It is rare to walk away from any of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe feeling as if you have been a part of a unique moviegoing experience.
This is not to run down those films in any substantial way since they are expertly well made, with robust scripts, thrilling, heart-stopping action. stellar casting, and a wink and a nudge of mischievous fun from time to time.
They are designed to entertain, keep audiences on the edge of their seats and tell larger than life stories you can lose yourself in and to that end, they perform exactly as you’d expect them to.
But there is this nagging sense, even in movies I have deeply enjoyed such as The Avengers Assemble or Iron Man 3, that you are watching a cookie-cutter factory in action, seamlessly and relentlessly pumping out movie after movie to an unrelenting, seemingly never ending schedule (Marvel has apparently planned its films all the way through to 2028).
The real pleasure in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger starring Chris Evans as the muscled-up titular hero, is that it manages for most of its running time to duck and weave around the formula to a thoroughly pleasing degree.
An unexpected blend of Three Days of the Condor, which interestingly starred Robert Redford who makes an appearance in Captain America 2 as Alexander Pierce, a member of S.H.I.E.L.D’s World Security Council, and The Bourne Conspiracy, it serves a reasonably sophisticated mix Cold War thriller, post-9/11 paranoia and good old fashioned popcorn-munching action.
While it does descend into the rather predictable messy depths of the bash-’em-up, blow-’em-up finales so beloved of the superhero genre, it nevertheless keeps the tension taut throughout as Captain Rogers aka Steve Rogers goes on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D itself, unsure of who he can trust in a world he is barely getting acquainted with after 70 years in cryogenic suspension.
It’s a fair bet of course that characters like Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and newly introduced friend and ally Falcon aka Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and yes of course the suave no-nonsense head of S.H.I.E.L.D. himself Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) won’t desert him completely but in the first, furious moments of his pariah status, there appear to be no real guarantees of who will come to his aide.
Much like the ’70s-style conspiracy thrillers that inspire, even if they don’t entirely or completely successfully soak into, the film’s storytelling DNA, The Winter Soldier is underpinned by a dark and nefarious conspiracy which, of course, views itself as the unquestionable answer to all of the many problems facing mankind in the second decade of the 21st century.
It will come as no surprise that Captain America, a man of unimpeachable integrity and fine moral upbringing who embodies the very essence of truth, justice and the American way (but thankfully not in any sort of intensely twee way), is innocent of all charges, but that matters little when the “bad guys”, whoever they may turn out to be, are shooting at you and your only choice is to run.
Or fly or leap out of planes or duck exploding bombs that hail down from the sky at the most inopportune moments.
And run he does, later with comrades unspecified, seeking to uncover a conspiracy so ruthless it cares little who or what it has to vanquish in pursuit of its holier-than-thou aims.
This at first nameless conspiracy finds physical form in the person of The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a hired assassin of stunning efficiency who appears to have drunk of the same bodybuilding cup as Captain American himself.
While The Winter Solider, who is strangely under-utilised in a film partly bearing his name, does not manage to best a man so befitting of his hero status that he has his very Captain America exhibition at The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, he proves a more than worthy adversary, and one with which the Captain eventually finds he has a completely unexpected connection.
It is these intimate, small details, scattered through the film like Easter eggs hidden for the hunt, that lend the film, which is unquestionably a superhero action thriller in the Marvel mould despite its welcome deviations from the norm, an intelligence and substance I did not expect it to have.
Granted it squanders some of this higher level narrative goodwill when it plunges back into the almost obligatory finale fray but by and large it successfully manages to be what so many of its compatriot films are not – a multi-layered action thriller with unseen and immensely pleasing twists and turns.
While not executed completely successfully, you have to hand it to brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who have taken the relatively nuanced screenplay (relative to other Marvel films, not to cinema as a whole) by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and given us possibly the most satisfying superhero movie from Stan Lee’s studio that we have seen to date.