While the Marvel Studios movies have rarely been truly bad, I have felt that the post-Avengers films have been lacking a greater sense of ambition - both 'Iron Man 3' and 'Thor 2' seemed content to coast along with elaborate action scenes and generous doses of comedy gags. None of the 'Studios films ever aimed for the kind of intelligent, transcendant storytelling seen in 'The Dark Knight' or even the earlier X-Men films - they seemed content in providing breezy popcorn entertainment that doesn't require a lot of brainpower.This all changes in 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'.
The sequel to the 2011 film, Cap 2 is almost unrecognisable when compared to the earlier film - gone is the WWII backdrop (as Cap has awoken in the modern day) and gone are the gimmicky laser-cannon Hydra henchmen, which made much of the previous film's third act feel like a videogame. What's left is an intelligent, elaborate political thriller that puts heavy emphasis on slower, more thoughtful scenes of characterisation and dialogue, with action scenes that while exciting, are more reserved, more realistic and less reliant on computer wizardry. Veteran 'Community' directors Anthony and Joe Russo have crafted a vibrant, thrilling new chapter in the Marvel Cinemaverse and it's no surprise that their talents have been called on for the third 'Cap' film.
Robert Redford joins the cast as Alexander Pierce, one of the senior members of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury's boss. Redford is mainly present to provide 'real dramatic actor cred' to the film, as is always the case in superhero films now - but unlike other examples of this trope, Redford is given a really meaty, complex role and he always invests heavily in the scenes in which he appears; he never seems embarrassed by his presence in the film, which hasn't always been the case. The other obvious reason for his inclusion is that it recalls 1970s political thrillers like 'Three Days of the Condor' - in one scene, the Watergate Hotel is conspicuously placed in the background, again strengthening this atmosphere.
Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johannson return as Nick Fury and Black Widow respectively; both have more to do in this film than they have in many of the other Marvel movies (even 'The Avengers') and the films leaves you yearning for Black Widow to get her own film. One thing I liked about Johannson's role this time around was that there was a lot less overt sexualisation of her than there was in Iron Man 2 or the Avengers. Anthony Mackie makes his much-anticipated debut as Captain America's bessie mate 'The Falcon' and every time he's on the screen, he's a joy to watch. I sincerely hope he makes many repeat appearances across all the films - he even deserves his own film. Sebastian Stan plays the Winter Soldier, a character whose appearances are surprisingly scant throughout a film where his name appears in the title - every appearance is effective, however and Stan's presence is always successful. I've seen the film twice now, and on both occasions, I heard an audible gasp from people in the audience when they learnt the truth of the Winter Soldier in the second act.
The best thing about the film however, is of course Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. So many people were against the casting of Evans to the character given that he'd already played the Human Torch and there was a wealth of more immediately interesting choices rumoured for the role (John Krasinski would have been a really exciting choice). What's so surprising then is that Evans injects so much personality and humanity into a character that could easily be very dry. Captain America is part of the 'old guard' of smiling, dashing heroes that many people find difficult to relate to or telling interesting stories with. What 'Winter Soldier' does so well (much like many of the best Cap stories in the comics), is that it juxtaposes Cap's earnest, black & white way of looking at the world with the realities of modern cynicism and fragile politics, where there are far more shades of grey. Throughout the film, Cap is found wondering if S.H.I.E.L.D. represents the freedom he was fighting for in WWII, or if it's just another oppressive bully - Evans relishes the role, injecting a commanding presence, a childlike wonder of modern innovation and a reassuring confidence in his ability to do the right thing. You literally would follow this guy into war.
Like the first film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves how it's still possible to take an older, more traditional superhero and make them interesting by framing their adventure within a modern context. This is something that 'Man of Steel' sensationally failed to do, because it didn't try - unlike that film, Cap 2 is a film that truly believes in its lead character and his innocent idealism, rather than trying to dirty him up. It stands proud as one of the very best of the Marvel Studios movies and a promising look at how superhero movies may continue to grow and become more intelligent and less reliant on the repetitive tropes of the genre.