Warning: This review discusses the plot. You may wish to view this title in full costume before reading on.
To date, the greatest challenge Marvel’s heroes have faced in their cinematic universe, has been headlining stories of sufficient weight, so we, the humble panel-eschewing neutrals who judge these movies as action adventure fantasies sans a comic book library, are minded to mark them as great films in their own right. Anthony and Joe Russo’s The Winter Solider hits that mark.
Like much from the Marvel stable the influences are worn on the sleeve like a Nazi armband, in this case ‘70’s Cold War Thrillers, with their enemy at the gates paranoia, and the techno-fetishism of the ‘80s, but the Russos have worked hard to make this a solid thriller first, a comic book movie second, the result being an involving spy story with judicious dollops of thrills and counter-espionage.
The Russos will have to be content with being competent rather than maestros, when it comes to orchestrating action, as their film has little in the way of visual flair or in-camera dynamism, but they have managed to ground the thrills; giving them a real-world sheen that’s welcome in the age of CG saturation – the impressive ILM generated climax not withstanding. Their best achievement however, is investing the movie with a strong geo-political dimension, giving their audience something to chew on other than histrionics and Scarlett Johansson’s bottom sheathed in skintight latex.
The clever script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, contrasts the apple pie values of Captain America’s “golden generation” with the moral and geo-political complexities of the modern fight against terror threats, before executing a wonderful rug pull, in which we learn that HYDRA, the Nazi-spun organisation of subversives, late of World War II, have learnt from their initial defeat and infiltrated American intelligence, co-opting the military might of the victorious superpower for their own nefarious ends. As a satire of Western foreign policy taking on the character of its historic enemies, it’s very good indeed; the sense being that as Marvel Studios grows in confidence and experience, it’s prepared to test its audience with greater forays into adult territory: movie’s unapologetically targeted at their loyal readership.
Not only does this story give the notoriously one note Captain America something to play against, rather than the personification of his ideological opposite – the revelation prompting the Cap to question who he’s been fighting for – but it humanises him in the process. The Russos have astutely given Chris Evans’ wholesome lunk some inner-conflict; a moment of self-doubt; and this adds a little shading to a character who, like D.C’s Superman, will always struggle to be more than a walking set of values. There’s fine support from Robert Redford, who adds a little gravitas, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury finally has more to do than join the dots. All in all a very good showing all round.