Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson
Watch Captain America 2 online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV Store / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“Realism” isn’t a word you really use when talking about comic book movies. This is a world where people shoot each other on a giant helicarrier in the sky, while other people fly around wearing robot wings. But Captain America 2 is just that.
We last saw Steve Rogers in his Star-Spangled tights in Avengers Assemble, defending the American way (and, by extension, the world’s) from foreign hostiles. Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes the stars off the human-shaped flag and replaces them with question marks.
This time, Rogers is fighting something far closer to home. Pirates have taken over a ship and he – and Black Widow (Johansson) – are tasked with saving the hostages. It doesn’t sound like hero work, and it doesn’t look like it either: it’s telling that the mission is carried out by a Captain dressed in a dark mercenary uniform rather than his usual red, white and blue.
That’s the first hint that something has changed here – but it’s not Steve. He’s the same old 1930s gentleman, too polite to ask his neighbour out and too honest to be comfortable with the secrets held by his superiors. That, of course, is the main problem with Captain America: infallible, incorruptible and borderline invincible, he’s the perfect hero. Or, to put it another way, he’s boring.
As soon as he became a super soldier in Joe Johnstons’s original film, he stopped being interesting. But Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script (inspired by Ed Brubaker’s comic book run) does something smart: it takes Steve’s flaw and turns it into an asset. The film becomes about the fact that he hasn’t changed, the conflict between his patriotic ideals and the 21st Century world of betrayal and espionage.
That shady quality extends all the way through the film, creating something that’s less a superhero movie and more a 1970s thriller that happens to star a superhero. After a wave of origins stories, it’s a pleasure to see a straightforward story featuring a Marvel character, let alone one with brains. Robert Redford appearing as Alexander Pierce, a cool, logical head of S.H.I.E.L.D., only adds to that old-fashioned atmosphere.
This is no slow-paced retro drama, though: The Russos keep the pace up with neatly choreographed car chases and shootouts that give welcome extra screentime to the enigmatic Nick Fury (an enjoyably over-the-top turn from Samuel L. Jackson).
The action is shot with handhelds, giving everything a physical impact – when someone gets a shield in the face, you feel it. It’s a welcome change from Avengers Assemble, which packed in so much CGI that any sense of peril was lost. Here, things feel gritty and bone-crunching – helped by the fact that The Winter Soldier (complete with iron arm) has the strength to rival Cap. Combined with the moral shades of grey, scenes where Steve beats up people feel uncomfortable and brutal; an unease that drives the plot forward.
The intimate scale means there is more time to spend building character, too. Unfortunately, that’s where the few slip-ups occur. Black Widow’s back-story is still based on her not having a back-story, a decision that matches the movie’s slippery tone but, if it weren’t for Johansson, would leave this Strong Female Character as little more than an ass-kicking stereotype. Flashbacks to Steve’s past and his relationship with best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) don’t add much depth either, with Rogers remaining a largely one-note lead figure.
But Captain America 2 makes up for any lack of emotional engagement with political provocation; as Steve begins to ask how ethical Marvel’s ruthless government spies are, the inclusion of Anthony Mackie as soldier Sam Wilson offers jokes as well as a crucial example of loyalty.
The result is a tightly structured blockbuster that – despite pausing to deliver a terabyte of exposition halfway through – has more to it than just busting blocks. It may not be subtle or even very surprising, but that substance sets Captain America apart from some of the studio’s other sequels, highlighting Thor 2 for the shallow gubbins it is. With its grubby violence, political subtext and old-school narrative, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like it’s actually about something. It marks a bold shift for Marvel, one where the real world infiltrates this fantastical genre and, thanks to the studio’s impeccable world-building of daisy-chained franchises, leaves the future of the entire universe in doubt.
A film about modern day issues where actions have consequences for other characters? Captain America: The Winter Soldier may not be the best Marvel movie to date, but it’s certainly their most realistic. Yes, the film with the robot wings and helicarriers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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