“On your left”
Before ‘Captain America: Civil War’ came out and took the place of number one MCU film for me, there was ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier.’ The first Captain America (‘The First Avenger’) was one of the weaker films of the MCU’s first phase, let down by a second half that felt more like a montage than a story. However, ‘The Winter Soldier’ showed the MCU how a sequel should be done. ‘Iron Man 2’, ‘Thor: The Dark World’, ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’…they were all mediocre sequels. ‘The Winter Soldier’ mixed an intricate, ‘70s style conspiracy thriller with awe-inspiring action sequences to become one of the best comic book films of modern times…
Good old Captain America starts the film still a member of SHIELD, but his faith in the organization is shaken after hearing about Nick Fury’s grand Project Insight. Project Insight involves three massive helicarriers that utilise mass surveillance to pre-emptively wipe out potential threats. Cap doesn’t like the sound of that (“I thought the punishment came after the crime), but there’s a lot more going on within SHIELD than he knows. There’s a mysterious assassin on the loose as well (the eponymous Winter Soldier). Together with Black Widow and the latest hero Sam Wilson/Falcon, Cap gets to the bottom of things…by kicking ass, most of the time!
“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?
Although only in the most basic terms, Captain America tackles one of the issues that always finds its way into the modern media: military drones. The conversation between Fury and Cap concerning conversation gives us a brief rundown of the pros and cons. Now, don’t expect ‘Eye in the Sky’ or anything like that. Come on, this is a Marvel movie, not a DC movie! However, after the light-heartedness of the MCU films, ‘The Winter Soldier’ is a breath of fresh air. There’s at least an attempt to grapple with concerns about surveillance, pre-emptive strikes, and so on. Remember, in ‘The Avengers,’ SHIELD used real-time information from the entire world populations’ mobile ‘phones to locate Loki, and no one batted an eyelid!
Cap’s retort that SHIELD is “holding a gun at the world and calling it protection” is one of the most political and pointed sentences in the MCU. Coming from Cap, the all-American hero, is powerful. He’s still a man out of place, out of time, but he’s a man that knows right from wrong (or at least thinks he knows). His morals from ‘The First Avenger’ could potentially have made him a banal superhero, but here they are directed at the world we live in. It takes a man from a different time to question our values.
“If we can’t accept limitations than we’re no better than the bad guys”
Not only does ‘The Winter Solider’ confront political issues unlike other films in the MCU, but it has an intricate, twisting plot that serves up shocks aplenty. To authenticate the 70’s political thriller vibe, Robert Redford was cast as Alexander Pierce, a senior SHIELD leader. There’s paranoia and mistrust stretched throughout the film, with both the audience and Cap not being sure of who to trust. He’s gone to war for his country, undergone treatment that made him into a super soldier for his country, but what was he fighting for? Who is he fighting for? He thought SHIELD was for the good of humanity, but with Project Insight, is SHIELD more of a threat than a protector?
Of course, there are action scenes. It is a comic book movie: it can’t all be twists, turns and political debate! Right from Cap’s first powerful thrust kick, we are told that the action/fight scenes will be different from the ones in the first film. The influence from, perhaps, ‘The Raid’ can be felt straight away. He kicks a guy clear off the side of a ship! Cap still uses his shield, but more often than not he just kicks ass! Without the distraction of CGI and big explosions (for the first half of the film, anyway), the focus is on the fighting prowess of Cap. And it’s damned impressive! There’s a particular scene in an elevator that displays the most unique, bone-crunching and downright thrilling fight in the MCU. It may not be as gritty as the fights seen in Netflix’s ‘Daredevil,’ but it’s as realistic as you are going to get in an MCU movie. The fight scenes are (mostly) believable and intense. They are not just there for necessity’s sake, either; they are there to show that Cap isn’t simply a man with a shield!
However, it’s the latter action scenes that let the film down. Look at the final act, which descends into big explosions and buildings being decimated with the power of CGI. There’s a personal battle going on, but the booms and bangs and fires distract from that. It’s a comic book climax by rote; uninspired and by the books. It spoils the first two thirds of the film, which consisted mostly of fist to fist contact. The other disappointment is (surprise, surprise!) the villain (or villains). More time is given to Cap, Black Widow and Falcon that to the villains. The Winter Soldier has a tragic story, but we aren’t given enough time to soak it in or engage with the sympathy his character should demand. We expect a poor villain from an MCU film…but he is the sub-title of the film! Give him the time he deserves!
However, those criticisms are easy to put aside when the vast majority of the film is brilliant. It’s blend of martial arts and conspiracy thriller is delicious. For a comic book movie, the plot is complex and keeps you second-guessing yourself. There’s twists, there’s wonderful character interactions (mostly between Cap and Black Widow), there’s basic but welcome political discussions. Should we live with mass surveillance, in the hope that it will protect us? Or, to paraphrase Cap, is that fear, and not freedom? The fight scenes could be plucked out of ‘The Raid.’ Their impact feels real, not just put together by a person at a computer. An underwhelming villain/villains and an overblown finale that relies more on CGI than a personal fight try their best to unbalance the film. They succeed only a little. ‘The Winter Soldier’ still ends on a high note, and gives us a thoroughly entertaining film to boot!
VERDICT: 8/10. The second Captain America film rights all the wrongs of the first one, giving us incredible fight scenes, an intricate plot and a kick-ass Cap! A poor villain and the usual CGI-fest of an ending can’t undo all of the great work of the first 2/3rds of the film.
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Click here for my review of Captain America: The First Avenger