Of all the movies to have emerged from the Marvel universe, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger surely ranked towards the back of the pack: a joblot of origin-story exposition phoned in by actors searching out a sizeable payday, it mostly felt like a placeholder tossed out to sustain brand visibility while the writers figured out what to do with a character who might seem archaic indeed in the era of Robert Downey Jr.’s postmodern snark machine Tony Stark.
The first film’s romantic interest, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, shows up under old-age latex at the beginning of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and speaks the line that sets the agenda for this inevitable sequel: “All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best we can do is start over.” Now finally unburdened of all that guffy backstory and free to exist in the moment, the franchise here rebuilds itself almost from scratch.
The new film has do-over directors in the generally engaging Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome to Collinwood, Arrested Development) and a script from the satirically inclined pair of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Pain & Gain) that ponders how modern-day Washington might look to a soldier who’s had the good fortune to skip Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and might therefore have some untarnished idea of what it means to fight the good fight.
The Cap’n himself (Chris Evans) is still trying to catch up on everything he’s missed – an early insert shot of his pocketbook (its suck-ups presumably localised for each territory) suggests the 1966 World Cup final is on his playlist – and growing increasingly ambivalent about the brute-force militarism that calls on him to do all his country’s dirty work. His doubts come to a head after S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised, forcing him outside the normal chains of command, and turning the film into an inside-the-Beltway conspiracy thriller.
For in everything from its plotting to its car-crunching action sequences to a final-reel plunge into the deep, this instalment has clearly been inspired by the Bourne movies: enduring liberal totem Robert Redford assumes what we might call the David Strathairn role, lending renewed class to proceedings as the duplicitous Senator overseeing the Government’s latest expensive weapons program.
And if the ploddingly literal first movie dealt with who Captain America is, this follow-up is a good deal more imaginative about exploring what the character might represent in the modern world: namely, the last good cop standing between order and lawlessness, his shield a glossy inflation of Gary Cooper’s sheriff’s badge in High Noon.
Given the duality the Captain assumes here – simultaneously authority figure and troubled outcast – it still seems something of a shame that the series should have been founded on Evans’ largely one-note, Ken-doll blandness: though he and his biceps have become more adept at filling the screen, the role insists on stripping the actor of even the throwaway one-liners that were offered up as a personality for the Human Torch in those flimsy Fantastic Four movies.
And perhaps it behoves us not to get overexcited about a micro-myth – a tiny piece of a wider universe and business model, to be slotted into a repackaged Blu-Ray boxset at a later date – that spends this much money merely to divert us all for another two-and-a-bit hours, and which winds up clanking around on the same gantry flooring as every other Avengers movie to date.
As a standalone, though, The Winter Soldier is surprising – working its way through the death of a key recurring character, and heading towards a last-reel transformation you really won’t see coming – and the Russos find deft ways to balance the kind of cranked-up action that sells tickets with the character interplay that has sustained the comics for decades. The franchise (should that be sub-franchise?) has been given shape and purpose: it suddenly feels like more than just a recruiting poster pinned to a sixpack.
(MovieMail, March 2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier screens on BBC1 tonight at 10.30pm.