Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been heralded as a unique film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America’s long anticipated sequel has broken box office records for the month of April, riding a wave of both post-Avengers hype and murmurings of it breaking profound new ground for Marvel films. Many have said that Winter Soldier functions more like a political thriller than a superhero film, tackling serious and morally ambiguous themes that previous Marvel entries have mostly steered clear of. Unfortunately, these rumors are only half true, and while Winter Soldier does venture into some ambitious territory in its first half, the filmmakers pull back from true artistic risk, falling into clichéd and contrived plotting that may leave non-comic fans disappointed.
Under the direction of Anthony and Joe Russo, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is adapting to life in modern-day America, using his unprecedented combat skills to conduct covert ops with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing to launch a new security program, Project Insight, which will link heavily armed heli-carriers with satellites to pre-emptively eliminate terrorist threats. Cap is uncertain about the ethics of the endeavor endorsed by senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and when a security breach within S.H.I.E.L.D. coincides with attacks by a menacing paramilitary leader known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) suspicions are raised in the minds of all involved, and Cap sets out on a mission to discover the truth of the connections between Project Insight, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Winter Soldier.
With these plot premises, Winter Soldier jumps off to a daring and thrilling start. Captain America’s new uniform, and the color palette of the film as a whole, is drenched in sinister darkness. Action sequences, a thrilling boarding of a hijacked ship in particular, showcase a visceral physicality that previous Marvel entries have lacked, allowing Cap to show off his abilities (shield-throwing in particular) against a backdrop of moral ambiguity. Cap, struggling to serve his nation, is faced with challenging questions of how to do so when his nation seems to be at odds with his ideals. Cap suddenly faces possible enemies on every side, even within S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. Black Widow gets some much needed character development, and the interplay between her and Cap is both engaging and touching. These are daring steps for a Marvel film to take, and some early scenes are surprisingly poignant and unsettling, firmly establishing a dilemma for our World War II era hero: how can Cap be a man of black and white living in a world of gray?
Unfortunately, when Winter Soldier hits its stride it abandons these foundations, and instead retreats into typical big-budget blockbuster fare. To detail specifics would spoil the film, but it is quite a disappointing shift. Contrived and convenient solutions to perilous situations become the order of the day. The brutal physicality of the first half is abandoned for frantic and frenzied large scale action, filled with fights and explosions that do little to distinguish themselves from the Avengers and Man of Steel methods of whole-sale destruction and sensory overload. A significant tragic element from early in the film, which provided much of the emotional and thematic weight , is all too neatly resolved in a manner that deadens the stakes of the film, snapping the viewer out of the story only to remind them that “oh yeah, this is a Marvel movie.” The Winter Soldier’s motives and backstory also prove to be rather cheap, robbing the climax of quite a bit of dramatic potential and thematic continuity.
Of course, at this point I can hear all the Marvel fans groaning at their computer screens: “but that’s the way the Winter Soldier is in the comics!” I consider this a moot point as an excuse for bad storytelling. When a story presents itself as a politically and morally astute thriller and then fails to develop those ideas into something truly special, giving audiences a conclusion that is simply more of the same whiz-bang superhero action that has become so popular, I cannot help but complain. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for that type of action, but at least give it a spin audiences have not seen before, or underpin it with some true emotional and thematic weight. All that being said, Winter Soldier is by no means a bad movie. Marvel fans will eat it up, as it provides the comic adventure they crave and enough trivial references and bonus scenes to tease them for upcoming films. For those who were hoping for Marvel to venture into some challenging storytelling, however, Captain America: The Winter Soldier will feel more like a missed opportunity.