Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Reviewed by 14-May-14

In the four-way battle for being the “star” of this movie, Chris Evans isn’t even in the arena…

The mileage of my heterosexual brethren may understandably vary, but for much of her career, I haven’t seen the point of Scarlett Johansson.

She’s been, with a couple of exceptions, a pretty face in shitty films, doing her best but overwhelmed by the vacuity of the material. (Much like Chris Evans, if one’s vice were versa.) Her fleeting scenes in Iron Man 2 showed promise, but it was in The Avengers that she came into her own. As Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, despite the fact that her character is under-powered and her co-stars generally much more experienced, Johansson drew attention where Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye utterly failed to, the scene in which the Widow tricks Loki, the trickster god, being particularly satisfactory. And audiences responded, not just in the cinema, but in comic stores, or at least the one I run; we had numerous girls and young women coming into the shop asking for Black Widow comics, because they’d finally seen an on-screen Marvel heroine who wasn’t insipid, leaden or flat-out embarrassing.

Despite heavy competition, the Black Widow emerges as the true hero of the film.

Natasha’s persona is further refined in Captain America: the Winter Soldier to the point where, if not for the intervention of others, Johannson would effortlessly pilfer the film. Unfortunately for titular star Mr Evans, he isn’t one of said “others”; it’s left to his numerous co-stars to try to blockade Johansson’s cinematic shoplifting.

I should in fairness say that this isn’t an exercise in Evans-bashing; he does what the directors want him to do, and he does it well, serving as an unswerving moral compass for a film in which all the things you “know” are cleverly upended. He becomes the one stable point in a reality where constants shift and betrayals abound, and he plays Cap with every bit of the gravitas and dignity that the role demands. He’s entirely believable as an old soul in a young body.

Unfortunately, that just gives the more morally ambiguous characters – who abound in this film – a firmer base from which to gleefully escalate the carnage.

There are spoilers; I expect most of you will have seen the film by now, but if you haven’t, do yourself a favour and don’t read on, okay?

On what appears to be a simple hostage rescue, Steve Rogers falls out with the Widow – and by extension her SHIELD boss, Nick Fury – when Natasha has a secret mission within the mission to retrieve intel. This prompts a discussion with Fury about the nature of freedom, culminating in the revelation that SHIELD is about to launch a fleet of robot ships which can be programmed to make pre-emptive strikes anywhere in the world, getting, essentially, the USA’s retaliation in first. But Fury is subsequently the victim of attacks from a mysterious masked figure – the Winter Soldier, a cyborg assassin with a rep that unnerves even the Black Widow –  and comes to doubt the wisdom of his superiors.

No, it looks much better on screen; trust me.

No, it looks much better on screen; trust me.

With startling speed and plausibility, the carefully-constructed world of not only this movie, but the Marvel cinematic universe to date, collapses, and SHIELD is revealed to have been secretly under the control of Hydra for decades, running a covert agenda beneath its noble surface. Exiled and isolated, Cap and a few trusted friends – Fury, the Black Widow, Maria Hill, and the newly-fledged Falcon – have to overcome an organisation that has spent more than half a century enmeshing itself into the world’s power structure.

The unexpectedly gorgeous and pouting Winter Soldier. Oh, my.

The Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie, is a particular relief, as the pre-release still images of the combat suit caused fear and dread amongst fandom. Fortunately, the lameness of the advance shots was entirely offset by the onscreen coolness. The costume works far more effectively when seen in motion, and adds grace and athleticism to the battle scenes, opening up the conflicts. Mackie’s confident charm also appeals; while a neophyte, this hero is no sidekick.

Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, again has very little to do, other than create emotional conflict and physical carnage for our heroes, but he does it skilfully and poignantly. His scenes with Cap are especially deft, as Bucky seems to be struggling through an inchoate longing which Stan bubbles under the veneer of brutality, setting the slash-glands a’tingling for a large proportion of the audience with many long, lingering eyefucks between the two.

There is absolutely no truth in the rumour that my row of the cinema was chanting; “Snog! Snog! Snog!” during the Cap/Bucky scenes. None, I tell you.

If Mackie and Stan are examples of how to make the most out of a meagre portion, then Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is an object lesson in grabbing big honking wads of narrative and making a banquet out of it! Without ever going so far as to overact, Jackson’s revelry in subverting all of the audience’s preconceptions of Nick Fury is almost palpable, and he romps around the screen in fine bravura style.

And there’s so much more in the film; a cameo by Arnim Zola that will have the comics nerds squeeing in their seats; Robert Redford playing to the back rows; Kung-Fu Jenny Agutter! Snarky allusions to drone strikes and authoritarian supervision for “The greater good”; it rewards seeing more than once, but with these many delights, it’s far from an onerous prospect.

Captain America Winter Soldier review Black Widow posterBut despite noble efforts from the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and a massive last-minute bid by Fury, I still think that the Black Widow wins the movie; while all our heroes suffer losses as a result of the conflict, hers is the most significant.

Because in order to forestall the ultimate plan, it becomes necessary to open up, in a Snowden-like tsunami of data, all of the workings of SHIELD/HYDRA, and a myriad of other Black Ops intel. To unleash Full Disclosure on the world at large, including all the Black Widow’s own secrets – the “red in her ledger”, the heinous acts she strives to atone for, which are her own deepest shame.

This is a truly heroic gesture, more so than the shooting and the punching, and she does it without hesitation, definitively establishing the character’s integrity and setting her up – surely – for her own franchise, while also liberating future Avengers movies from the narrative burden of being SHIELD’s attack dogs.

Other folks may be in the running for being the “star” of this film. But it’s the Black Widow, who makes the greatest sacrifice for the greater good, who emerges as the true hero of it.

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4 responses to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

  1. Nice snippet of info about the young women buying more ‘Black Widow’ comics, Will. I felt compelled to give it a mention!

  2. Mike Teague says:

    I found this film to be an absolute joy, not just because it was effectively Avengers 1.5 (I always thought of Iron Man 2 as being Avengers 0), but because they crammed so many characters into it without overcrowding.
    One such character was Batroc, who was more down to Earth and less Marcel Wave, which might upset the purists.

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