Wednesday, 21 May 2014

"To build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down. And that makes enemies."

There is something pleasingly – and no doubt deliberately – ironic in Marvel Studios' flag wearing hero fronting its most subversive movie yet. Not that writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus (Captain America: First Avenger) are being subtle about it. "You're holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection," Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) tells Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) early on. During the very same dialogue he says, "I thought the punishment usually came after the crime," and – just in case we hadn't got the point – "This isn't freedom, this is fear." Even so, what we have here is the key to Captain America's real appeal, the answer to any criticism that he's just a stiff necked, steroidal boy scout. As a 95 year-old thirty-something with an early 1940s value set in 'war on terror' America, he is less the USA's poster boy than its most steadfast foil. Something co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome To Collinwood) clearly relish getting their indie credential chops into on a blockbuster scale.

Post-Chitauri invasion, Rogers has become not only a useful asset for shady super spy network S.H.I.E.L.D., but also something of a pain in the ass. During a great opening set piece in which Rogers, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and a squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. goons take out a crew of French/Algerian pirates, our blond hero complains of being forced to play "Fury's caretaker". This is not what he signed up for. This is not what America should be doing. History has seen the nation gradually diminished from world's saviour, to world's policeman, to a "caretaker" over the course of decades. For Rogers the moral decline appears instantaneous, and it rankles intensely. There are also indirect tributes to Edward Snowden's whistleblowing and shades of the NSA privacy invasion scandal. Pretty bold stuff to be sneaking under the canvas of this primary coloured marquee.

It's uncertain how much any of this will land with the film's young, core audience, although this does feel like Marvel's most 'mature' picture yet, an admirable risk to take. It is certainly the studio's most scripted and plot driven, not to mention the big wink that is the casting of Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D. suit Alexander Pierce suggests Three Days Of The Condor (1975) as its most obvious inspiration. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is in there too, for sure. But, as Rogers' journey manhandles him out into the cold and makes him a hoodie wearing renegade advised to "trust nobody" and targeted by a seemingly unstoppable assassin (the titular Winter Soldier), the influence of the Bourne trilogy weighs down, too – the Russos even going so far as to steal a famous shot from
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) directly towards the film's end.

The action and violence are the most grounded we've seen in any of the Marvel films to date. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), with its steampunk laser weirdness and never-ending montages, occasionally felt dull and insulated. Iron Man, Thor and Hulk all dodge bullets via their self-evident fantastical science fiction trimmings. But, apart from the fact that he throws a big metal Frisbee around and has been artificially pumped to the very peak of attainable physical fitness, the Captain is operating on the same plane as Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan and James Bond. He even throws a knife at someone.

The slight suit upgrade also feels like the first step towards a leaner, meaner hero. Its darker hue and practical toughness make it an instant improvement on the royal blue lycra he was saddled with for The Avengers (2012).

Evans has settled comfortably into the title role, and bolsters its appeal with a precise charm, never letting you forget that the heart of a regular and sincere wimp beats beneath that rock sculpted chest.
And while this might be a solo outing, Marvel still understands the value of teamwork, partnering Johansson's still-sparky Black Widow and fostering a whole new bromance Anthony Mackie's (The Hurt Locker) likable veteran support group organiser Sam Wilson, also know as The Falcon. An ex-forces 'pilot' with secret technology that enables him to flap about like a supersonic swift. Of course to rebuke this development as silly in a comic book movie may be like spitting out a jellybean for tasting of chemicals, but even so, after the Russos' first-rate work setting up a smart, Washington D.C. based conspiracy thriller, it occasionally feels like a backstop into tried formula.

Black Widow certainly enjoys her greatest chunk of Marvel screen time yet, continuing to more than hold her own against her superpowered counterpart. An equal to Cap himself in terms of her importance to the mission, she delivers another killer turn that even a drab wig fails to dampen. A spin-off movie is beginning to look more essential than inevitable, with Johansson's astonishing and varied run of form recently (Don Jon, Her, Under The Skin) and it's to her credit that Romanoff feels like another string on her bow rather than a blemish on her CV.

Inexorably though, the whole enterprise soon drifts into business as usual. The more the story refers back to the first Captain America film, the less interesting it becomes – its subversiveness becomes subverted. The twists are easy to figure, and certain reveals are simply prosaic and predictable. Plus, given the constant reminders that this is just one adventure within the greater Marvel universe, you can't help but be distracted by one, nagging question: wouldn't Tony Stark have something to say about all this? Especially when those huge, deadly S.H.I.E.L.D. machines – now propelled by his technology – launch into the sky.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does go out on an intriguing note, however, which should have big repercussions on future Earthbound Marvel stories. Captain America is an interesting character, arguably the most interesting of the Avengers and the one with the greatest thematic scope. Whilst this particular outing may climax with an overly formulaic splurge, The Winter Soldier benefits from an old school thriller tone that, for its first half at least, distinguishes it from its more obviously superheroic Marvel cousins.

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