Marvel Studios is one of the great cinematic success stories of recent years. You only need to look back to the late 90s and they were selling off all their movie rights to 3rd party companies in a desperate bid to raise funds. But, since Disney acquired them in 2009, they've been slowly reclaiming all their properties . . . and making one hell of an awesome franchise of their own.
Kevin Feige’s name gets thrown around constantly but, as the uber-producer/orchestrator of this new superhero movement, he can’t be praised enough. Not only has he developed one of the most cohesive and integrated movie universes to have ever hit our screens, but he continues to make fantastic movies; ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ being the latest.
Cap's first big-screen outing was most notable for its gloriously realised classic war movie feel and, in a strange way, ‘The Winter Soldier’ aims for something similar. But, instead of the Second World War, this sequel deals with 21st century conflicts. Gone are the black and white bad guys, and in their place is something far more subtle, far more complex and, ultimately, far more modern.
S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised, as Nick Fury reveals early on in the movie, and it’s up to Cap and his band of surviving S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives to neutralise the threat as close to its source as possible. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, the writers, take this template and use it to deal with issues of terrorism, corporate crime and international subterfuge, resulting in much of the film playing out as a superpowered political thriller.
But that’s where Feige comes in . . . because the Marvel universe is so well-established, the film can exploit the audience’s relationships with these characters to devastating effect. Most of these characters have been in at least three movies now, and the threat suddenly feels that much more real when these seemingly-immortal figures are in danger. Not since ‘The Joker’ has a superhero movie featured such a terrifying villain and The Winter Soldier, and his bosses, aim straight for the heart with soul-destroying accuracy.
I felt genuinely shaken up by some of the early action scenes because the directors, Anthony & Joe Russo, ratchet the tension up to unbearable levels with their kinetic camera work and their bone-crunching portrayal of violence.
Even the mildly campy reveal of the true evil is handled with care and a sense of old-school charm and, when the finale goes on for one or two explosions too many, everything is brought back by Steve Roger’s admirable, and refreshing (*cough* 'Man of Steel' *cough*), moral compass.
In fact, Chris Evans makes for a truly captivating screen presence, as does newcomer Anthony Mackie who is given plenty to do . . . and deservedly so. His character is a welcome introduction, partly because we've finally got an African American Avenger, but also because his origin story, while tragic, isn't drowned in self-pity. In a way, he just seems to be out for a good time and that makes him great to watch.
In fact, there are a number of superior performances. Scarlett Johansson is now so confident in her role, and she tears it up in the best portrayal of ‘Black Widow’ so far. Robert Redford also pulls off his character with aplomb, and he’s one of the reasons the political thriller elements seem so well-judged.
As well as feeling like a wholly satisfying stand-alone movie, ‘The Winter Soldier’ also sets up some thrilling crossovers down the line. Particularly for 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' which is left in a really interesting place as it heads towards this season’s finale . . . I just hope a TV budget can do it justice because there’s some real dramatic weight there to play with. And, as always, stay for the entirety of the credits because both stings brought me out in fits of gleeful geek-giggles.
Marvel has done it again. ‘The Winter Soldier’ is gripping popcorn entertainment and one of their best efforts so far.