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Film review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier***

By Preston Wilder

Let’s recap, as the Marvel Masterplan enters its post-Avengers phase (a.k.a. ‘Sequels for Everybody’). Thor stands for whiskery adventure fantasies set on far-off worlds (and, occasionally, Earth). Iron Man is smart-aleck comedy which makes a point of being irreverent about everything, even the Marvel Masterplan. Hulk is the underachiever of the bunch, having twice been tried in solo outings and found wanting.

Then there’s Captain America (played by Chris Evans), who’s officially a hit as his first sequel – The Winter Soldier – is unleashed upon the multiplex, yet still seems a bit underwhelming. His superpowers are paltry and dull; he’s very strong, which is why he can jump out of planes without a parachute, and has a shield which he mostly uses to defend himself though he’ll sometimes throw it and catch it again, in the manner of Thor’s hammer – but overall he’s not a very interesting superhero. He’s a well-known straight arrow, and doesn’t crack jokes à la Tony Stark. He doesn’t turn green when you make him angry. He’s a man out of Time, having travelled from the 1940s to the 21st century – but not much is done with that, beyond a funny gag that shows him keeping a list of things he needs to catch up on (they include Thai food, Steve Jobs and “Star Wars/Trek”). Then there’s the whole patriotic thing, which leaves a sour taste for non-Americans.

The Cap is a super-soldier, a world-class fighting machine – designed for WW2, which is when the first Captain America was set. That film was decent but bland, and I wasn’t really aching for a sequel – but The Winter Soldier turns out to be a pleasant surprise, for two reasons. First, it quietly acknowledges that Cap isn’t much of a superhero, and doesn’t really operate as a comic-book movie; it’s closer to Mission: Impossible, big-budget action with realistic visuals and a plot where the Agency (in this case SHIELD) is compromised. Second, it undermines the gung-ho aspects by being topical and explicitly political. This is a film made in the wake of Edward Snowden, the NSA scandal, and a changing climate in general.

“This isn’t freedom. This is fear!” says Captain America when Nick Fury of SHIELD (the ever-belligerent Samuel L. Jackson) explains his preventive strategy to combat terrorism, a system that’ll spot (and stop) a terrorist before he even does anything. The script finesses this later, when it turns out that SHIELD has been infiltrated by the quasi-Nazi HYDRA – but in fact “Zola’s Algorithm”, an evil plan that deals predictive justice by identifying future ‘enemies’ and taking them out pre-emptively, sounds very similar to Fury’s own plan. It’s surely no accident that Cap goes up against his employers as well as the Nazis: “As difficult as it is to accept, Captain America is a fugitive from SHIELD!”.

This is good stuff, at least for those of us with limited interest in gadgets and shoot-outs. There’s a big noisy climax, and it’s well done – the action scenes are coherently edited, and the mass destruction for its own sake isn’t too blatant – but blockbusters are most interesting for how they reflect their times, and it does look like a major libertarian impulse is gathering speed in America (prizing individual freedom above all, whether in the Tea Party movement or social issues like gay marriage) after the relative lockstep of the post-9/11 years. The only slight oddity is that soldiers still command respect – see also the recent Lone Survivor – even as the system they serve is increasingly doubted.

So much for subtext, and trying to view a Marvel sequel through the prism of politics. (Don’t blame me! The film made me do it!) The real news for fans is that Anthony Mackie turns up as ‘the Falcon’, proudly touted as the first African-American superhero, and of course you’ve got Scarlett Johansson – this week’s clear MVP, between this and Her – kicking ass and taking names as ‘Black Widow’, her charisma making up for Evans’ wet-noodle presence. Jackson helps too, engaging in some world-class snarling (“I am not obliged to do anything!”) and there’s even Robert Redford, his iconic presence – and well-known political activism – putting a seal of approval on the film’s ambitions.

The Winter Soldier has some of the usual problems. It’s frankly overlong at 136 minutes. The climax is thrilling but still seems implausible, given that Cap’s mission is to change the servers on three heli-carriers (a mission best accomplished stealthily, not by advertising his presence and getting in a full-on showdown with the baddies). But why quibble, when the film is so solid? On this evidence, Captain America is the Marvel franchise that goes off in bold, unexpected directions to disguise the fact that its hero is so boring. Could be worse.

 

DIRECTED BY Anthony and Joe Russo

STARRING Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson

US 2014                    136 mins

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