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Captain America The Winter Soldier

D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo / 136m

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders, Maximiliano Hernández, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones

Episode 3 of Phase 2 of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe sees ninety-five year old Steve Rogers (Evans) still trying to fit in to the modern day era.  After the events of Avengers Assemble (2012), his life has settled down a bit, though he still has doubts about his role in S.H.I.E.L.D.  When Nick Fury (Jackson) sends him on a mission with Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Johansson) that proves to be cover for another, secret, mission altogether, Rogers confronts Fury over being used.  Fury takes Rogers’ point and as a show of faith, shows him the fruits of Project Insight, a plan to pre-empt future terrorist activity involving three gi-normous heli-carriers that, once launched, will sync up with satellites in order to locate and eradicate their targets.  Rogers is unimpressed and refuses to be a part of it all.  Meanwhile, Fury, having acquired a USB stick that contains details of Project Insight, finds himself unable to access it, despite its having apparently been encrypted by him.  He takes his concerns to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. officer Alexander Pierce (Redford), and asks for a delay in Project Insight’s launch.

Later, Fury is injured in an ambush carried out by agents we later learn are working for Hydra, and by a masked man with a metal arm; this proves to be the Winter Soldier of the title.  Fury manages to get to Rogers’ apartment and gives him the USB stick.  Before he can say any more, Fury is shot by the Winter Soldier.  Both Natasha and Pierce attempt to find out why Fury was in Rogers’ apartment but he rebuffs both of them.  When Natasha finds the USB stick he’s forced to accept her help, even though Fury told him to “trust no one”.  They trace the stick’s origins to a secret bunker at the army base where Rogers received his training.  There they encounter the consciousness of Hydra scientist Dr Zola (Jones) who has been infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s systems since his co-option after World War II.  A missile strike on the base that nearly kills them points to Pierce as the architect behind Hydra’s involvement in Project Insight and the attack on Fury.

With the aid of Sam Wilson (Mackie), a veteran with a surprise of his own to share, and Agent Hill (Smulders), Rogers and Natasha decide to stop the launch of Project Insight, but not before they’re targeted by the Winter Soldier.  During this encounter, his identity is revealed as Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ best friend from his army days and someone everybody believed had died during a mission.  From there it becomes a race against time to stop Pierce, the Winter Soldier, and the launch of the heli-carriers.

Captain America The Winter Soldier - scene

From the outset, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a more confident, more impressive outing than Rogers’ first appearance.  Partly this is due to the first movie’s need to be an origin story, and partly because Rogers has always been Marvel’s answer to the “truth, justice and the American way” approach of DC’s Superman.  He’s the ultimate boy scout, not for him the convenient grey areas and moral sidestepping of today’s society.  Instead he sees things in black and white, and when challenged keeps his moral compass constant; it’s this unshakeable point of view that makes his character more interesting than many of his co-Avengers.  Evans has grown into the role over the course of three movies, and he’s never less than absolutely convincing.

Of course, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ever-so-slightly imperialistic view of the world is glossed over in favour of some extended action sequences and a final thirty minutes that tests the various effects departments to destroy as much as possible in as many ways as possible (if there’s one thing the Avengers are good for, it’s putting insurance premiums up on a regular basis).  Rogers’ solution to the problem of Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. being joined at the hip (as it were) is extreme – and certainly poses a problem for the writers of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series – but it has a certain inevitability given the circumstances and the extent of Hydra’s infiltration.  Pierce’s motivation is less clear-cut and has something to do with creating a new world out of the current one, where there will be no subversive activity because anyone fitting his description of subversive will be targeted and killed.  (When the hell-carriers are launched and start picking out targets what we see on screen is laughable: in New York alone there appears to be a subversive living on nearly every block.)  How this idea benefits Hydra is never explained, and for all the issues surrounding the rights and wrongs of homeland security, the greater plot is poorly explored and exploited.

Also worrying are moments where the plot falters in other areas.  Rogers pays a visit to Peggy Carter (Atwell), now ill and in what looks like a nursing home.  It’s a short scene, and while both Evans and Atwell give it the resonance such a scene demands, it sits uncomfortably within the movie and isn’t referred to either before or after.  Part of Rogers’ solution to the problem of Hydra is to upload all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files and history onto the Internet, but why this is necessary is never explained, and only serves to give Natasha a chance to verbally stick two fingers up at a congressional committee.  And Dr Zola is only too quick to explain what’s going on and spill the beans about Hydra’s activities within S.H.I.E.L.D.

But there’s plenty to enjoy as well.  Those extended action sequences are superbly executed, although most of the hand-to-hand combat between Captain America and the Winter Soldier is edited to within an inch of both their lives, sacrificing clarity of movement for speed.  When Fury is ambushed it leads to a car chase that is as thrilling, if not more so, than those in Need for Speed, and the fight in the elevator – Rogers against (I counted ten) assailants is a stand-out.  Evans and the rest of the cast are on top form, and newbies Mackie and Redford fit in well as hero and villain respectively.  The Russo brothers handle the visuals with style, creating a lot of space for the characters to move around in, both to emphasise the scale of the movie and the threat within it.  And while some aspects of the script don’t always add up, for once the dialogue isn’t as hokey or contrived as it might have been (and the best line is delivered by the computer in Fury’s car).  The relationship between Rogers and Natasha is deepened, there’s a quick-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to someone who’s still waiting for their own movie, some knowing humour in amongst the gunplay and explosions, and a short pre-credits scene that introduces us to… well, that would be telling.

Rating: 8/10 – narrative troubles aside, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a confident mix of character development – even Fury’s – and spectacular action; another hit from Marvel Studios and one that seems certain to be the real precursor to Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), rather than Iron Man 3 (2013) or Thor: The Dark World (2013).