By Simon Miraudo
March 26, 2014
We’re three films deep into Marvel’s Phase Two, which is the collective name they’re using for the standalone superhero efforts bridging billion-dollar team-up feature The Avengers and its upcoming, probably-googol-grossing sequel. First two entries Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were really just marking time until Captain America: The Winter Soldier came along to put Phase Two’s plot into play. A follow-up to my – and no one else’s – favourite Marvel movie, it sees Chris Evans return as Steve Rogers, the peppy, titular supersoldier, transplanted from the simple, Nazi-littered 1940s to the terrifying, One Direction-worshipping world of the present day. He’s handily compiling a list of recommended pop-cultural catchups, though the absence of both Mad Men and Scandal makes me worry about the kind of company he’s keeping in 2014.
Director Joe Johnston, sadly, isn’t back with the Cap, perhaps left frozen by the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Rogers’ downed warplane from film one. As the adage goes, when one director falls, two take his place, and these two are brothers: Joe and Anthony Russo, famously of TV shows Community and Arrested Development, and infamously of the godawful You, Me and Dupree. A total stylistic departure from its predecessor – closer in tone and look to the crazy-for-canted-camera-angles Avengers – their sequel puts the patriotic Rogers in the middle of a political conspiracy, the likes of which could rock secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. to its core. The casting of Robert Redford as one of Rogers’ bosses is no coincidence, bringing to mind All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor and, if you’ve only ever seen bad Robert Redford movies, maybe Spy Game. The screen legend is a welcome presence. Not scene-stealing. Not show-stopping. Simply ‘welcome’.
Old friends Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) aid Rogers in his quest to uncover the rats in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ranks, and they too fall into the ‘welcome’ category. The inclusion of invaluable supporting player and someday-star Anthony Mackie as a fellow war veteran isn’t enough, however, to make up for the cavernous absence of Hayley Atwell, who, as Agent Carter in the first Captain America, damn near stole the whole Marvelverse out from under its bulky heroes.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have admirably approached the inherent problem of a Captain America tale set in the 21st century; most smartly by having him confront the prospect of an America that instils fear in its enemies with the use of drone strikes and ill-gotten private information. For once though, it seems an intelligent action flick has been undone by its big ideas; or, at least, the ideas here outshine the action. Little besides the scary ethical questions raised is all that memorable. The performances, explosive set pieces, and even the “big” reveal of its sub-titular villain’s identity (a ‘Jared Leto meets Mortal Kombat’s Sub Zero’-looking mother******) can probably be filed under ‘welcome’ too, but never ‘essential’.
Marvel has previously proven that the grave consequences of their universe aren’t so grave after all, bringing beloved Agent Phil Coulson back from the dead and cursing him to the existential limbo of broadcast television. So, when characters say their farewells in The Winter Soldier – whether it’s them passing away or simply pledging to go on a solo mission of self-discovery – why should we feel anything? Death is just a way station between sequels, and for all their big goodbyes, most of these people will be back before us in less than twelve months, suited up for the next Marvel outing.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is frequently unboring, often expensive-looking, and expert at making promises later instalments have to deliver. (As always, you have to sit through the credits for one really exciting bonus scene and one very-dumb one.) This conveyer-belt approach to moviemaking has taken all the superness out of these superhero stories. Everything is now so expected, and not especially special. As such, The Winter Soldier (admittedly, the best of a recent batch) feels thoroughly unremarkable. That’s what happens when you get too much of a just-okay thing.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrives in Australian cinemas April 3, 2014.