Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America has to be one of the least inspiring superheroes. Like Batman he doesn’t have very impressive powers, but at least Batman has style, brooding menace and moral complexity. On the face of it all that distinguishes Captain America from the rest of humanity is that he’s a bit more the classic All-America kid than the average boy. That and his name winds up everyone who’s not American.

The first film was, unnervingly, quite good. Not startlingly brilliant, but more than passably entertaining. The second film, like most superhero movies, faces the problem of how to make a superhero film genuinely exciting. We all know the central character isn’t going to die; so how do you make it interesting? Christopher Nolan managed so in all three of his Batman movies by pointing up the moral complexity, and in the last movie giving us a frighteningly believable villain/urban terrorist. This Captain America movie brings us up to the present day, with a few obvious man out of time jokes for the newly awakened hero; thrust into a role in Marvel’s every expanding popular culture universe. This is a story that overlaps with other Marvel movies as well as the Agents Of SHEILD television series; none are anything like essential to enjoy the film, but do give more context and understanding.

The plot that unfolds is one that is in every respect deeply contemporary – a central plot strand is a barely disguised dig at America’s drone programme; government bodies are inherently untrustworthy; nationhood is a confused concept; Robert Redford is brilliantly cast against type as a worryingly morally slippery agency chief. All this is this movie’s answer to how to maintain genuine audience engagement when we’re unlikely to believe any real threat to the central character. Make him cynical, questioning the status quo and morally uncertain.

It’s a clever trick, and one that largely works. Like many films of its type it loses footing in the last act, the earlier subtlety lost in large-scale, technically impressive but numblingly over-long action set-pieces. The Winter Soldier himself is strangely absent for much of the film also; I couldn’t shake the feeling that with a little more work he could have been a convincingly chilling counterpoint to the increasing suspicion and cynicism of Captain America.

Alongside that there’s the unshakeable feeling that this is all existing for the sake of supporting the increasingly over-blown quest for pop culture dominance from the Marvel Universe. There’s much that’s interesting and fun in this universe, of course. It’s not all intrinsically necessary, though. Less is more, of course, but don’t expect that truth to be grasped any time soon. Still, if we have to a superhero called Captain America, then this is what he should be. It’s a good stab and a difficult character, with a pleasantly surprising dose of political subversiveness.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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