Despite my love and appreciation for all the impressive groundwork made by Marvel Studios in their implementation and execution of Phase One (2008’s Iron Man culminating with 2012’s The Avengers), the spark and energy they once had unfortunately appears to be fizzling out. Phase Two has been one underwhelming and formulaic experience after another and despite an intriguing premise that’s filled with potential, Captain America: The Winter Solider does little to improve upon Marvel’s recent missteps.
Based on the acclaimed comic book run by Ed Brubaker, Captain America: The Winter Solider positions itself as a grounded superhero experience that is more paranoid spy thriller than comic book flick. It has far more in common with Christopher Nolan’s brooding Batman universe than the cartoony aesthetic of Marvel’s previous entries.
Set in Washington DC, a few years after the climatic events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers (the always charismatic Chris Evans) continues his journey as the gallant all-American super solider, who still struggles to embrace the modern America that surrounds him. Commander Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) both reprise their roles, though neither are particularly strong with their increase of screen time. Marvel-newcomer Robert Redford is also thrown into the mix, playing World Security Council director Alexander Pierce. His presence I’m assuming was supposed to give credence and validity to the political tone and plot they were aiming for.
The film successfully shines a spotlight on current topical debates surrounding unethical government surveillance and the use of unmanned drones overseas. The idea of America using excessive and brutal punishment as a pre-emptive strike bothers the right-minded Rogers and further cements clouds of fear and doubt about the integrity of S.H.I.E.L.D and the country he serves. These trepidations are all but confirmed when an assassin known simply as the Winter Soldier, begins to target key members of the S.H.I.E.L.D organisation, with the source behind the attacks appearing to be in-house.
When the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely focuses on government conspiracies and undermining the nobility of S.H.I.E.L.D, the film is a welcomed breath of fresh air. Unfortunately the engaging suspicion and moral/ethical ambiguity that is firmly established over the first 40 minutes, appears to be forgotten in the second and third acts and the stakes are never raised high enough to elicit any real sense of risk or fear. Even when the script makes a few bold moves, they quickly forget about these choices and opt for the tidier and safer approach instead. Perhaps Joss Whedon can come in and shake these characters and our expectations up a little in Age of Ultron.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo shoot their scenes capably and with a certain degree of technical confidence. An attack on Commander Fury’s car is the standout, but overall the film’s action and choreography echoes much of what we’ve already seen from Marvel’s back catalogues and becomes largely forgettable once you leave the theatre.
Forcing America’s greatest patriot to double guess his allegiances makes for some fascinating character development. A superhuman conspiracy thriller appeared to be just what Marvel needed to separate this entry from the other well-worn templates we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. After the blasphemous handling of key characters in Iron Man 3 and the overwhelming indifference many felt towards Thor 2: The Dark World, it’s disheartening to report that Captain America: The Winter Solider is a promisingly solid but unspectacular chapter into a fading Marvel canon.