In its initial wave of buzz, Marvel insisted that Captain America: The Winter Soldier would be similar to paranoid conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s. That’s not entirely the case: while directors Anthony and Joe Russo instill some institutional doubt about SHIELD, the agency where the Captain works, they reveal their hand rather quickly. Moreover, this sequel falls lockstep into Marvel’s overarching aesthetic, both in terms of poppy cinematography and brusque action, to the point where the directors seemingly relinquish stylistic control. The First Avenger is the best pre-Avengers Marvel film precisely because it had a unique sense of style and tone. The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, is competently assembled and has flashes of intelligence, yet remains frustratingly ordinary.
Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), now doubts his purpose as a SHIELD agent, which isn’t surprising since he’s still catching up after being frozen from the end of World War 2 until recently. He’s always on call and dispatches enemies quickly – his actual shield is a powerful weapon – but now he’s frustrated with his boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who prefers secrecy over Rogers’ aw-shucks honesty. On Pennysylvania Avenue Fury is the victim of a surprise attack, one headed by the deadly Winter Soldier, and in its aftermath Rogers is unsure who he can trust. His only allies are Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Sam aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who can fly with an advanced wingsuit. They investigate the source of the attack on Fury, and realize that HYDRA, the organization Rogers overthrew in World War 2, still has a significant presence in the world.
A significant portion of The Winter Soldier takes place in DC*, and the Russo brothers shrewdly use its iconography to demonstrate Rogers’ steadfast adherence to old-fashioned American values. There’s an early scene where he looks at his old uniform at the Air and Space Museum, and the implication is that a man of Rogers’ caliber is no longer the norm (there’s another heartbreaking scene where we realize all his friends are dead or dying). Unfortunately, the Russo brothers and their screenwriters lose interest in their hero’s exceptionalism once the action starts. Instead of combining action with character development, which can be found in The First Avenger and the Iron Man movies, Rogers is little more than a secret agent with a shield. When he does lead by example, the crucial shift where he chooses country over government falls flat. It’s unclear whether the Russo brothers intended their reveals to be big surprises, including the The Winter Soldier’s identity, because they arrive with a middling whimper.
Compared to other superheroes, Rogers is more like a world class athlete, and this limitation results in grittier action. There are a lot of car chases and gun battles in The Winter Soldier, and while they result in eye-popping pyrotechnics, the editing cuts away before a vehicle hits its target so it is difficult to determine who is pursuing who (this is especially true during the Falcon sequences, which focus more on incident than long-term suspense). The Russo brothers are much more successful with fight scenes: they have a strong sense of how Rogers would move and integrate his shield with every punch and kick. He fights the Winter Soldier several times, and the physics of each bout are a testament to the adversaries’ respective strength. Still, the film’s best action scene is also the lowest-scale: Rogers takes on a bunch of a bad guys in an elevator, and it works because the directors have the patience to let the tension simmer. Stuff gets blown up real good in the big-scale sequences, including a long repetitive climax, though the stakes do not feel so high since the screenplay relies on expository dialogue instead of powerful imagery.
It’s funny how a genre film can feel fresh simply because they borrow tropes from another genre for the first time. After I left The Winter Solder, I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about it until I realized how much it’s like a James Bond film. It’s got the ubiquitous countdown clock, gadgets that solve whatever problem the screenplay requires, a hero with a Bond-like ideology, and mustache-twirling villains who explain their agenda much more than they should (Marvel has a dearth of strong villains, but that’s a topic that’s too big for this review). Of course the actors do their best to maintain credibility – Evans is charming and taciturn, while Robert Redford’s turn as the head of SHIELD combines menace with cognitive dissonance – but The Winter Soldier falls like a house of cards once it’s clear the Russo brothers, lacking inspiration, re-appropriated another type of action film into a comic book setting. This sequel ends with a shift in the Marvel universe, one that has important implications for The Avengers sequel, yet the shift does egnage with any sense of wonder of curiosity. This is what happens when producers throw big budget production values at a film with modest ambition.
* Longtime DC residents will have fun with how much of The Winter Soldier is shot around the city, and how much is filmed elsewhere. The monolithic SHIELD building, for example, seemingly requires the demolition of Theodore Roosevelt Island and part of Rosslyn. During the climax, the Russo brothers more the double the width of the Potomac so giant floating ships can fall inside it.