Always a groomsman, never a groom.
Even in his own film, Captain America plays second (or third or fourth) fiddle to more interesting characters. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a marked improvement over 2011’s The First Avenger, and it’s the best post-Avengers Marvel film, though Iron Man 3 and the Thor sequel didn’t set the bar quite as high as they could and should have. The Winter Soldier is more fun and also attempts to paint Cap a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as a more independent and confident superhero this time around. It mostly works, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have surrounded Captain America with characters more charismatic than him. The story in The Winter Soldier never feels entirely Captain America’s. He’s doing things for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and SHIELD and with Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, as magnetic as ever, is a scene stealer). References to the other Avengers are bountiful and a reminder that, maybe, Captain America isn’t the most compelling of standalone characters.
In The Winter Soldier‘s opening action sequence, he’s on a mission for SHIELD and jokes that he’s sick of being Fury’s errand boy. The scene takes place on a ship, with MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre making a bizarre appearance as a French-speaking criminal. The Russos waste no time introducing some major ass kicking, but the hand-to-hand combat scenes were shot so close, they were dizzying – and the 3D certainly didn’t help. Meanwhile, Johansson’s Black Widow is hacking into the ship’s computer and stealing information that is going to be the foundation for the rest of the film’s plot. In a nutshell: SHIELD has been infiltrated by fanatics who’ve devised an algorithm that’ll determine potential criminals and eliminate them before they strike via drone attack. It’s Minority Report but it takes way, way longer to get there (at 136 minutes, it’s the second longest movie in the Marvel repertoire, behind Joss Whedon’s Avengers from 2011).
The rest of the first act, after the ship scene, sets up a movie that is seemingly Captain-less. Nick Fury is being chased and shot at through the streets of D.C. and we get our first glimpse of our eponymous villain, the Winter Soldier, though his name, identity and backstory aren’t mentioned until more than an hour into the film. Where’s Steve Rogers? Checking out a Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian. The attention turns back to Captain America soon after, and Evans does a fine job as the humble, boyish soldier, but he’s also almost always shown up by his cast members: Jackson and Johansson, for sure, then Robert Redford and Anthony Mackie, even Emily Van Camp and Cobie Smulders. Why are characters that are not Captain America getting cooler things to do and say than Captain America in a Captain America movie?
In the film’s first scene, Steve Rogers pulls out a notebook from his pocket to write down a CD recommendation from Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, who’ll play Falcon later in the film and become a close ally to Captain America) – a notebook on which he also wrote “Star Wars/Trek,” “Nirvana” and “Steve Jobs (Apple),” other presumed recommendations of things he missed over the 70 years he was frozen. Captain America: The Winter Soldier should be enough to hold off Marvel fans until the next Avengers film, slated for summer 2015. With Guardians of the Galaxy and new X-Men and Spider-Man films out this summer, Ant-Man and a Fantastic Four reboot out next year, the Black Widow film – announced, but with no details released – is what I’m most looking forward to from Marvel/Disney in upcoming releases. Johansson’s certainly shown she can kick ass and carry a film here, even though she didn’t have to.
Captain America 3 has already been announced for May 2016, with the Russos back in the directors’ chairs. The Winter Soldier is more fun and funny than The First Avenger and this lighter approach to the hero will be its saving grace moving forward.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is in theatres Friday, April 4.
★★½ (out of ★★★★)