In my retrospective of Marvel Phase One, I expressed concerns over the studio delivering the same cookie-cutter blockbuster four times a year. To their credit, the Powers That Be have made a point of giving each of their phase two releases so far a different feel, switching freely between genres instead of repeating the same narrow formula. Iron Man 3 (2013) worked best as a noir parody; Thor: The Dark World (2013) was a dumb fantasy epic; and now Captain America: The Winter Soldier presents itself as a high-octane spy thriller.
This strikes me as a natural progression for the property, seeing as, last we saw Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in The Avengers (2012), he was working for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, otherwise known as SHIELD. Based on the acclaimed comic book run by Ed Brubaker, Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees our hero resume his spy career, battling an Algerian terrorist (Georges St-Pierre) with a hilariously French Canadian accent, uncovering corruption in the deepest recesses of our government, and taking down members of his own, compromised camp to prevent the launch of a super weapon that, for all intents and purposes, the U.S. military unleashed ten years ago in real life. Captain America makes a convincing argument though: that stuff’s evil.
Despite its title, Captain America: The Winter Soldier pertains neither to Captain America nor the Winter Soldier, who functions here as a mere henchman set up for future instalments. The film is really about SHIELD: who founded the organisation, why it exists, how Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) became its head, and what happens next. In fact, I kept expecting the cast of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to make a cameo appearance, but I think screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely just cancelled the television series without telling ABC.
This is the second Marvel production in a row to sideline its titular character in favour of reshaping the shared landscape. In fairness, unlike Thor: The Dark World, the movie goes to tremendous lengths to put its protagonist at the centre of it all, tying the villains’ conspiracy and the creation of SHIELD to various supporting cast members in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Unfortunately, these plot twists serve only to mask the fact that any Marvel hero (or established secret agent) could have filled the Captain’s shoes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Still, we do get to see Steve Rogers react to certain events as only Steve Rogers would. I love, for instance, his long-awaited reunion with Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) from the previous film, the way our hero confronts even the most cruel twists of fate with the same caring smile. Also consider the conversation with Nick Fury about the difference between the concessions World War II soldiers made in the name of freedom and those we make today out of fear. Having skipped the intervening years, Captain America can criticise our current intelligence policies without seeming naive or hypocritical. The creative minds behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier couldn’t have pulled this off with Hawkeye or Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
Mind you, the latter gets enough screen time as it is. In many ways, Scarlett Johansson scored the bigger part in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Unlike our titular hero, Black Widow is given a full arc, complete with psychological flaws to overcome, inner conflict, and further hints at a complex backstory. My favourite supporting cast member, though, has got to be Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a retired military paramedic equipped with cybernetic wings. I love his character design and easy-going personality. He and Captain America mesh so well that we never feel like one is taking attention away from the other.
This proves crucial, given how much edge-of-your-seat intrigue directors Joe and Anthony Russo try to cram in two hours. Whereas Captain America: The First Avenger functioned as a character piece with some violence thrown in for mass appeal, Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers all the breathtaking action one could want from a super-hero blockbuster with just enough character insight to keep my mind from wandering. It’s not my favourite tact, but it works. Most of all, I’m relieved Marvel is keeping things fresh.