Patriot games: Captain America: The Winter Soldier review

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Image: Walt Disney Studios.
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Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Image: Walt Disney Studios.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dir. Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
****

Are there too many superhero films flooding the market? It’s easy to look at the proliferation – nine full Marvel Cinematic Universe titles already, with at least six or seven more to come – and condemn it as stagnation, and when it comes to dross like Green Lantern, Man of Steel and Amazing Spider-Man, you’d be right. But Marvel have the golden touch, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a resounding affirmation that superheroes have a lot more still in the tank.

The first Captain America wasn’t just a superhero movie. It was a war movie, and a damn good one. In the same way, its sequel refuses to stay within traditional genre confines; it draws from the Bourne and Bond franchises as much as it does from its Marvel cohorts, blending conspiracy thriller, spy caper, and grand action into something rather unique. There are assassinations, car chases, traitors, and MacGuffins, all capped off with a magnificently extravagant climax. Every story beat is predictable, but the film wisely prioritises execution over originality. The audience knows the song, and it’s performed with an air of old-hand pastiche.

But that’s not where The Winter Soldier shines. Captain America is an inherently political character – his debut saw him punch Hitler in the face, after all – and uniquely, he becomes more and more resonant with time, as America struggles to reconcile what it once was and what it became. The Winter Soldier knows this, and accordingly it pits Captain America against America. It’s a film for the era of drones and universal surveillance and whistleblowers and creeping state power, and all these red-hot political issues bubble away beneath The Winter Soldier‘s surface. Who can you trust? What ends justify which means? The film cleverly builds its necessary superhero dichotomy of Good Guys and Bad Guys into a more ambiguous freedom/security dialectic. The villains are suitably dastardly, but the issues raised are treated with respect and intelligence. This is a far cry from mindless patriotism; Captain America’s role in the modern day is to serve as a mobile Statue of Liberty, a reminder of America’s broken promises and an icon of idealism in a darkening world.

This extends to the whole film: each hero (Captain America; Black Widow and Nick Fury; and newcomer Falcon) contends with a different face of the same evil (the Winter Soldier; corrupted institutions; mid-level enforcer), and we’re constantly reminded that America is by turns hero and villain. Count the times Cap sees his iconic shield used against him. By focusing on the battle for America’s soul, The Winter Soldier finds a potent central metaphor and executes it with panache. Is it subtle? Of course not. Should it have been? No! Superhero movies thrive on clear conflict, the foundation of all drama, and The Winter Soldier serves up the perfect mix of complexity and simplicity. Captain America ponders difficult ethical questions one moment, and punches a dude the next. All is as it should be.

Speaking of punching, The Winter Soldier is surely the most action-packed Marvel movie to date. It moves at breakneck pace, steadily ramping up its action. The certification promised ‘frequent moderate violence’, and it delivers just that. The pacing is precise, the humour is well timed (seriously, best tombstone joke ever), the pathos is surprisingly effective, and the film never sags in the middle. It’s, well, fun. And that’s great! To be so consistently fun is an incredibly difficult task for any movie, and The Winter Soldier pulls it off with aplomb in a remarkable piece of cinematic engineering.

The Winter Soldier is a strong contender for ‘best Marvel film’. It’s endlessly entertaining, it makes you think, and about half the film is spent jumping through windows. What’s not to like?

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