive advertisement for The Avengers, which was to follow ten months later. The move worked as The Avengers went on to make over a billion euro in worldwide box office receipts and propelled Marvel into “phase two” of their movie universe which has so far brought us Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, with Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron arriving over the next two summers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes us to Washington D.C. where Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is struggling with his conscience about being part of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s upcoming plan to offer more “protection” to society with a new network of weapons loitering in the skies above us. Rogers isn’t a fan of this bigger picture stuff (sample dialogue: “this isn’t freedom, this is fear!”) and yearns for the simple good versus evil days of World War II. Sitting at the top of the throne of power as a conspiracy plot takes hold are Samuel L. Jackson (reprising his role as Nick Fury) and Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce). Filling out the universe we see Scarlett Johansson, Cobie Smoulders, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, Sebastian Stan, Callan Mulvey and Emily VanCamp.
The character of the winter soldier is probably the most thrilling Marvel comic book villain we’ve seen since the likes of Nightcrawler and Mystique in the early X-Men films. With their early pre-release publicity Marvel (somewhat bravely) opted to avoid telling audiences who he is or where he has come from. Consider the first trailer which barely even gave us a look at him – they gave in a bit and showed us his face in subsequent trailers but that’s understandable. Of course because we’re dealing with a comic book universe that’s been around for years, a cursory glance on wikipedia will reveal all about the assassin, but going in cold reveals a very well put together mystery about his origins and his part in a conspiracy at the top of S.H.I.E.L.D. – or at least as strong and subtle a mystery as you’re allowed in a $170million movie. And we don’t often get to say this about big action blockbusters, but everything here actually makes perfectly good sense, without the massive plotholes that usually kick in as you’re leaving the cinema.
Evans had to be the straight-laced conscience of The Avengers and it was hard to find much time for him when placed alongside such i) cooler and ii) funnier characters, but here he strikes up a brilliant rapport with Johansson’s Black Widow (Natalia Romanova) and thankfully the screenwriters opted not to develop anything romantically between them. There’s a nod to his comic-book romance with Sharon Carter which may be developed in future films, but for now things remain restrained and chaste.
It’s a real relief that everything in the film feels so nicely self-contained. You don’t really need to have seen the preceding Avengers or “Cap” film to enjoy things and, even better, until the post-credits tease this really don’t even feel like they’re setting up any other Marvel films. Of course it’s going to be held up against the very strong efforts of Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, but I’m thinking it comes out on top as it holds back on the showiness of the final Tony Stark adventure or the character problems prevalent in the Thor movies.
The action really is the star of the show here with 3 or 4 brilliant sequences covering all the bases including straight-up fist fights, gun fights, car fights, flight fights and battleship fights. The main message here? LOTS OF GREAT FIGHTS. My own personal highlight was probably the elevator fight sequence that we saw hinted at in the first trailer, or possible Black Widow doing a feisty Angela Merkel impression – you’ll know it when you see it.
The directing team of Anthony and Joe Russo have no blockbuster experience, having made their names on television with programs like “Arrested Development” and “Community”. The overall vision of the Marvel universe has long been provided by Kevin Feige with his directors sometimes appearing to the public as mere hired hands who are clearly given very tight limits on exactly how much of their own stamp they can put on proceedings. Even with those restrictions the Russos do brilliantly here, and while things get a little bloated in the final act – right up until the 90 minute mark, you’re thoroughly engaged in one of the most thrilling blockbuster action movies of the last decade.
Released across Ireland on March 26th 2014