Espionage, mind control and Easter eggs aplenty in Marvel’s newest blockbuster.
Warning – while I try to keep the spoilers light, some discussion of both the movie and the comics it’s based on may reveal more than you may like. You have been warned.
Whenever I watch an action film, I can’t help compare it to my favourite (and in my opinion the greatest) action film of all time: Terminator 2 Judgement Day. It’s sometimes a harsh comparison, because not all action films are of the same tone, or even the same genre as T2, and maybe it’s a sickness of mine but nevertheless it always happens. Thankfully Captain America 2 not only stands up nicely to my little test, it also draws some favourable comparisons.
The Winter Soldier is first and foremost Marvel’s take on the old fashioned espionage thriller, and it’s not surprising looking at it’s source material. Ed Brubaker’s near seminal run on Captain America ran for 7 years and over 100 issues, and is widely considered the best take on the Man Out of Time. It’s a personal favourite of mine and millions of others, and was a no-brainer for converting into a movie. The tone, like a lot of Brubaker’s work is that of a pulpy, noir thriller with complex, deep plots and characters to match, but the premise – Cap’s old sidekick from World War II is not only alive and well but working as a mindless killing machine for the enemy – was one that really did not sit well with fans.
There are a few basic laws in Marvel comics, ones that are cardinal sins if broken, and the main one used to be that the only sacred characters that will always stay dead are Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, and Cap’s sidekick Bucky. Now while the first one is still true (for now at least) when it came to light that Bucky would be brought back, many fans declared it a travesty and walked away. Those who stayed however (and those who inevitably returned) found that this wasn’t just a stunt, it was a brilliantly crafted tale that cut to the very core of Steve Rogers, and through turning his world upside down established a new past, present and future that reinvigorated the character and the book.
So what does that all mean for the movie? Well the impact of Bucky’s return doesn’t have the 50 plus years of weight behind it, but there’s no denying it completely changes the landscape of the Marvel cinematic universe by the end. That’s not one of those broad statements that’s trotted out for every movie or comic event series, this really does affect everything moving forward (including Agents of SHIELD), and for this and many other reasons it’s one of the best of the whole Marvel movie line.
The storyline is deeply embedded in the newly created universe. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is shown here really adjusting to being the ‘Man Out of Time’ (a phrase that’s twisted in the movie by one of his villains), and it’s good to finally see how that’s affecting him. It’s only right that we witness that in the sequel to his first movie, because while it’s next to impossible to imagine that anyone is going into the movie having only watched the first film and not also the Avengers, there’s no denying that in tone and style and even plot this is a natural successor to Captain America: The First Avenger. In fact, there’s very little requirement to watch The Avengers, apart from the obvious impact the battle of New York had on the global landscape and on the security needs of the United States, the basis of which forms the core narrative.
Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), SHIELD’s top cop is renovating the peace-keeping task force and we join the story only days away from SHIELD unveiling and launching three new heli-carriers that can detect and eliminate threats before they even become a threat – 24 hour global protection. Fury and SHIELD justify this as a necessary safety measure to ensure freedom of the people, Rogers however believes if anything it’s the opposite. It’s the very world he fought so hard against 70 years ago, but seeing this as the way the world is now, he suffers a crisis of identity and faith. Where does he fit in to this plan, if indeed he even belongs? As the film develops though it becomes ever more clear that this division is more than purely ideological, and Steve, along with Fury and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) find themselves with enemies in the most surprising of places.
One not so subtle enemy is the movie’s other titular character – The Winter Soldier. Drawing the best comparison to the T1000 from Terminator 2, The Winter Soldier is the stoic, unstoppable machine proving more than a match for Captain America and working for unknown forces to bring down the heroes by any means necessary. I say he draws the best comparison, because until now the T1000 is one of the only examples of a villain that literally does everything in their power to eliminate the heroes. No making dumb decisions, no monologuing, just out-and-out doing every single thing they can do to destroy their target. It all makes for a more immersive, believable villain.
There are so many cool moments – the elevator attack, the return of a surprise villain in an original way, Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and his aerial badassery, and not to spoil anything but Jenny Agutter may just steal the final act… The focus on an espionage thriller this time around was an inspired choice, and rare for a superhero movie. It was a bold choice that definitely paid off.
Those critics that claimed Avengers sidelined a couple of characters and didn’t give them enough to do (Jeremy Renner being among them) will have nothing to complain about here. Every character shines, and they all have plenty to do. Newcomer Falcon has probably the smallest role, but what he does with his time on screen ensures he’ll be back for Cap 3 (confirmed for 2016!).
As I said earlier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is deeply entrenched in the Marvel cinematic U and by the end becomes a crucial part of the overall puzzle, maybe more crucial than Avengers. There’s a complete overhaul of the status quo moving forward that won’t be seen as much in the next movie Guardians of the Galaxy, but will definitely be felt in Avengers: Age of Ultron as well as Agents of SHIELD. On the subject of the latter I hope it raises the ratings for that show when they start to react to this movie: there are some really fun places they could take the series and it’ll be
Interesting to see which way they take it now. I also hope that SHIELD has the ability to affect the world around them too, instead of just waiting in a holding pattern until the big decisions get made in Avengers 2.
Speaking of which, the closing mid-credits teaser does a brilliant job of setting up the Big sequel of next year. You’ll find no spoilers here, all I’ll say is I left the theatre with a big smile on my face.
That smile wasn’t just for the teaser though, but for the whole movie. Captain America: The Winter Soldier may be my second favourite Marvel movie after Avengers. It’s that good. The characters, the action, the plot, the humour, the Easter eggs (oh man the Easter eggs!) – all spot on. I’d like to say it was a pleasant surprise but the trailers were so well done I had no doubt this was going to be good, I just wasn’t expecting it to be better than Iron Man. The important question is though – does it stand up to Terminator 2? I can safely say that not only does it stand up, it has the pleasure of sitting right along side it as one of my go-to examples of a near perfect action film. I cannot recommend it high enough.