Having saved the Earth from an alien invasion Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a.k.a. Captain America now handles covert operations alongside S.H.I.E.L.D, sparking up a bantering partnership with sexy if morally flexible super-spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) a.k.a. Black Widow even as he rankles at the ambiguous methods employed by chief director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). An incident involving Fury catapults Cap into the midst of a labyrinthine conspiracy that leaves him uncertain who to trust. On the run and outgunned with Natasha at his side, Cap endeavours to uncover the identity of a seemingly unstoppable assassin known as the Winter Soldier. What he finds proves not only a personal tragedy but an insidious evil that strikes the heart of all America itself holds dear and threatens every human being across the world.
Marvel Studios' most thematically ambitious and provocative production yet was hailed as a bold new step for comic book superhero movies in the States yet drew a more muted response elsewhere. Naysayers carped that the film's allusions to classic conspiracy thrillers from the Seventies was mere window dressing for the star-spangled super-heroics and sky battles that occupied most of the third act. Which is a little like criticizing an above average western for including gunfights and horses. The fact is Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superhero movie that does not forget to be a fun and exciting summer blockbuster even whilst mounting a disarmingly subversive and challenging polemic for ethically uncertain times.
Although the iconic and indeed ironic casting of Robert Redford, bringing real gravitas to a pivotal role, establishes a through line leading back to the likes of Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President's Men (1976) and, to some degree, The Candidate (1972), many critics failed to note the film's sociopolitical satire originated with a storyline devised for the original comics by Marvel scribe Ed Brubaker. Too often dismissed as a square-jawed all-American anachronism, Captain America is actually the most ideologically complex, intriguing and, as brilliantly inhabited by a splendidly charismatic Chris Evans, most conflicted member of the Avengers. The plot yokes potent drama confronting Marvel's most patriotic superhero with an America overrun with hidden agendas, political and corporate self-interest, uncertainty and plain ill-advised action. Paranoia over surveillance security, the pathway of politics post-9/11, the broken spirit of Gulf War veterans and the pervading, unsettling sense we sacrificed our freedom for the sake of global security all feed into the rich, witty, nuanced script penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely which explores bold, challenging, complex ideas in exciting new ways.
Some complained about the lack of subtlety (at one point Cap accuses Nick Fury of "holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection"), but such criticisms are outweighed the fact the film succeeds in leavening breakneck action, gun battles and big explosions with a stimulating discussion of important issues. A chilling scene that reminds us the prevalent notion humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom originated with the Nazis is worth the price of admission alone. Whereas Seventies conspiracy thrillers typically concluded on a fatalistic note, neither the superhero genre nor frankly present times can afford such resigned despair. Instead the film looks to Cap's shifting image as a source of stirring symbolic resonance concluding that the price of freedom is high but our greatest collective asset remains simple, dogged human decency.
Marvel made a surprising choice in handing directing duties to brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, better known for their quirky indie comedies and handling several notable episodes of cult comedy series Community, but it has paid off unexpectedly well. For one thing the action sequences, including a phenomenal car chase with Nick Fury, Cap smashing through wall after wall in pursuit of the titular assassin and a spectacular climactic aerial onslaught that gives Avengers Assemble (2012), rank among the most taut, visceral and exhilarating in any comic book film ever. Yet the Russos give us much care and attention to the human drama, finally enabling Cap to close a romantic chapter left unresolved at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Much hype surrounded the mysterious identity of the Winter Soldier but for all the best efforts of Evans and the script this might be the one area where the film falls short as result of a rather robotic performance from Sebastian Stan.
For all the weighty drama the film still mines a welcome line of humour. This includes hilarious unlikely cameos from comedians Gary Shandling and Danny Pudi, a running gag between Cap and Black Widow about his inability to land a date, and a most unexpected treat for Jenny Agutter fans. Despite that title the film is really an ensemble piece finding stray moments for cherishable character work from Cobie Smulders as returning S.H.I.E.L.D agent Maria Hill, Emily VanCamp shouldering her own compelling mini-arc as Steve's enigmatic next door neighbour and especially Anthony Mackie, a winning addition as airborne sidekick Falcon, despite an improbable flying suit. Crucially it also gives oft-underrated Scarlett Johansson more to do than look sublime in skintight catsuits. Where Steve Rogers is honest and straightforward, Natasha Romanoff is pragmatic and ambiguous though no less formidable, smart and complex a personality. McFeeley and Markus deepen the alternately flirty and antagonistic relationship in a particularly engaging way, neatly intertwining their personal trust issues with the main theme. Here the phrase "don't trust anyone" is both cautionary warning yet also revealed the inherent source of our current sociopolitical malaise.