For a series with such a united vision and tone, the Marvel Studios films, each phase of which builds to an Avengers film, are incredibly variable in quality. Coming off the back of Thor: The Dark World, which vacillated between boring and screamingly stupid, only coming to life when Loki was on screen, Captain America: The Winter Soldier certainly has an easy job in following the last Marvel film, but following Captain America: The First Avenger is a different matter. In amongst the mixed bag of Phase One, Joe Johnston's World War 2 set origin story for Steve Rogers [Captain America] was easily the best, boasting great action, strong dialogue and an ending that didn't embarrass itself when echoing A Matter of Life and Death.
Only addressing the events of Avengers Assemble briefly and ignoring Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, The Winter Soldier picks up with Captain America (Chris Evans) still adjusting to his role at SHIELD, which seems to be that of an operative; a super-powered one, but essentially a grunt. After his latest mission, Rogers is shown what Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and SHIELD have been working on; super-intelligent drones that can find and prioritise targets for themselves, apparently supposed to take human error out of the equation. However, when Fury is targeted by an assassin named The Winter Soldier and SHIELD turns on Captain America, Rogers is forced on the run with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new ally Falcon (Anthony Mackie).
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a curious hybrid. It bows frequently to the requirements of being what it is; a $150 million plus blockbuster and an integral part of a 21st century action franchise, but in between those moments, while it is set in the contemporary world, it often has the feel of something more classical. Where The First Avenger was essentially a superhero film crossed with a World War 2 men on a mission movie, The Winter Soldier has an air of 70's conspiracy thriller to it, not least in the casting of Robert Redford as a senator. In between all of these considerations there isn't a huge amount of room for character development, but there are some sharp lines and a few well-observed moments about Rogers' continued struggle to fit into the 21st century.
Happily, the two most significant new characters; Redford's Alexander Pierce and Anthony Mackie's Falcon, do make an impression, though in both cases this is perhaps more down to the actors, who, different as they are, do share that indefinable quality of onscreen charisma that just makes them people that you want to watch. Redford's role in proceedings is obvious a bit too early on, but it's nice to see the veteran star keep things grounded. In a lot of ways the central conflict in The Winter Soldier is one of political philosophy and Redford articulates it convincingly. Mackie's character and the founding of his friendship with Rogers is established well in the film's opening scene. The film forgets about him for much of the first and second acts, but the easy camaraderie of that scene feeds in when he reappears, and come the last hour (the film is 136 minutes) he is a key figure, with some strong action scenes and bags of promise for the next film.
The returning cast pick up where they left off, comfortably falling into their roles once more. Chris Evans is probably not the most gifted or versatile of actors, but he's well cast here; he has the good looks, the all-American charm and the air of straightforward decency to convince as Captain America, but here that straightforward moral compass comes into play in a more interesting way, because it is called into question whether it can fit into or address threats in the 21st century. It's not a theme that either the script or the performance play up hugely, but it's there and welcome in both.
In an expanded role, Samuel L. Jackson continues to essentially play Samuel L. Jackson (with an eyepatch) as Nick Fury, but it works well for the character. The disappointment continues to be Scarlett Johansson. I don't know what it is about Johansson, but I just don't find her very interesting either as an actress or as the still woefully underdeveloped Black Widow, who adds up, still, to little more than a leather catsuit and kicking skills. There are attempts at developing her relationship with Rogers here, but those are the scenes that fall flat for me and she, of all the characters in the Avengers group of franchises, is the least engaging and least individual. For all her lack of screentime I continue to find Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill (who has a bit more to do here) a much more interesting presence than Black Widow.
Of course The Winter Soldier is an action film and in that respect it certainly doesn't disappoint. I wouldn't have expected it from the guys behind You, Me and Dupree, but here the Russos have delivered one of the best executed mainstream action films in a long time. Yes the camera moves quite a bit and the cutting tends to be fast, but there is a logical flow to the action, a sense of space that grounds even some of the more outrageously physics defying moments in the setpieces. What is most pleasing about the action scenes is the directors willingness to sit back and take a wider view of the fighting. This is especially effective during the opening scene, when Cap has to face off against a henchman with some nifty martial arts skills and during the several throwdowns with the Winter Soldier (whose identity I will not be spoiling here). There seems to be an understanding that close up action has impact, and has its place, but that without stepping back the scenes will be nonsensical. With this understanding and the lack of the barrier of 3D glasses I found myself entirely wrapped up in the varied and exciting action scenes.
Once again, Captain America has thrown down a gauntlet to the rest of the Marvel franchises, it's exciting and involving, has a decent amount of wit and some intelligent things to say about the modern world, but never lets the commentary overwhelm the sense of fun. It even manages to seed a few things for the upcoming films (Dr. Strange, for instance) without clunking. Black Widow is a sticking point for me, but even with that said this is probably the best Marvel Studios film to date and will be a tough benchmark for the upcoming films to match.