Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is a divisive entry in Marvel’s recent web of superhero movies, and stands notably apart from the other, more homogenous successes. This is, largely, down to the throwback tone of its first half – a love letter to 30s adventure serials reminiscent of Indiana Jones’ wistful energy. The film’s second half, however, proved a bit of a muddle of silliness and formulaic action. It didn’t help that the jolt to present day rendered much of the movie dramatically moot.
Like it or not, when watching The Winter Soldier one assumes that the powers-at-be over at Marvel are keenly aware that the campy tone was not for everyone, and though Joss Whedon used the character to great effect in the Avengers movie, any follow-up film would have to course correct in order to reap those precious ticket sales.
And so here we are at The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers’ second fully-fledged Captain America movie, with all previous ticks and charm removed. Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo (Welcome To Collinwood, Arrested Development), the story trades in the jovial escapades with ridiculous meanies like Red Skull for the po-faced weave of a D.C. political thriller, one mortifyingly bereft of memorable bad guys at all.
Maybe it’s an attempt to ground the ongoing movie franchise after the comparatively out-there alien menaces of Avengers and Thor: The Dark World; a move to place these otherworldly stories into context. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame to report that The Winter Soldier pushes the needle far too far in the other direction, offering up a derivative, somnambulist conspiracy story that feels, at best, like a late-season mythology double bill on The X-Files.
Double agents. Important data sticks. Scene after scene of cumbersome exposition. And a big explosion at the end to make up for a wearily predictable plot that doesn’t even attempt to offer the audience a surprise.
It’s nice to see the franchise trying something else, attempting to add texture to the series, but really, did anyone want this? I’ll put my hand in the air and say I wasn’t a fan of The First Avenger overall, but it certainly had a lot more going for it than The Winter Soldier, which marks Marvel’s biggest stumble since Iron Man 2.
The opportunity to examine Rogers’ integration into the modern world more closely ought to be a juicy one but, save for a neat sequence in which he sneaks onto a Smithsonian tour of his own history to connect with the past, it is more or less totally ignored. Instead the machinations of the plot take dominance and Rogers (Chris Evans) is forced to team up with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and sidekick-in waiting Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in order to unravel some duplicity within S.H.I.E.L.D. An endeavour that – surprise! – leaves them fugitive and on the run.
Nobody brings their A-game here. Johansson autopilots, Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce spends the movie treading softly in boardrooms where he may as well have a power point that exclaims “Hey look, it was me all along!”, and while Wilson admittedly seems the most enthused… this is supposed to be a Captain America movie, isn’t it? Evans does what he can, but the script leaves him few options. Two in fact; mopey Steve Rogers or punchy gymnast Captain America. When the most dynamic character in the movie is Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, something’s amiss. And as for the titular menace? Don’t get excited.
Through all of this, The Winter Soldier is never actually bad, it just fails to deliver anything above average. Action fans may get twitchy in their seats, especially as the first hour offers little but scene after scene of people explaining things to one another. Granted, this section is pocked by one of the movie’s more entertaining sequences (in which Nick Fury gets trapped in his own car), but by and large if you’re after something big and noisy, you’ll have to wait for some late-game action aboard… a helicarrier. To borrow a Whedonism, haven’t we already deja’d this vu?
The story putters along proficiently, but feels interchangeable with any recent Hollywood action-thriller tale, and we’re talking the likes of G.I. Joe: Retaliation or White House Down. Hardly outstanding company. Quite simply, everything feels a little tired.
Helmed by the Russos, one might hope that at least the comedy lands well, given their previous experience in the field. Alas no, there are precious few smiles cracked here, and, generally speaking, the directing team offer little to stamp the movie as their own. This is a big project and they’ve played it safe. The Winter Soldier feels rather anonymous, save for some Arrested Development-style shaky cam action which, in 3D, renders everything a blur.
Finally, there’s a nagging sense that The Winter Soldier serves another purpose altogether; a placeholder until the next Avengers movie, a method of reshuffling the pieces on the board so that they’re ready for next time. It’s an awkward downside to purposefully building a universe through interconnecting franchises. If the Marvel movies were a TV series, this is one of those middle episodes. Just about good enough for now, but you can’t shake the sense that it’s all about what happens next.