Marvel action-adventures are industrial artifacts as much as they are conventional films. Made for huge budgets, they are shown and merchandised all over the world. When they fail, the companies who make them issue profit warnings.
When they succeed, they give Hollywood the excuse to continue on its policy of supporting yet more franchises, sequels and remakes at the expense of original work. In short, it is very easy to be cynical about them.
What’s most refreshing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reported cost $170 million) is that its directors and screenwriters have at least tried to make a proper film. Alongside the fairground attraction-style action sequences, which are as slickly choreographed and just as numbingly predictable as might have been expected, there is an attempt at providing character motivation and back story.
There is also a political undertow. Captain America’s enemies here - the ones who have compromised law enforcement agency S.H.I.E.LD- are American neo-con types in cahoots with Nazi-era scientists (there is a great cameo from Toby Jones as the demented geneticist Armin Zola.) The presence of Robert Redford - not the type usually to be found in gung-ho blockbusters - adds to the film’s liberal credentials.
“Hey cap. How do we know the good guys from the bad guys!” Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is asked at one stage. “If they are shooting at you, they are bad,” is his eminently sensible reply. It’s a double-edged exchange. On the one hand, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are acknowledging that audiences don’t necessarily care about what drives the villains.
They just want to see Captain America fly through the air, throw his shield and kick ass. On the other, in the 21st Century Washington DC in which most of the film is set, telling the good guys from the bad guys is well-nigh impossible. Don’t trust anyone, Steve is warned by S.H.I.E.LD boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson.) This is one of those films in which the enemy is within.
As played by Evans, Captain America is an old fashioned, clean cut hero in the Gary Cooper mould. He’s a little prudish. We learn that he is 95 years old and hasn’t had many romantic experiences since the Second World War, something that Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson in flirtatious, scene-stealing mode) continually teases him about.
There are continual references to the Captain’s wartime heroics and to his best friend from those years, Buckie Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has now been re-engineered as his lethal, cyborg-like enemy, the “winter soldier.”Captain America is a man out of time. If he wasn’t saving the world, he wouldn’t have many other career options (other, perhaps, than Ultimate Fighting.)
Just occasionally, the filmmakers risk becoming too flippant. “You do anything fun Saturday night?” Black Widow asks Captain America, making inane small talk during the rescue mission that opens the film. Generally, the humour helps leaven what might otherwise have been a very portentous drama. There are even some Hitchcock-like touches, for example Johansson kissing Chris Evans in order to hide their faces from their pursuers.
The Russos throw in a tremendous car chase in which Nick Fury is cornered by cops, an ultra-violent fight scene in a lift and a spectacular finale pitting Captain America against the Winter Soldier. These sequences, though, could be transplanted into any other action movie without us noticing the difference.
The most distinctive parts of this sequel aren’t the stunts but the moments in which they pay attention to character and plot: the Steve Rogers bits rather than the Captain America ones - and that is to be welcomed.